Can America's 'second most dangerous city' gentrify?

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Few people would equate Camden, New Jersey with “spectacular luxury” apartments or be lured there for the “360° skyline views” of Philadelphia. Anyone aware that Camden is ranked the nation’s second most dangerous city with a per capita income classifying it as the poorest might pass on the recently introduced Live-Where-You-Work Program even with added incentives to “help with down payments and closing costs.”

Observers at the recent City Council meeting might even be mistaken for thinking Mayor Dana Redd declaration that “Camden is open for business,” was directed more at fast food franchises, second-hand car dealers and thrift shops operators.

Those were not Mayor Redd’s intended audience. And a group of Camden residents who assembled at City Hall for a recent council meeting knew that too. They were angry and loud, protesting what politicians and developers are lauding as the “revitalization” of the city because revitalization landed homeowners with residential tax increases that in some cases is six times last year’s bill.

“We won’t go out of this city. We refuse to leave this city. And that what they want us to do. To leave this city.” One emotional Hispanic resident shouted at an earlier protest. He was voicing the fear of many low-income residents, which is why their outrage was not limited to escalating tax hikes. Last January, the city announced it was eliminating half the police force; 178 officers effective immediately.

The strategy behind that shocking announcement is called “regionalization.” The city’s police force would morph into the Camden County Police Department. Camden police are not in the streets protesting but their concerns are as deep as residents and they have their suspicions too according to John Williamson, president of Camden’s Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge #1. “The underlying undertone is to lighten the police department.” Williamson added that it’s speculated that “more whites on police force bring more whites into community.”

The city’s police department is not the only merger on the table. Earlier this month when Mayor Redd made her declaration, she also announced two local development associations would in future be known at the new Business Growth and Development Team, operating under the her office and offering a “one-stop shop” for businesses.

Unlike the crippling tax hike and the drastic downsizing of the city’s police department, this was good news for developers especially after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed legislation last month to expand eligibility for new construction tax credits. These tax credits allow for a combination of residential and commercial projects and that is what developers and elected officials are eager to bring to Camden.

High on the list is the 15-acre Haddon Avenue Transit Village Project which according to the regional newspaper, The Courier Post, is a ”$100 million commercial component — which includes two five-story office buildings — qualified for tax credits under the old formula, but the 250 residential units and a grocery store, estimated at $25 million, did not. Now both will qualify.” The legislation also increases the credit for residential projects.

And according to the Mayor’s office, “Developers are entitled to tax credits for 100 percent of eligible construction costs if the project creates 250 full-time jobs.”

Local developers, like Grapevine Development, who’ve had their eyes on Camden for years are set to benefit from the Haddon Project. It could also help the developer who wants to turn the abandoned RCA factory into condominiums. Campbell Soup company, which shut down its plant but maintains its corporate offices in Camden, is looking into the new legislation as are the owners of the Camden Waterfront, a cultural and entertainment destination, which attracts suburban visitors.

It’s the suburbanites that Camden residents are worried about. Repeating the suspicions voiced by Williamson, local restaurant owner Corinne Powers says these are the people who work in the city but don’t live in the city but that is changing and again the “squeeze-us-out” conspiracy is voiced. “They are trying to make it very uncomfortable for us. Once we give up, they’ll make it look beautiful for the people they want to live here.”

A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office, Robert Corrales, dismisses these allegations outright.

“We want to keep out city vibrant, diverse and we love our residents. The mayor loves the city and her residents.”

Corrales does admit, however, that the increase in taxes is unfortunate creating for residents what he described as “a perfect storm.” But he attributes this misfortune to the states’s mandate to re-evaluate houses and also the nation’s economy.

How the city will be policed in the future is still uncertain, Corrales says, but that Mayor Redd intends to hold public meeting to get public input. He also maintains that public safely is a top concern of the mayor despite claims by city residents that police response for some public safety incidents has been eliminated or is much slower; that this is a tactic to scare residents out of the city.

Neither the mayor’s sympathy and concern is mollifying residents or answering the question put by Rev. John A. Jones, whose pastored in Camden for 35 years. He along with other community activist are forming a group of concerned citizens to “let the community know what’s going on.” “How” he asked, “can you have a tax base off of poor people?”

Despite a city of mainly “poor people,” luxury condominiums and apartments, live-where-you-work housing, new enterprise zones and transit hubs no longer seem that far fetched for Camden, New Jersey.