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If You Riot, Will They Come?

12/31/2004

In this article from the New York Times Virginia Postrel discusses the effect of the urban riots in the late sixties and early seventies had on the property values of urban blacks. It looks like, no surprise, riots depress property values.

I worked in redevelopment in Camden, NJ for four (loooong) years. While I was there I did a lot of research on homeownership rates and demographic change in all of Camden, but since my job was primarily to dig up funding for a park in North Camden, I paid particular attention to two economically devastating events for the north side of the City of Camden. First, the building of the Ben Franklin Bridge, and second the riots in North Camden in 1969 and 1971.

The Delaware River Bridge, now the Ben Franklin, and it's approach, the Admiral Wilson Blvd. Effectively cut North Camden off from the rest of the city. For years there was only one way to get to south Camden, an underpass on the western side of the bridge toll plaza. In the late seventies, an overpass was built on the east side, but until then, one two-lane tunnel. The tunnel was closed in the 80's, it's almost exactly like the one on the Philly side of the bridge o you use to get to old city. North Camden was primarily a residential section of the city, bounded by Pyne Point Park, the dump and the river. The bridge plaza was constructed on top of what used to be a very nice upscale neighborhood, and Pyne Point Park was lovely. However, there were few large employers on this side of town, and the ones that were there, well, try and imagine working at Knox gelatin. The big employers were in the south, RCA, Campbells Soup, and YorkShip, the best Hospitals were in the East, Cooper and Lady of Lourdes, and if you wanted to get anywhere, well you had a tough time. By the late 30's the exodus to Merchantville, Pennsauken and Riverton had begun. By the early 60's most of North Camden by the bridge and river was a low-income, mostly black and Hispanic area with houses owned by absentee landlords.

Political corruption was alwaysin vogue in Camden, and at the end of the sixties, the almost all-white city government was completely at odds with the needs and desires of the by that time mostly Puerto Rican population of North Camden. After an earlier series of race riots in 1969, the political situation by 1971 was so bad the there were three days of protests by the Puerto Rican community in front of City Hall. The Mayor of Camden absolutely refused to meet with representatives of the Puerto Rican Community and riots erupted all across Camden, but mostly concentrated in North Camden. North Camden became a war zone, and by the time it was over, if you had the money to leave Camden, you did. Whole neighborhoods of people from the east side of Camden moved out in the early 70's and moved to brand new developments in Marlton and Cherry Hill, even as far out as Rancocas in Burlington County. It's an absolutely amazing story. Today there are very few stable working class neighborhoods, mostly in the south, Fairveiw is one, others way out east, by route 130, but mostly Camden is a ghost town. The population of 79,000 is down from 125,00 in 1960. White people, no way around it, are afraid to even drive through Camden.

Many people simply abandoned the houses that they owned in the city. I spent weeks at City Hall looking at tax records in order to find ownership statistics. It was a nightmare. Less than 20% of the houses in North Camden are owner occupied, ONE IN THREE houses is an abandoned or condemned property. There has not been a commercial bank branch in North Camden open for OVER FIFTY YEARS. The closest movie theater is in Cherry Hill. In 1991 on the night before Halloween, 181 houses were burned to the ground. In 1981 the mayor raised property taxes 88% in one day. The situation was so bad that riverfront State Prison was built right in the middle of North Camden, on hundreds of acres, with barely a whimper of protest.

The crack epidemic in the late 80's early 90's and the resultant gang wars, combined with the persistent poverty of the population made Camden the most dangerous city to live in in the entire US. An unemployment rate of 16% in the city as compared to 6% in the county and a violent crime rate of 19% in the city and 5.5% in the rest of the county is an illustration of the problem. 79% of the children born in Camden City in 2002 were born to unmarried mothers. 8.5% of those giving birth reported using illegal drugs during pregnancy. Property valuation is so skewed that the average rent on a three bedroom in Camden is over $1000 per month. A single apartment goes for over $500.

Three out of the last five elected mayors have been indicted for offenses ranging from ebezzelment to drug trafficking.

I worked in North Camden at the Northgate II apartment complex and Northgate Park for three years. While I was there I met some really nice people who worked very hard for a living, and I met some really nice people who did very bad things for a living. I also met some people who weren't so nice and didn't do anything but exist. But the majority of people I knew wanted out. Anywhere. They weren't going to stay in Camden, period.

I've seen the Camden Waterfront, and I agree that it's kind of nice, but it's not going to fix the city. No one from the South Jersey suburbs is going to move in to downtown Camden, there's too much bad blood.

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