A panel discussion hosted by the Rutgers Center for Urban Research and Education today sparked a lively debate about best path to reversing Camden’s long-term decline.Like so many meetings before it, this one, which included a mix of community residents, students, and a scattering of professionals, provided a mix of pride in work underway at the same time others objected—often forcefully—to the top-down nature of policy set for the city.
A particular target of discussion was panelist Paymon Rouhanifard, the state-appointed superintendent of schools, whose plans to convert additional neighborhood schools to a Renaissance model of privately run charters drew fire, not the least because city residents lack a voice in school board decisions. To charges that residents were tired of being disempowered, Rouhanifard retorted, “I can’t think of anything more disempowering than being denied a high school degree.”
Graduation rates, Rouhanifard reported, have risen six percent over the 18 months he has been in charge, to 62 percent. At the same time crime rates are down, according to the representative of the Camden County police. Economically distressed cities cannot dig out of their predicament, keynoter Allan Mallach, a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress in Washington responded, without a rise in property values, which in turn depend on educational reform and reductions in crime.
Such claims were not enough to satisfy those in the audience who pointed to the systemic racism that too often concentrates poverty in cities like Camden. Only towards the end of the meeting did the audience begin to grapple with the larger issues behind that racism: a housing market that concentrates the poor where housing costs are affordable because homes are inferior to others in the region.
Bridget Phifer, director of Parkside Business and Community in Partnership, noted how her organization has made better housing a priority for years. The same could be said for other community development efforts in other parts of the city. But such efforts are, as urban consultant David Rusk says, equivalent to ascending a down escalator. For every rehabilitation there is another foreclosure or abandoned home.
For the most part, participants viewed the redeployment of new companies to Camden from other parts of the region as only incidental to Camden residents’ needs. They considered these moves, boosted widely by Governor Christie, as indirectly favorable to the city at best.
All the more reason, I argued, to pressure city and state officials to press these companies to pay more than lip-service to being part of the Camden community: by investing in training programs and meaningful outreach to their host community.
Mallach made the point that 86 percent of Camden residents currently employed commute to jobs outside the city. What a boon it would be if there were a purposeful drive, joined by all area stakeholders, to provide the training and the mentorship necessary to absorb Camden residents into these new centers of employment in the city. Rouhanifard has said he will do his part through additional vocational training and supervision. It’s up to city and state leadership as well as the private sector to extend the reach of new employers to the root unemployment problem in the city.
Expanding access to employment may not be the only solution to Camden’s decline, but it is hard to imagine any sustained recovery in the city without capitalizing on the opportunities these companies represent.