There’s been a lot of coverage lately of the possibly questionable behind the scenes dealings that went into the 2013 Grow NJ act that has heavily benefitted powerful and politically-connected South Jersey politicos over the past six years. But while strong ethics and good faith legislation are both incredibly important for any functioning democracy, less attention has been paid to what the rest of Camden looks like as new buildings have begun to sprout up on former waterfront parking lots (though it has to be said that Inga Saffron at the Inquirer wrote a great piece about the new towers recently). I recently spent a weekday morning walking around the Cooper Grant neighborhood and the waterfront, including directly in front of the new headquarters of American Water (the recipient of $164.2 million in Grow NJ funds to finance its construction) and
Camden Tower Triad1828 (whose three companies NFI Corp., Conner Strong & Buckelew, and the Michaels Organization received $245 million from Grow NJ).
The arguments for and against tax incentives are numerous, but when it comes down to it, tax breaks can be see as a kind of investment in the vitality of communities that need extra help to grow again. One way to gauge their effectiveness is by counting the number of new jobs tax breaks have created, and their supporters are quick to do that. For example, Camden county Freeholder Lou Cappelli frequently cites 800 as the number of Camden residents who have tax breaks to thank for their jobs. If accurate, that is surely a great number. But employing people is only the first step on the path to vitality, and the hope is that people who work in Camden will patronize local businesses and help to bring about a revitalization that will eventually obviate the need for tax breaks. What that looks like in the short term is employees of new downtown businesses supporting local restaurants on their lunch break, the theory being that new people in a neighborhood need a place to eat outside the sterile cafes their office buildings inevitably have. The long term goal is for people to move close to their new jobs, fix up old homes nearby, put down roots in a neighborhood that needs more neighbors, send their kids to local schools, and generally spend their time, money, and social energy investing in a neighborhood.
While the long term goal may be getting a boost from the recently-opened 11 Cooper, albeit in the form of very expensive and somewhat isolated new apartments and condos, the goal of getting people out of their offices and supporting local businesses seems as far away as ever. For all the talk of a “Camden rising”, the on-the-ground truth right now looks rather dim. At the very least, an old guard downtown restaurant has closed, new efforts to capitalize on new people downtown have quickly folded, and highly-touted revitalization public space projects have become drab and lifeless. Here are some observations from my walk.
I started at PATCO’s City Hall station and walked west along the north side of Market Street. I was amazed to quickly come across a closed Brass Rail, a restaurant that has been downtown for ages. Not a great start to a tour of businesses new waterfront employees are supposed to be supporting.
The rest of Market Street hardly inspires hope. In 2016, the Courier Post reported a possible “restaurant row” along Market Street, including a Bistro To Go franchise (“By summer, South Jersey’s third Bistro To Go will open at 309 Market.” was written four summers ago) and a new version of the beloved but short-lived Newtown Kitchen. None of it has materialized except for Camden Arts Yard, a recently-opened beer garden that appears to be enjoying success, although opening times seem to be a bit inconsistent; they were closed at 11:30AM when their website claims an opening time of 11AM Tuesday through Saturday. Beer gardens aside, it’s mind-boggling to imagine that even with the promise of new employees just a 10 minute walk away, very little progress has been made on all but one of these ventures. If the whole of Camden’s renaissance is pegged on the purchasing power of its new waterfront employers, why have restaurants closed or failed to open? Why does so little of that supposedly-rising new energy cross Delaware Avenue?
The rest of the walk was frankly depressing. Empty lots that have been for sale for years are still for sale. There were very few people walking around in and around the waterfront, probably because of the drive-in, drive-out nature of their bunkers on the waterfront with private cafeterias that countless urbanists have warned would do nothing to stimulate local business. It certainly didn’t feel like a humming neighborhood hosting hundreds of new employees. It was very quiet, like a very much not-vibrant place would feel.
