Carnegie Library, Camden courtesy Jorge Shell

Carnegie Library, Camden courtesy Jorge Shell

Long the object of disparaging commentary as the nation’s poorest and most dangerous city, Camden, New Jersey is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, if claims for its recovery are to believed. In an early stage of contending for the GOP presidential nomination, Governor Chris Christie, in the aftermath of the George Washington bridge scandal and the collapse of his claims for effectively dealing with the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy, turned in his 2015 State of the State address to Camden as evidence of his ability to deal effectively with intractable problems. “There is no better example of what we can achieve if we put aside party and pettiness than the results we are seeing in Camden,” Christie declared. If crime can be reduced and investment dramatically increased in Camden, he suggested, so too the country can prosper. “I believe in a New Jersey renewal which can help lead to an American renewal both in every individual home and in homes around the world,” he concluded. New Jersey Spotlight, in association with Next City subsequently provided a more critical view of the governor’s urban policies.

“Renewal” in Christie’s Camden can be measured by the relocation of businesses to the city, a phenomenon induced by exceedingly generous tax breaks. Indeed, the number of jobs in Camden is rising, without as yet, offering much assurance that they will reduce unemployment in the city. Already, as many as 75 percent of existing jobs in Camden are held by those living outside the city. Under the New Jersey Economic Opportunity Act of 2013, companies moving to Camden don’t necessarily have to hire locally, so the current mismatch of residents with employment opportunities is not likely to change without concentrated efforts. And to date, the best the state has come up with is $500,000 in employment training funds for Camden residents. For the perils of this approach, see New Jersey Policy Perspective’s report issued May 5, 2015 and an updated New Jersey Spotlight report November 15, 2016. 

Some 20,000 Camden residents who are employed travel to jobs outside the city. But affordable housing choices that might make it easier for those workers to live close to their employment are limited by resistance to fully implementing the state’s landmark “Mt. Laurel” doctrine that requires every jurisdiction in New Jersey to provide its “fair share” of affordable housing. The product of years of discriminatory zoning and lending practices, New Jersey’s dual housing market still works to keep those of modest means concentrated in places where housing values are depressed and opportunities are few. Amenity-rich suburbs lie largely out of reach of the poor, and yet even as Governor Christie touts his efforts in Camden he has tried to dismantle the state’s Council on Affordable Housing and to weaken the Mt. Laurel Doctrine.

The reduction of crime in Camden is among Christie’s favorite topics. No doubt, the murder rate has declined substantially since it reached a record high in 2012 as the city transitioned to county control. The move had the effect of turning savings from the elimination of union-negotiated benefits to additional police on the street. But until the concentration of poverty in the city is materially reduced, police work can only be a stopgap against associated social pathologies. In the meantime, residents have good reason to be concerned when police are overzealous in approaching their job to secure the public’s safety, a trend the Philadelphia Inquirer documented in an April 26, 2015 report.

Christie likes to tout educational reform as well, as the state has taken over the city schools and introduced hybrid schools as part of the public system, even as they operate as charters at 90% of standard funding. Again the public relations effect has been generally positive as a young and dynamic superintendent, Paymon Rouhanlfard, has gone about efforts to make the system work. Graduation rates are up modestly. Longer term success will be depend on helping graduates make the transition either to college or the workplace, and that will take a lot more work.

Governor Christie has not been the first governor to place high claims on his actions in Camden. Before him, governors Kean, Florio, Whitman, and McGreevy all set forth ambitious plans for the city, without as yet reversing the city’s decline. This governor has relied on a top-down partnership with Democratic leader George Norcross, much of whose vision for the city as laid out in 2012 has been accomplished. A succession of positive reports in the media have enhanced the sense of possibility in Camden. But until the underlying structural issues of concentrated poverty, unequal opportunity structures in city and suburbs, and inadequate revenues to assure basic services have been frontally addressed, Camden’s “recovery” will remain but a work in progress.

For more commentary on Camden’s revitalization efforts, click the “Camden” designation at the end of any of my blogs on the subject.