Revitalizing Our Cities: We’ve accomplished much but not enough
An article on nj.com yesterday said “Not everyone in Camden sees Christie as city’s savior.” Christie claims the city of Camden has turned around during his tenure as governor from a city that “had a corrupt and inefficient government, a failing school system and was riddled with crime and devoid of hope.” The president of the local branch of the NAACP not only doesn’t agree, he says Christie has actually contributed to some of the problems and that there is less democracy in Camden because of it. Christie is, always was and always will be a bully politician twisting things to try to make himself look good. But this is not about him. No one politician will (or can) save a city on their own. Just as “it takes a village to raise a child,” it takes more than a governor to revitalize a city.
Although not in Camden, the picture above demonstrates multiple ways of making change in one of our cities. An old rundown home in Newark was renovated by a community development corporation with the assistance of a YouthBuild program. YouthBuild is a program that “supports the achievement of 16 to 24 year old young adults who are academically under-skilled, under-employed, and/or have been involved with the criminal justice system.” The youth in this program complete their high school education, learn trades by working alongside tradesmen and develop life skills that will help them succeed in life. First-time homebuyer education and counseling helps people of all ages who may be financially unsophisticated, have had no basic education on handling their finances and/or have had financial difficulties learn about the processes of budgeting, credit, and purchasing a home. Subsidies that were provided for the home make the house affordable to low income families who otherwise would not be able to buy a home. And the ability to purchase and maintain the home helps a family begin to build wealth and increases their commitment to the community. One home improved a neighborhood, played a part in improving so many lives and those people, in turn, continue to make positive change throughout the city.
Not all redevelopment efforts yield such results. The article about Christie talks about the corporations that have been “persuaded” through more than $6 million in tax credits to move some of their operations into Camden. Although bringing business into our impoverished cities is important, it isn’t always clear who will really benefit from these moves, especially in light of the high cost of “persuasion.” The people living in these cities don’t always have the same optimism that the politicians have.
But at Corrine’s Place, a renowned soul food restaurant decorated already with heart-shaped balloons for Valentine’s Day, mention how Christie is helping the city and owner Corrine Bradley-Powers rolls her eyes. “It’s moving forward for the people that have money,” she said. “They’re coming here and getting all the benefits … that we don’t get.”
It is not a simple task to turn around our impoverished cities. I don’t claim to know the answers but somehow we have to find a way to turn them around by lifting up those who already inhabit them, not simply by bringing in “big money.” When we bring in this “big money” – corporations, entertainment, etc. – we have to ask what impact they will have. Will those businesses be spread throughout the city, including in the most desperate areas? Will they really be bringing those thousands of jobs at a living wage for city dwellers who need them? What will they do to improve the neighborhoods and the living conditions for residents? What power will decent politicians have to prevent corruption from undermining any of these efforts? And just how do those huge tax credits contribute to a low or nearly non-existent tax base in order to actually benefit the city?
I’m not familiar with Camden specifically, but I did spend 10 years working in affordable housing in another (not quite as) impoverished city in New Jersey – Newark. How have we tried to turn Newark around? Following the riots, the Gateway Center was a commercial complex built in the downtown area. While it may have seemed like a good idea at the time – a way to encourage business to move into Newark and have easy access for their employees, it was actually a way to bring employees into the city rather than employing those who already resided in the city. And by promising the safety of traveling into Newark by train through Newark’s Penn Station and allowing commuters to simply walk through the attached Gateway complex to an office, it did nothing to help bring suburbanites into the real Newark.
And then there was the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) which opened in 1997, another attempt to build up the city by bringing world class entertainment into Newark, just across the river from iconic New York. NJPAC was also built in the downtown area just a few short blocks from Newark Penn Station and the Gateway. It was intended to revitalize the area, bringing people into a blighted city and offer opportunities for local rock bands. Whether those opportunities ever materialized, I don’t know. I do applaud NJPAC for their annual free music festival and a number of special events that have been offered, but it also claims a much longer list of high profile artists who command high ticket prices. At the time, there was an awareness of how the Gateway, with its skyways, had further segregated the city and the master plan for NJPAC was to incorporate plazas and pedestrian boulevards. But by 2006 that vision had clearly faded with the opening a light rail between NJPAC and both Broad Street Station and Penn Station so that again, visitors would not need to actually walk on the streets of Newark. With good intentions, NJPAC was designed to connect this part of the city with the residents and invite them in but it falls short with such a social and economic chasm between the two. And agin, how many living wage jobs did this bring to the current residents of Newark as opposed to simply bringing suburbanites into the city to work and play? And how accessible or affordable is the entertainment to Newark’s residents?
