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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Abandoned in Camden

Imagine! I woke this morning to an actual political news article in the CP about Camden! Quotes from our candidates running for mayor about real issues facing the city. At last! But here is the issue - see the article posted on the right about what to do with abandoned housing in Camden.

I don't know why a Republican candidate for Governor would even comment on Camden except to make easy points for fiscal responsibility. I guess that makes sense. But his ideas about urban revitalization should provide an opening for conversation in Camden, not just demonizing the idea.

The ideas put forward:
1. tear down abandoned, boarded up housing in Camden where it consumes entire blocks
2. once torn down make that green space and parks
3. let the city reduce in size to about 45,000

Now, if the housing is boarded up and abandoned, tearing it down will have no impact on the population. So how this guy puts 2+2 together and gets 5 is beyond me. To reduce the population you must have displacement.

But the issue of abandoned housing is percolating in Camden right now. The city could be more pro-active using legislation already on the books. Some nonprofits in town with very good track records are proposing that they have a shot at rehabbing many of these properties to sell to people who want to buy a house (yes, those people exist in Camden).

Here is a great link to a design for row houses that incorporates green space and makes blocks more attractive. Some of our abandoned housing won't be able to be saved. Once the roof is gone, the inside gets ruined and eventually the structural supports rot and collapse. The brick may stay up, but it is just a shell.

So what do you think Camden should look like? Should we be the new industrial center for green technology to create jobs here? Should we downsize into a city of 45,000 (we have 75,000 now) and let the green and trees take over? While the politicians are busy pontificating, what do you say? What do the people of Camden want? Let's get this conversation going and make something happen!

Friday, May 15, 2009

We have the city we want

The CP had a story the other day and a follow up editorial today (posted in my sidebar) about the fact that the City of Camden is ineligible for some federal funding for police through the President's stimulus money. What??? How can Camden, the most dangerous city in the world, be ineligible for federal $ for public safety? Easy. Camden is on a 10 year probation because the last time they got federal police $ they were horribly misspent, unaccounted for, and we owe the feds money for that which we can't account for AND we didn't even spend all the money we had. We owe $565,000. We did not spend $195,000. This is not chump change. This is real money. The city of Camden has not had a clean or verifiable audit in the last 3 years.

Right now our Senator and Congressman are trying to get an exception for Camden from the US Dept. of Justice. The public discourse is revolving around the fact that Camden citizens need more police. I say, let's focus on the real issue, not the issue du jour.

We have exactly the city we want in Camden. If we wanted something else, we would have it. What have you done to change the way the city operates? Have you voted? Have you attended a public meeting? Have you enlisted your co-workers or neighbors? Has your neighborhood group held a public candidate forum? Have you lobbied your state reps for accountability? Have you sought to build community? Do you work with other groups or do you compete for attention? This city is like many others. Groups and neighborhoods are divided into silos. Easier to manage politically that way. Each group and neighborhood fixates on itself and competes for scraps with the others, ensuring that cooperation and good will are always thwarted. People outside blame those who live inside, usually invoking racial epithets as if that will change anything. People inside blame people outside who left and won't help the city. It's a vicious circle that won't end if we continue to do the same things we do now.

The state, the residents, the elected officials, the civic leaders, the corporations, the business people, the people who work here and don't live here are all responsible for the sad state this city is in. Again, if we truly wanted something different, we would have it. I'm not suggesting that people aren't doing good things in Camden; they are. There are wonderful nonprofits that build and renovate houses, grow gardens, work with kids, train people for jobs, operate preschools and charter schools, and feed the poor and homeless. Yet nothing changes in this city? We have new development, a lovely waterfront, new market rate housing, new hospital buildings, new University buildings. And yet the city doesn't change. While we each toil at the margins, we each ignore the cancer that eats this city daily. We have no accountability of our leaders, our city workers, the outcomes of our tax dollars, nor expectations for improvement. We have all collectively thrown up our hands and said, the city will not change, so let me work over here in this little corner and do something.

