Hopes for New Jersey’s new governor

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Yesterday, New Jersey said goodbye to outgoing, controversial-to-say-the-least governor Chris Christie and hello to the new guy in Trenton, incoming governor Phil Murphy. At almost exactly noon, Murphy was sworn in with Sheila Oliver as his lieutenant governor, the first woman of color to serve in a statewide elected office – a welcome and overdue achievement. A few political commentators noted the day seemed more about saying goodbye to Christie than hello to Murphy, but while I do think there are plenty of reason to be happy Christie’s gone, there are a few things to like about the incoming Murphy administration. Here’s what I’m looking forward to.

Fixing NJ Transit, the third largest transportation company by ridership in the country. As anyone who rides it frequently knows, it’s become prone to delays and malfunctions at the same time that both ridership and fare prices have gone up. Christie was no steward of rail travel in the state, diverting money away from the much-needed project to build a new Hudson River tunnel and moving it to road projects (a move that sparked a federal inquiry). His disinterest in ensuring good transit links was crazy to me given that he’s from a part of the state that relies heavily on transit to get to and from jobs in New York. On the campaign trail and again as he announced his new Department of Transportation chief, Murphy has said he wants to audit the entire agency from leadership to budget in order to put right one of the most important assets New Jersey has. At a time when more people are using trains than in decades past, and especially as millennials seek carless commutes to city jobs, I’m looking forward to a governor who believes in efficient public transportation. (I’m also personally pulling for an improved Atlantic City Line and the Glassboro-Camden Line finally coming to life.)

Supporting smart growth, which will go a long way toward keeping millennials from leaving the state for other places that know how to foster walkable downtowns and possible attract new ones in the process. Murphy even mentioned this in his inauguration speech, saying he’ll work on making New Jersey attractive to millennials. It’s no secret that New Jersey has single-mindedly over-relied on car-dependent suburban sprawl for decades, but it seems Murphy believes in the power of building places for people and not just automobiles.

Legalizing marijuana, a long sought-after reform that will decriminalize recreational use of a substance that does less societal harm than alcohol. This is a much appreciated, enlightened 21st century perspective and a welcome departure from Christie’s outdated belief that it’s a “gateway drug”. This should also precipitate a savings in the realm of criminal justice, as we can put our resources toward the drugs that actually cause suffering in our communities and stop overly criminalizing people for marijuana possession.

Supporting pro-environment policies like offshore wind, upholding Paris accord climate goals, taking the charge on lead abatement in urban areas, and fighting against oil drilling off the state’s coast. Christie didn’t do much for the environment during his time in office, letting the offshore wind issue languish and supporting gas pipelines being built through what should be protected forest. It’ll be nice to have a governor who believes in protecting our environment and moving us away from a crippling dependence on fossil fuels.

Ending the state takeover of Atlantic City, which doesn’t seem to have done much other than line expensive, politically-connected consultants’ pockets. I don’t know why legislators in Trenton think they can take over cities’ finances and school districts, but it’s never seemed to make a positive difference. For instance, Camden kids’ public schools, which were taken over by the state a few years ago, seem to be ignored so charter schools can be built. I hope a Murphy administration will rather partner with struggling municipalities to work on solutions together rather than completely usurping local power and grassroots people trying to make a difference.

Starting up a state bank, a “commercial enterprise, owned by the taxpayers that would accept public revenues and use them to invest in New Jersey.” It’s a fascinating idea, and would be only the second in the country; North Dakota is the only currently-operating state-owned bank. It seems that basically, instead of putting state money into private banks, we’ll be able to put it into a state-owned bank that we can use for things that commercial banks don’t do today, like giving loans to students and small businesses at good rates and keep money in the state working for its people instead of sending state money out to private banks where it works in service of bank shareholders. Think about it this way, would you rather have interest in state accounts go to private bank investors, or back to the state to fund projects here?

Pivoting the state back toward supporting plain old good social issues like women’s health and Planed Parenthood, which Christie took funding away from a few years back. As he tried to run for office, he inflicted New Jersey with a lot of bad policies he thought would win him a Republican presidential nomination. I can’t overstate how nice it will be to have a governor who answers to the people of New Jersey and not Republican kingmakers. This will undoubtably help as we attempt to insulate ourselves from the horrible policies currently coming out of Washington.

Building a diverse administration that looks like the people it serves. New Jersey ranks third in matching the demographics of the country as a whole behind New York and Illinois, and it does so without hosting two of the biggest cities in the country. Our communities of all sizes host people from a wide array of ethnicities and economic backgrounds, and that’s something to truly love about this state. I was so happy to hear that women, people of color, and people of all kinds of faiths were a part of his transition team, cabinet and judicial appointments. Every person has a unique perspective on how to make New Jersey stronger, and a successful leader will listen to those diverse perspectives.

And finally, I personally love that he’s from Massachusetts, a region that has an above-average record for strong representative democracy and public service. It sounds like he grew up with those ideals in his hometown of Needham, MA, and I really think that’s the kind of civic-minded leadership this state needs. We’re now home to over 9 million people, which is the size of, if not larger than, some small countries. We’ve got real issues here that run the gamut of society, and we need to work on them together. Far from just being a not-Christie, I think there are some genuine things to look forward to with Phil Murphy as our governor.

