Since World War II, the story of U.S. cities has been one of ever-expanding growth at the fringes and decline at the core. This pattern of development has led to concentrations of poverty in inner cities and inner suburbs, racial and economic segregation, and astounding consumption of rural land, resulting in environmental degradation, increased commute times, a spatial mismatch between the locations of low-wage/low-skill jobs and affordable housing, and isolation of mostly poor minority residents who remain in the core.
Camden, New Jersey, has been particularly hard hit by these trends. The steady exodus of middle-income residents and businesses that started in the postwar years has left the city with falling property values, a dwindling tax base, and inadequate resources to cover the city’s basic costs and services. Today, most of Camden’s neighborhoods are marked by dilapidated housing and abandoned or underutilized commercial properties.
However, for the past few years, Camden has been at the center of private and public redevelopment activities and reforms that hold the promise of transforming the city’s landscape, of creating local and regional housing and employment opportunities for its residents, and of positioning Camden to be an important participant in the region’s economic development activities. In addition to millions of dollars in private investment in the waterfront area and in related housing development and a half-billion dollars of Abbott school construction funding, the State of New Jersey has appointed a receivership executive over Camden who has been charged with reorganizing the municipal government and allocating millions of dollars in state aid to underwrite infrastructural improvements and other development projects.
Taken together, these investments represent the largest redevelopment attempt in the city’s history, and perhaps one of the most ambitious ever attempted for a distressed city of this size. This new activity presents opportunities for municipal leaders in Camden and surrounding communities to align local strategies in a manner that might promote greater regional integration and development, to the benefit of the larger region. The Camden revitalization efforts offer an unparalleled opportunity to examine whether and how a city in receivership and financial crisis can regain its political and economic vitality and become an asset for the region.