Massive Displacement

When it comes to urban renewal, cities have at least two options: they can work from the grassroots level up with residents and community leaders to improve neighborhoods or take a top-down approach by declaring entire neighborhoods “blighted” or “in need of redevelopment” in order to rebuild whatever they see fit.  The City of Camden, N.J., faced with that decision, has taken the latter approach in neighborhood after neighborhood.  Currently, there are at least 15 redevelopment projects at various stages in the city, threatening more than 6,300 properties.  So far, two neighborhoods, Bergen Square and Cramer Hill, have been spared, but only temporarily, because the city’s redevelopment plans were declared illegal based on technicalities. 

The city’s situation typifies that of many former industrial cities that resort to abusing eminent domain rather than working with residents to improve life in the city.  Camden had the opportunity to use other means five years ago when the state of New Jersey gave the city $175 million for job training programs and other incentives to improve the conditions of residents. But little came of that state money.[1]

In 2002, Camden, which is located across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, released its comprehensive Master Plan to transform the city from its post-industrial stagnation to a revitalized tourist destination.  Upon the release of the plan, Camden Mayor Gwendolyn Faison declared, “The Master Plan is a product of planning expertise and continuous community grassroots input.”[2] 

Since then, the city has been moving from neighborhood to neighborhood conducting the requisite “blight” studies before condemning them entirely to make way for development plans created by architectural and engineering consultants.

Unfortunately, the city continues to work against the so-called “community grassroots input” as they implement the Master Plan.  Apparently, Camden’s definition of “input” is keeping details of the plans secret until the public meeting is held, when the plan is “presented” to residents. 

In November 2004, for instance, more than 400 residents protested against several of the plans at Planning Board meeting because the city did not reveal the plan until the meeting took place.  In the case of Bergen Square, a week after the protested meeting, the Board voted unanimously for a $1 billion plan designed by consultants that would require the seizure of 2,193 properties.  (Those same consultants also conducted a “blight study” of the “underutilized properties” the year before.)[3]

A month later, a group of residents in the neighborhood sued so that townhouses and trendy jazz cafes would not replace their homes and businesses.[4]  While the city’s plan called for more than 2,000 new homes and apartments and 500,000 square feet of commercial space, Olga Pomar, the lawyer who represented residents of Bergen Square, said, “The plan calls for … massive displacement … with no guarantee that the replacement homes will be available and realistically affordable to the current residents.”[5]

In March 2006, a judge threw out the Bergen Square plan because they city hadn’t followed proper procedure when it approved the plan.

Now, a year after that court decision, the city has given up on its plan to redevelop Bergen Square.  Camden’s chief operating officer, appointed by the state, said the city would develop a new plan in response to the residents’ complaints.[6]

Although this plan has been scrapped, many of the cities’ plans still remain intact.  Camden remains one of the worst examples of cities zealous to improve the lives of their citizens by taking away their homes and livelihoods. 

[1] Kareem Fahim, “In Crumbling Camden, New Challenges for a Recovery Plan,” The New York Times, November 5, 2006.

[2] FutureCamden, (retrieved March 23, 2007) 3.

[3] Luis Puga,“Residents condemn Bergen Square plan,” The Courier-Post, December 1, 2004.

[4] Fahim.

[5] Alan Guenther, “Plans for Bergen Square ruled invalid by judge,” The Courier-Post, April 1, 2006.

[6] Alan Guenter, “Camden scraps Bergen Square renewal plan,” The Courier-Post, March 22, 2007.