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Three years of Camden Supper Club

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Four years ago this month, I sent an email to an acquaintance of mine at Rutgers–Camden bemoaning the Latin American Economic Development Association’s Dine Around which takes people from downtown offices and education institutions to lunch spots in the city’s neighborhoods. To be clear, I thought it was a fantastic idea. My problem was that it was only available during lunch, and working in Center City, it was impossible for me to participate. As someone who wanted to explore more of Camden, that bummed me out. Thankfully, my friend had a simple suggestion: let’s get some people together for dinner instead. And later that month, in January 2014, with eight people around a table at Corinne’s Place in the Parkside neighborhood, the Camden Supper Club was born. As we start our fourth year of bringing people to dinner at restaurants all over the city, I sit here amazed that it’s become more popular than I could have ever imagined.

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Riding the Ancient Rails

Somewhere between South Jersey’s suburban towns and its popular seaside resorts lay a network of train tracks draped through the forests of the state’s seven southernmost counties. From 1933 until 1976, they bustled with passengers escaping to beach towns up and down the state’s coastline from crowded and sweltering neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Camden. The growth of private car travel and the opening of the Atlantic City Expressway in the mid-1960s reduced rail offerings to the shore down to just the Atlantic City Line, which still operates today. But at least a few times a year, you can take a ride on some of the historic tracks that ignited the Philadelphia region’s love affair with New Jersey’s southern beaches.

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How to begin addressing New Jersey’s “millennial problem”

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Over the past few days, two articles have come out that speak to a few weaknesses New Jersey is suffering from at the moment. The first is a Wall Street Journal piece about how the state has a “millennial problem”, detailing how younger people don’t want to live, work, or play in the state’s sprawling suburbia, nor could they afford it if they wanted to. The second rightly suggests that our overbuilding of suburban office parks in the 20th century has put has at a disadvantage as younger people today look for work in dynamic urban environments and not the pastoral campuses of the generation before us. Both articles get at something I think about a lot, especially as a millennial that does live in this state. I was inspired to put together some ideas that elected officials and civic leaders would be wise to consider if they want to address the fundamental problems our state has going into the 21st century.

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Why isn’t Burlington City more of a thing?

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This is a pretty hot take (as far as urbanist hot takes go), as it’s based more of a few random visits than an in-depth look at history, but here it is:

Burlington City should be more of a happening place.

I don’t know the deep history of one of South Jersey’s most historic cities (if you have more insight, I’d love to hear it), but this idea comes from having taken the River Line train a few times for dinner at Brickwall Tavern‘s Burlington location (the other, in a fascinating bit of upper-south/lower-central Jersey cultural exchange, being in Asbury Park). It’s got a downtown on par in size and scale with Collingswood’s or Bordentown’s, both DVRPC classic towns, though for some reason it doesn’t feature on the site. It has frequent rail access to Trenton, Camden, and Philadelphia, something that might become even more of an asset thanks to the big projects going on in Camden thanks to a strategy of tax-incentivized development there and when the project to extended it to downtown Trenton offices comes to fruition. It also has old, historic buildings and neighborhoods thanks to it being one of South Jersey’s oldest cities incorporated in 1693 and it’s located along the Delaware River and its riverfront has plans for improvement. It seems to me to have a lot of elements of successful places, and it actually reminds me of many desirable historic Massachusetts towns.

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The case for better connectivity to University City through NJ Transit’s Atlantic City Line

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I’ve had this article sitting in my drafts folder for the past five months. Given the lack of interest in the subject on the part of NJ Transit, whenever I sit down to write it, I feel a little bit like I’m screaming into the void. But this morning I finally gathered the motivation to get it done after seeing Jake Blumgart’s tweet linking to an article from the Atlantic City Press that essentially equates the city’s declining fortunes with the fact that fewer people are taking the train line. If you think of the line as simply as a train that gets people to and from the struggling shore town, then it makes sense. With fewer attractions and jobs, there are fewer people to pull from as a potential customer base for the service. But that would be thinking too one-dimensionally. To understand the potential this line has for serving South Jersey, you have to rather turn your attention to what’s at the other end of the line: the white-hot job market being built in University City, Philadelphia, which hosts the line’s northernmost stop at 30th Street Station.

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Ghosts of City Hall: The PATCO station you’ve never seen

Map of downtown Camden and the City Hall station.
Map of downtown Camden and the City Hall station, including my estimate for the reaches of the closed off pedestrian tunnels.

If you’ve ever used PATCO’s City Hall station in downtown Camden, you might think it’s pretty simple. A red stairwell on the southwest corner of 5th & Market takes you down to a small concourse with fare machines, turnstiles, and a platform. If you’ve looked a little closer, you might’ve noticed a few interesting things, like the big steel doors that block off a passageway marked with a “TO COOPER ST” sign, or a gate that stops you from going anywhere but immediately through the turnstiles. Even if you could imagine that through those doorways lies a few extra parts of the station closed off over the past few decades, you might not have ever realized just how large a station City Hall really is.

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