In 1999, just a couple years after NJPAC opened, Riverfront Stadium was built to be the home of the Newark Bears, a minor league baseball team that folded in 2014. The stadium has now become home to 2 university teams. Also in the downtown area, it “improved” the area by tearing down abandoned buildings rather than restoring buildings with unique architecture and historical significance. The new light rail that brought people from Penn Station to NJPAC continued on a loop to Riverfront Stadium, on to Broad Street Station and back around. Although building an arts and entertainment center in the downtown area with convenient transportation is a boon to the city, I still have to ask to what extent does it provide living wage jobs or affordable entertainment for the city’s residents? How does it truly impact the lives of those who live in some of the Ironbound, Weequahic Park, and South Ward sections Newark?
During my time in Newark I began working in the downtown area and then our offices moved to Clinton Hill in the South Ward, the neighborhood where our community development work was centered. I worked in an office with a bullet hole in the window; I helped a genealogical group clean up a cemetery that we weren’t permitted to enter without police escort because of so many known drug and shooting incidents; and I worked with people who lived in this neighborhood every day. Where was Newark’s “renaissance” for these folks? As an agency, we were trying to build and renovate affordable housing but too often we found ourselves stymied by corruption in city government — city-owned properties that should have been made available at auction for non-profits to purchase and renovate or rebuild were being given to for-profit companies that built new developments, sold them at high prices either to non-resident investors seeking to turn a profit or to low-income buyers with predatory loans. And in a few short years, absentee landlords and the foreclosure crisis that destroyed the housing market around the country devastated these neighborhoods yet again.
Meanwhile, opening in 2006, Eleven80 is a building with 317 new luxury apartments that was built in the downtown area using tax credits. The building has 24/7 concierge service, a security system with TV monitors, valet parking, health club, private bowling alley, a multimedia entertainment room, lounge, and indoor basketball court. The target for these residences is the young professional looking for a Manhattan type experience at a more affordable price. While I am happy to see the conversion of an historic building that had stood empty for 20 years, it is, nevertheless, just one more example of what Ms. Bradley-Powers describes, “It’s moving forward for the people that have money. They’re coming here and getting all the benefits … that we don’t get.”
If we really want to revitalize our impoverished cities, we need to put our efforts into raising up those who are already there, and into rebuilding all that has been destroyed through decades of corruption and abandonment — abandonment of the city by those who had the means to do so and abandonment of the people by those who had the power not to.
Like the “projects” of the 1960s, our attempts at redevelopment and revitalization seem to be a road to hell paved with good intentions. It would seem that our more recent attempts at revitalization have been little more than the opposite of what we had done previously. I believe the projects of the 1960s were perhaps a good intention (providing affordable housing combined with community services) that was poorly executed and led to further disintegration in our cities by effectively “ghettoizing” people instead of integrating affordable housing and services throughout the larger community. We tried to learn from those mistakes and began creating mixed “affordable” housing alongside market rate housing in the same neighborhoods in attempts to build up those neighborhoods. Nevertheless, the city remains segregated with small communities of residents offset by insulated pockets of business, entertainment and “luxury” living. Those businesses participate in a pretense of being part of a city that most of their workers, consumers and new residents wouldn’t dare venture into. And so, still, we need to be doing more.
Instead of this segregation, we need to, as the master plan for NJPAC had envisioned, tie our downtown, our business and entertainment hub, to our residential neighborhoods in ways that will make lasting positive impact for all of the residents. If we can do that, we won’t need to work so hard to bring people and business into our cities, they will come because we have made it attractive for them to be part of a growing community.