Camden tries to rally from urban woes 'Quality of life' crackdown sparks complaints

state steps up watchfulness

September 22, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CAMDEN, N.J. -- It seemed that the troubles plaguing Camden for the last four decades had entered a strange new chapter when Mayor Milton Milan said in February that drug dealers had made him the target of a murder contract.

The mayor did not say who had threatened his life or why. But in describing the plot, he sketched a stark portrait of the despair enveloping the city's streets, a place where the unemployment rate is 14 percent, the high school dropout rate is 70 percent and the price on the head of even the highest-ranking city official is dismally low.

"There are drug addicts who sell their TV, or their bodies for $20, so I knew that for $150, someone might do anything," Milan said last week. "I had to take it seriously."

At one time this city of 87,000 people in the shadow of Philadelphia was a thriving manufacturing center, home to prosperous corporations including RCA, Campbell's Soup and Knox Gelatin. Today, nearly every residential neighborhood has fallen into decay, and empty warehouses, abandoned factories and crumbling rowhouses litter the community like an industrial Acropolis.

Camden's two glittering riverfront projects, the Sony E-Center Amphitheater and the State Aquarium, have won praise from city officials and the public. But the projects, built at a cost of more than $100 million, have yet to deliver on the promise to spur waterfront investment and help revive the city's core.

Monitoring spending

After years of stagnation, political infighting and decline, the situation reached a flash point this summer, when Camden's leaders made their annual request that the state pay the city's deficit.

Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican, provided $15 million to cover the shortfall, then appointed a state Financial Review Board to monitor every nickel of Camden's spending. The move insulted city officials and residents, who have long felt that Camden's large minority population did not receive its share of public resources.

Seven political leaders, including Milan, met for the first time on Sept. 3 to begin scrutinizing the city's $116 million budget and eliminating its perennial deficit.

But beyond that belt-tightening, the mayor and the state overseers also hope to bridge their political, cultural, philosophical and racial differences and address a more intractable issue: How can Camden, a proud city with a #i resistance to revitalization, pull itself out of social despair and economic irrelevance?

"We don't make soup here any more," said Tom Halpern, chairman of the waterfront development group Cooper's Ferry, and chief executive of Cooper Hospital. "We don't build ships or radios. We need to find an economic rationale, a reason that people or businesses have to come to Camden. And until we do that, all the good intentions aren't going to change things in the neighborhoods."

Like many manufacturing cities, Camden's economic base began to erode during the 1950s. The racial tensions of the 1960s, when Camden was shaken by riots, intensified the

middle-class exodus from the city.

But while other cities found paths to recovery, Camden met an assortment of obstacles. Jersey City and Hoboken prospered by offering convenient, inexpensive office space and housing as an alternative to Manhattan. Camden sits across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, a city with no shortage of affordable real estate.

And although Camden has received tens of millions of dollars in aid from the state and federal governments, a 1996 audit found that the county and city Democratic political machine squandered huge sums through patronage jobs and sweetheart contracts.

Rising property tax rates and fleeing businesses have left this city of nine square miles with just a single supermarket and no movie theaters. According to census figures, the per-capita income in Camden today is just $7,276, the fifth poorest in the nation.

Experts who talk about revitalization invoke the concepts used in discussion of the developing world: "capacity building," "sustainable development" and "generating a critical mass of capital."

"The resources just aren't there," said state Assemblyman Joseph Roberts, a Democrat who represents the area.

Milan was elected Camden's first Hispanic mayor last year, and to assure residents that he could restore order, he quickly began a "quality of life" crackdown. An early effort was a city ordinance forcing takeout restaurants to close by midnight because drug dealers gathered there.

The plan sparked complaints by restaurant owners, but was enacted. Yet on a recent night on Camden's North Side, four teen-agers sat on the stoop of a Chinese restaurant passing a bottle. The restaurant was closed, but one teen-ager hailed passers-by, offering to sell cocaine.

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