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.
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.
It’s often said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but you rarely get to see it play out so perfectly in front of your eyes as it does here in New Jersey. In the summer of 2013, state legislators were busy revamping the state’s system of tax breaks that works to keep businesses in the state when they start to make noise about moving to take advantage of tax incentives from other states. In the race to the bottom in which American taxpayers bankroll corporate operations with little to no net benefit, New Jersey is clearly a frontrunner.
The state has given hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to projects ranging from an “entertainment complex” in the Meadowlands to multiple corporations moving their headquarters just a few miles down the road. But after years of the majority of tax breaks going to North Jersey interests, State Senate president Steven Sweeney (who represents parts of Gloucester, Cumberland, and Salem Counties) pushed back to get the reworking of the tax break system, the Economic Opportunity Act of 2013, to focus more on South Jersey. As an NJ.com article from the time reports:
“A bill to overhaul how the state lures businesses has been loaded with last-minute sweeteners for South Jersey and pushed by Senate President Stephen Sweeney. The New Jersey Economic Opportunity Act, a mammoth bill supported by Republican Gov. Chris Christie, now sets aside deals for the state’s eight southern counties, especially Camden.”
Ever since then, Camden has received the bulk of the state’s tax breaks. Far from promising to revitalize the city, they’ve gone to a few politically connected entities. But there was one project that was supposed to be a game changer for the city. Subaru of America, currently located on Route 70 in Cherry Hill, was granted a $118 million tax incentive to move a few miles west to the Gateway district of Camden, where Campbell’s Soup has a vision to create South Jersey’s version of Philadelphia’s successful Navy Yard. That Subaru would take the incentives and move to Gateway was seen as potential progress toward the goal of actually realizing the revitalization of that part of the city.
Sadly, it appears as though we were all taken for fools. As news of the plans for their headquarters came out last week, it came to light that this would be no game-changing, world-class headquarters. The plans call for a building shorter than the current headquarters in Cherry Hill. Brandywine Realty Trust, which has developed some wonderful buildings in Philadelphia, wants to build a squat suburban headquarters located in a sea of over 1,000 parking spaces. Inga Saffron has written a spot-on evaluation of the failure of this plan in today’s Inquirer.
From the perspective of those who thought, maybe, these tax breaks might actually lead to positive change in the city, as everyone working toward them has claimed, disappointment is the kindest word for what we are feeling. Devastation, bewilderment, and disgust are far more apt. This project could not be more disengaged from the city. Those parking spots guarantee that every single Subaru employee will drive in to work in the morning, stay on campus to eat lunch, and drive home at night. They will not interact with the city. Even if they wanted to, they are hardly given the chance. Employees would have to traverse a punishing sea of asphalt to get out of the suburban-style office park.
And the site’s lack of engagement isn’t the only issue. This asphalt will complicate the poor drainage that this part of Camden experiences. Even today, Admiral Wilson Boulevard constantly floods. Subaru has decided to not even incorporate rain gardens to address runoff that they saw fit to construct in their Cherry Hill and Pennsauken campuses. There are a few trees dotted throughout their parking lot which they claim add green space. It is a transparent attempt to pull one over on all of us.
When Campbell’s broadcast to the world that they were committed to building a forward-looking office complex in the Gateway district, they created glossy renderings of a successful future. Looking at Subaru’s plans for this site, it’s impossible to not conclude that that was a only marketing ploy for future tax breaks, and that no such office complex will arise. New Jersey taxpayers have once again been duped by greedy corporations and small-minded politicians who live in an alternate universe where tax breaks, trickle-down economics, and forcing suburbanization onto a city really works.
This plan, should it get built, will set the city back decades. Successful cities and towns all around the country are working to undo the harm caused by sprawling development. Here in New Jersey, office parks like this are going empty as people seek dynamic, urban environments to work in. What Subaru is doing here is guaranteeing that South Jersey will pay for the privilege of living in an increasingly obsolete development model, truly a dying past, for decades to come.
Covering the incidents of crime and violence in Camden is basically a cottage industry. Local newspapers salivate over it. Good things that happen in the city might be glossed over, but there will always be coverage of the bad things that go on in the city, as if suburbanites can’t help but follow the carnage. Reading yet another article about a shooting the other day, I got really bothered by the lack of context and analyses of the root causes of that crime. The basics are mundane enough; most of the killings are drug related. That’s just Camden, right? Drugs, poverty, misery. Except drugs don’t exist in a vacuum. And there’s been increasing coverage of the fact that that drug trade is majorly supported by people coming in from outside the city, namely, White suburban kids no one apparently thinks are capable of doing something bad. Overall, it’s just part of a larger picture that I feel rarely got covered, so I wrote a guest post for Stephen Danley’s Local Knowledge blog about it. Here’s a preview and a link to the full essay.
One thing that becomes almost immediately evident when you pay attention to Camden is newspapers’ and news anchors’ obsession with crimes and crime statistics. At first glance, it seems like it makes sense. It’s a beleaguered city that suffers an exceptional amount of crime. A new police force is out to prove itself. A governor who wants to regionalize other police forces in the state needs it to succeed to push his agenda forward. And unfortunately, shocking crime sells air time and ad space.
But to focus on crime as the sole aspect of the city is to only follow half the story. Policing only attempts to address the symptom, not to fix the root cause of the problem. After all, it is no more Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson’s job to make sure Camden thrives in the 21st century than it is Chief Charles Ramsey’s job to ensure that Philadelphia succeeds economically. Their roles are merely supplemental to the success of their cities.
You can read the entire post on Stephen Danley’s blog at http://danley.rutgers.edu/2014/01/08/community-voice-suburban-perspective/.