Thursday, July 14, 2011

Community Revitalization in Camden

This week, we sat down with James Gibson, who leads the Center for the Study of Social Policy’s efforts to help promote responsible redevelopment initiatives in Camden, New Jersey. Through the Spotlight on Community Change Series, we hope to lift up community examples that demonstrate our vision of child, family and community well-being by promoting neighborhood strategies like workforce development, asset building, reading success, community development, organizational capacity and resident engagement.

You’ve had an extensive career in Urban Renewal. What lead you to Camden?
My experiences in other communities allowed me to walk into Camden and know that there were larger external forces mixed in with racial segregation that put minorities at a disadvantage. I do believe that there are essentially two factors that I have seen that impact the ability to affect community positively.  First, we have to have current accurate information about the conditions and situation in which we’re working whether it is a community or a neighborhood or a city. We have to know the facts. What is it that is causing or has caused the problems that the people are feeling or the blockages to opportunity? What seemed to be the reasons or the factors that contribute to these conditions? The second thing we have to do is find out what are the true strengths that could be brought to bear to address those factors? You can’t just look at a project, you can’t just look at a neighborhood…you have to look at all the pieces.

Camden was originally part of Making Connections initiative.  The key elements of Making Connections: asset building, reading success, community development, organizational capacity and resident engagement are very important. The service oriented focus of Making Connections did not, however, work in Camden.  Camden required us to create a context of opportunity and paths. It’s the opportunity that lifts people out of poverty not just services. There has to be attention to policy determinants of opportunity creation as well as the foreclosure of opportunity.  A lot of the issues are embodied in policy mal-focus and if you cannot address those issues then you don’t get to the seminal casual factors. You can be very busy with projects and it’s like running in place. How do you begin to develop the deep paths to opportunities? But it’s not either/or. You have to focus on tangible things that address the people that you’re working with and the communities that they’re in.

When you first began your work, what were the conditions like in Camden?
The people in Camden were polarized. There was enormous factionalism. The people were bitter. They were surrounded by white suburbs and they felt cheated and used and abused.  State policy was convinced that the problems of Camden lied in mismanagement of the government. The tax base decreased and the property taxes increased. This pattern was occurring in neighborhoods across the country. Once the civil rights laws began to pass and there was more mobility for education and skilled blacks. People in Camden were pointing fingers at each other. The political machine was dominated by whites. Blacks and Hispanics and poor and working class whites made up the majority of Camden. There was no middle class and there was very little tax revenue. The systems and the skill base of municipal workers had deteriorated. As your tax base shrinks and private employment leaves the jurisdiction, government employment becomes the most valued. The jobs that stay around are government jobs. Increasingly, politicians put the bulk of Camden’s resources into employment and not deteriorating systems.

What needs to be done to improve the community?
You have to build a tax base and identify the causes and impediments to developing the tax base. One way to do this is to build coalitions in the surrounding suburbs. You also have to invest in the people who have been out of the labor force for so long. They have now developed attitudes and behaviors that are not conducive to the workforce. They have to now be re-oriented. Oftentimes, these individuals may need drug treatment services, job training and other vital supports. This is hard but doable. The state has to invest just as it disinvested. Engaging with anchor institutions (i.e. universities and hospitals) is important. They also generate substantial revenue by spending millions of dollars every year on purchasing equipment and other resources. More importantly, anchor institutions support employ the low-skilled workforce. Those jobs have fewer benefits, lower wages, and people can work full-time or part-time. If you can get anchor institutions to understand how they can improve the area in which they are located, then you can succeed. There is also work to be done through the city as well. The low-skilled workforce needs to be supported with child care and out of school time programs.

An important aspect of the work at the Center for the Study of Social Policy is Constituents Co-Invested in Change. Can you talk to us about the importance of residents taking ownership for the city’s recovery?
Resident engagement can either be relevant or busy work. It’s important to understand why you are engaging residents and how you plan to do so.  Manual Pastor stratified community improvement into project orientation, policy orientation, and political mobilization. Sometimes when people decide to engage with residents it’s not necessarily about improving their opportunities. Working with community residents must be done the right way. There are simultaneous paths [to community building], not just one. 

Where is Camden now in terms of the city's revitalization efforts?
The initiative that we’re creating now is focused on the stimulation of Camden by 2026. A Path Forward for Camden laid out a set of principles that needed to be addressed to improve the conditions in Camden. The Senator elected from Camden passed legislation that created a recovery program for Camden. It was like a receivership in that the authorities of the mayor and the city council were vested in a Chief Operating Officer (CFO) appointed by the Governor.  Implemented in 2003, the program put seed investments in the universities and in the hospitals to improve their offerings, allowing these anchor institutions to hire more staff. The Casey Foundation provided funding to the major business and leadership group, Greater Camden Partnership, which provided a secretariat for the major anchor institution. In 2006, we engaged Urban Strategies, Inc. [and] they  found the developer McCormick Barron Salazar. Their development plan would be preceded by human development planning. With a comprehensive redevelopment plan like this one, you have to have a human capital dimension that says here’s what’s going to happen to the people here as we also add market rate housing so that we’re not leaving anyone behind. In addition, to the for-profit money, we had to coordinate those investments with government and with philanthropy. In 2008, the first full recovery plan was put together and passed the legislature.

Urban expert David Rusk lists Camden as one of the 24 U.S. cities past the “point of no return”, due in large part to the high income and racial disparities between the city and neighboring suburbs. What are your thoughts?
Has Camden reached a point of no return? I think David Rusk couldn’t see a way through. It’s daunting. But, to say it’s past the point of no return, I’m not sure there’s a need to return.  When you look at Camden it’s like Arlington to Washington. It shares the same airport, it has a thriving central city across the river, it couldn’t have come anywhere near building the subway system but it's part of the subway system. It is closer to downtown Philadelphia than most parts of Philadelphia. They are in the process of cleaning up lots so it doesn’t look so derelict. There are a number of changes occurring in Camden right now. Plus, I’m an eternal optimist so I do believe Camden can and will get better. 

From Community Building to Equitable Development: A Journey from Projects to Policy in the Struggle for Community In Urban America, CSSP

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