Tag Archives: urban issues

Failed cities

Part 1

The Philadelphia Inquirer continues its special report on the failed city of Camden, NJ and I keep finding parallels between that and attempts to stabilize failed states or assist developing nations improve their standards of living.

Many aid projects in the developed world (and, increasingly China which I’m not sure is ‘officially’ part of the developed world)  are big, expensive infrastructure projects like dams, roads, resource extraction plants and such.  Such projects are usually announced with much fanfare, proclaiming millions (or billions!) going to a particular country.  Yet most of the money doesn’t go into the local economy at all.  Outside companies plan and manage the project, consultants and labor is imported.  Revenue gets funneled to corrupt local politicians or is siphoned out to the company(ies) that ran the project.  Not surprisingly, the estimated boom in economic activity doesn’t pan out and the country ends with little to show for all the money except (usually) being on the wrong end of a bad business deal.  How does Camden stack up compared with that?

The landmark 2002 Municipal Rehabilitation and Economic Recovery Act that put Camden under state control set aside $175 million for dozens of city projects. And none was larger, or more emblematic, than the $25 million expansion of the 10-year-old, state-owned aquarium.

Camden’s residents were told the recovery would help to lift them out of poverty. The state’s “strategic revitalization plan,” the recovery’s guide, even listed jobs as the No. 1 goal.  But it didn’t turn out that way. Instead, most of the bailout money, $99 million, was allocated to the aquarium and other “anchor” institutions: tourist attractions, universities, hospitals, and government agencies…only 23 percent of [the aquarium’s] employees – 28 percent during the summer – live in Camden. Before the recovery, the percentage of Camden residents employed there was 43 percent.

At Rutgers-Camden law school, the $11 million for an expansion project helped to increase the hours of free legal work students provide city residents from about 30,000 to 40,000 hours a year…But the school’s expansion led to only one new job for a Camden resident, a custodial position.

More than 40 percent of the population is living under the poverty line, and the tax base has shrunk.

Camden is the second most dangerous city in America and the poorest medium-sized city, according to national rankings. The city of 70,390 had 1,791 violent crimes in 2008, compared to 1,711 the year before the recovery began.

The central idea to the ‘revitalization’ scheme was to develop the waterfront area of Camden with tourist attractions, high cost condos and homes and perhaps some corporate headquarters.  All of which guarantee the residents of Camden nothing but low wage, service sector jobs.  The unspoken part of these revitalization plans is that if they can ‘gentrify’ the city they can then begin to squeeze existing residents out of the area.  Where they go is unimportant so long as it’s somewhere else.  At that point they become someone else’s problem and everyone can declare victory for ‘turning around’ a depressed city.

This story reminded me of a recent Planet Money podcast in which an author of a new book called The Aid Trap argues that aid based upon the Marshall Plan would be much better than our current system.  Specifically, focus on giving money directly to local, mid-sized businesses (from 1 to several dozen employees generally) which are the real generators of economic activity.  Of course, Camden also presents an opportunity to really think outside the box.  Why does it need to still be a city?  With over 1,500 properties abandoned and large tracts of land set aside  is there room to create a modern, self sufficient city-state?  Even if we don’t go that far, how about establishing a plan which will allow the citizens of Camden to take a greater role in their own urban regeneration?