What am I doing? I teach students by having them examine the city and think about solutions to these vexing issues. I am trying to work with local high school and community college students to blog about the issues they see every day around them in order to be a catalyst for community conversation. I write this blog in the same spirit of community conversation. I patronize local businesses. I read the CP. I seek every day to engage my employer, RU, in the lifeblood of this city. What I do is the same as what you do. I toil on the margins in my little venues and hope it makes a difference. Meanwhile, I too ignore the cancer in this city and I teach this stuff.

I challenge everyone who reads this blog, whether you live in Camden or not, to think about how you contribute to the ongoing problems of this city, what talents you are not sharing with this city, and what you could do contribute to a better Camden. Will you run for office? Will you demand accountability from the city? Will you work with others to create an effective, not a siloed community? I don't have all the answers. But I do know that what we are doing is not working. If we continue to do the same, we will have the same results. And we must expect, demand, and experience a different Camden.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Live in benefits?

One of my pet peeves about Camden is that there is no residency requirement for city employees. In a CP article I posted today, the issue is about Police and Firefighters. They have to live in the city at time of application, but may move out immediately upon being hired. You can guess the rest (although the article had no facts or figures about the existing residency percentage of those groups - bad reporting).

For everyone else in city hall, you can live where you like. I don't know if the Camden city School District has a residency requirement for teachers and admin employees or not. But residency is one way to diversify the population base of this city. People who work for the public sector earn a working class to middle class salary. Imagine if those people were living in the city. Don't you think they would have an impact on housing, retail, services, and the city overall?

Shouldn't those who earn their living from the city give back in some way - like living here? I know all the arguments against residency and I personally don't think any of them are valid. I realize others do. But let's focus on the benefits of residency, how we could make that work FOR people and what it would be like to have those employees living here.

My contention is that if you don't want to live here, you don't have to work here. The city could then hire locally. In this economy, I think we would find that people would move here to get or keep a job. I know a lot of college students that would love to work for the city and would live here. Use the market, people. Stop letting old habits and antiquated labor policy dictate the city's future.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Who will be responsible, who will lead?

Frustrations seem to be everywhere I look. I am a glass half-full type of person, but these are trying times. Even in this bad economy, I try to look at how to be positioned when things get better or to innovate as things get worse. Camden seems to be nonplussed by the difficulties the rest of the country faces. Camden, like cities such as Flint, Michigan or East St. Louis, Illinois, or Gary, Indiana have been in trouble for so long that there seems to be no relief, regardless of the situation. It's almost like a hostage situation where the city residents, leaders, and institutions get so accustomed to the situation, they can't see an exit when the door is wide open.

Camden has two significant advantages that should be valuable - proximity to a major city (Philadelphia) and a major University in the city (Rutgers). Camden is close enough to Philadelphia to take advantage of it. Symbiosis can be a good thing. Rutgers has adopted a serious undertaking of its Land Grant University mission to engage its community. That means Camden and South Jersey.

Why is Camden not able to take advantage of being so close to Phily?
Camden needs a property strategy that makes financial sense. Right now it does not make financial sense to buy property in Camden - value (in $, services, and quality of life) is less than the taxes charged and the likelihood of property value increases, even if the property is rehabbed or built new. Subsidies are supposed to help minimize the risk to investors (rich or poor). But at some point, the market improves and the risk decreases, lessening the need for subsidies. In Camden, that equation is not working.

What can Higher Ed do for Camden?
Education is the key to advancement. There are 3 institutions of higher learning in this little city. We should be the most well-educated city in the tri-state area. Why aren't these institutions serving the city in which they sit? And by serving - I mean working in a strategic fashion with each other and with the city and state to be an economic engine. We are the way out that the hostages cannot see. And the institutions are blind to the triage that they could provide and instead, continue to tinker at the margins and wonder why things don't get better.

The state is in a fiscal crisis. Rutgers is having a massive budget problem and I am sure Rowan and the Community College are in a similar fix. The residents of Camden need jobs and an economy. The federal government is offering a boatload of stimulus funding right now to address economic ills and put people to work, get people educated, improve health care, and build a new energy technology and infrastructure. The city government is in no position to deliver much of anything, even if it had more money because there is no leadership or organization that functions consistently. Am I the only one connecting these dots?