The American Water building is impressive from afar, but right in front of it, it feels like a suburban office building with a massive parking garage totally cut off from anything. And Triad1828 behind it feels like an aggressive “get away from me, I am not for you” message in building form. Neither says “come join the excitement!” that their supporters think they do. Neither of them open themselves up to their surroundings, neither draw anyone nearby, and each is sure to have private catering contracts with corporate food service providers, handicapping any effort to get employees to leave their buildings.
Along the waterfront itself, the bank of benches and picnic tables were empty, left alone to bake in the mid-morning sun, and two homeless men slept on the covered seats a few yards further north.
Back around City Hall, evidence abounds that probably-genuine efforts to bring people out of their institutional fortresses have failed spectacularly. When Roosevelt Plaza Park five years ago, there was a piano for the public to play, picnic tables along its Market Street edge for eating outside, and various eclectic seating options with shade near the City Hall entrance. Those amenities are gone. The park now feels more barren, less engaging, and more hostile. No longer a place that invites you to pause and stay a while, it is now a generic urban park cynically maintained as a collection of empty benches and pathways moving you along without anything to appreciate.
This is what Roosevelt Park Plaza looked like when it opened:
Meanwhile, two shipping containers sit awkwardly inactive, one still proclaiming its “Grand Opening!” That container was supposed to be collaboration between Cathedral Kitchen and Respond, Inc, two well-known city nonprofits. According to a write-up from only two months ago, “Respond, Inc. handles the Lunch Box 9 a.m.-to-2 p.m. coffee and pastry stand, and a lunch cart from Cathedral Kitchen (CK Café Lunch Box) runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.” Again, as of mid-morning, there was nothing happening.
The last time the “Camden Lunch Box” Instagram account put up a post was a year ago. That was last year’s similar effort to bring a temporary restaurant downtown for area workers and students, but it too seems to have faded into nothingness.
All of these put together make it so easy to feel like everything promised to Camden, its residents, its employees, and its students, is a gimmick. Success always seems to be just around the corner, and yet the people and institutions that attempt to capitalize on that anticipated big day fold one after another. In response to this post, tax break supporters will say “you have to wait” (the supposed magic that will spontaneously occur feels like the same nonsense voodoo as trickle-down economics) or “the methadone clinic needs to go away” (you can have necessary addiction services and other amenities downtown; Market Street in Philadelphia, which has a clinic at 9th Street, is seeing a huge series of revitalization projects, and Central Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has both a methadone clinic and some of the most expensive real estate in the country) or we just need more tax breaks. But the truth is that from the ground, it looks like the people making decisions about what these new developments look like, how they interact with their host neighborhood, and how they engage people of all kinds in the city, have absolutely no idea how to bring vitality to a city.
The sad thing is that we know how this is going to play out if it keeps going down its current path. If this strategy worked, the Campbell’s headquarters would have revitalized Parkside decades ago. Subaru employees would be fixing up homes in Lanning Square and patronizing trendy cafes. But neither of those things is happening. Like with the new waterfront buildings, Campbell’s and Subaru employees drive in, drive out, and rarely stop to stimulate the economy of Camden as a whole. It is absurd to continue believing that buildings isolated from their surrounded by parking lots and garages will invigorate the organic street life necessary to really revitalize a neighborhood.
There is a mountain of words anyone who truly wishes to build a vibrant community could find out there. They could start by reading Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities, for example. But be it by malice or incompetence, the current crop of leaders in South Jersey, Camden County, and Camden City don’t seem interested in their often-stated goal to “raise” up the city of Camden. Building large buildings won’t do that. Only by fostering mixed-use neighborhoods, building community trust, and involving stakeholders at every level can you begin to bring back a city so heavily disinvested in as Camden. Tax breaks can be a tool, but they cannot be the only tool. Camden’s perceived victories will remain hollow until somebody in a position of power decides they actually want to build the vibrant, inclusive, diverse, and people-centered city what they keep telling us they want to build.