4.1. Familiar Fears of Gentrification Despite a Lack of Direct Displacement
Residents describe their concerns with Camden’s development as being about gentrification, and often explicitly describe gentrification in racial terms. For example, an op-ed by a Camden educator and resident states that:
“The drive behind recent development and the Renaissance schools in Camden is gentrification. Therefore, the battle over Renaissance schools, with politicians pushing for their rapid expansion versus public school parents demonstrating strident resistance, is really a proxy war over who gets to live in Camden in the future”.
Similarly, a local Latina activist and resident argues that local powers want to bring a certain group of people to Camden—a group she describes as “rich, little white kids.” Here, gentrification is described both in traditional terms—those of new residents—and explicitly in racial terms, in which those new residents are white. That second activist’s fears are grounded with her own history of being at risk of displacement. She helped lead a fight against a golf course that would have displaced thousands of residents in her neighborhood. The golf course was never built and residents were not displaced. She contends the process of gentrifying Camden is multistaged, including replacing a methadone clinic on Broadway street with market-rate housing, taking over the police force so that a county force could focus on areas targeted for gentrification, and building new schools (specifically referencing KIPP-Cooper Norcross Academy, which has ties to local political figures). When asked why she saw these issues as being connected to gentrification, she argued “we know who’s going to go there”. Similarly, Weaver [31
] describes the experience of a new resident whose community engagement was viewed by some residents as a sign of her “taking over” in gentrifier fashion.
These types of fears map directly onto “displacement pressure”; residents see improvements around them as happening for others (described both in terms of class and race), and as potentially displacing current residents. These fears occur even though there is little evidence of actual displacement at this point in time.
As Freeman [6
] found, some residents see gentrification as a potential positive for the city and others doubt whether the city would gentrify at all. One interviewee, a local artist who does graffiti, air paints shirts and shoes and more, sees gentrification as a sign that “the old days is [sic] coming back”. Another interviewee, a college-graduate Latina who grew up in North Camden and returned to the city, doubts Camden can actually gentrify. She had a hard time imagining the city going back to having white people or middle-class people in it—again making explicit the link between gentrification and race. Similarly, an African-American staffer at Camden School District argued that education, housing, and other sectors “fits in lock step” with a gentrification strategy, but argued that it was “too early to tell” if that strategy was working. Also, an administrator with the Charter Management Organization with several new schools in Camden described being listed in a real estate magazine as a good school one of the organization’s “prouder moments.”
However, positive and dubious beliefs about gentrification in Camden reflect a minority of the themes that emerged in our findings. The majority of interviewees, public documents, and observations conveyed a general anxiety about the implications of gentrification on residents. A Latino leader of a development nonprofit says he worried that everyone wants to attract artists and “yuppie professionals”, but that existing residents would not be included. We witnessed a similar fear at a meeting between Camden Churches Organized for People and Cooper’s Ferry Partnerships, a local nonprofit deeply involved with local development. There, a Camden pastor confronted a Cooper’s Ferry employee about gentrification. Similarly, at a meeting at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital regarding rumors of the use of eminent domain (discussed further below), activists used the specter of gentrification as a way to rally action against a proposal for a Promise Zone in the community.
This fear of gentrification and displacement is at the center of Camden discussions about development, and yet, Camden has experienced few of the hallmark elements of gentrification thus far in its development. Downtown Camden, buoyed by the presence of Rutgers-Camden University, has seen a subtle increase in the rate of occupancy at the Victor Lofts—the city’s flagship market rate apartment complex and some of the only market-rate housing in the city. Housing prices have seen slight increases in the neighborhoods closest to the university and hospital, but both areas still have vacant homes and are relatively cheaper than both the markets in nearby Philadelphia, PA, and the surrounding suburbs. With only 5% white residents, there has been no marked increase in the number of white residents [23
]. So why is there so much fear of gentrification in the city, and what are the consequences of that fear?
4.2. Gentrification as Exclusion and Unwelcomeness
When residents describe their fears of gentrification, they do not describe them only in terms of displacement through housing. They also point to the possibility that new development becomes what Anderson [7
] describes as “white space”. The creation of white space is distinctive from exclusionary displacement or displacement pressure in that it can be an end unto itself—where displacement refers largely to having to move out of the area, or in the case of displacement pressure, the signs that in the future it will be necessary to move. Instead, we see residents worried that new development may be exclusionary towards them, they may be unwelcome in these new white spaces.
Often, this is a key element of what is being expressed in Camden resident’s fears of gentrification. For example, one of the city’s African-American activists and a long-time environmental champion took a particularly nuanced stance. He argued that the city needs a “new class of folks”, but the political strategy being used to attract them is antagonistic towards residents. His words echo Freeman’s [6
] (p. 196) finding that “if anything, gentrification might be more aptly described as repressive and restrictive in the way that it narrowed the range of acceptable behaviors for some long-term residents”.
Activist Vida Neil, who built her reputation as an activist by creating viral videos on Facebook, explains in one such video that politicians were creating a “bubble city,” or a city within a city. She contends the “bubble city” is being created for other residents and employees who worked at local universities, hospitals, or any of the businesses recently recruited to build corporate headquarters in the city. This reference to a “bubble city” is indicative of a spatial component to gentrification that identifies urban space as “unwelcome” to natives when investment happens. New development is often reflective of Anderson’s white space. Slater [5
] might consider this displacement pressure; it may be a signal that residents will be displaced in the future. Marcuse [4
] might consider it exclusionary displacement, in which residents do not have access to new build in neighborhoods in the city. Yet residents often describe it not in terms of future impact on housing or in terms of being excluded from living in areas of the city. They describe it in terms of being physically excluded from the “bubble city”. Such exclusion may be from the physical spaces, facilities, and resources as well.
We find that this physical exclusion is a critical component of residential fear of gentrification. Our research found a myriad of examples of gentrification intersecting with such exclusion from urban space that residents framed in terms of unwelcomeness in white spaces. Residents complained of subtle messages in developed areas that tell residents they are not the target audience of development and are not welcome there. These messages leave residents with an attitude that such spaces exist for gentrifiers. Consequently, residents neglect to use these spaces, much less live in them.
Sometimes, the preference for new middle-class residents over existing residents was explicit. A staffer from the Cooper Foundation (the foundation wing of the local hospital) gave a tour to Rutgers masters students and specifically indicated that new investment was designed for them. An excerpt from our field notes captures the sentiment:
“He seemed to make his presentation a direct pitch to the students to move into the neighborhood. He talked up a forthcoming CNN piece about a family that moved into the neighborhood (with 6 kids) specifically to go to [the new local charter school]. He talked about nurses and doctors moving into the neighborhood, and mentioned that now there was a school for ‘your’ kids to go to if you moved to the neighborhood.”
That CNN special focused on a new family moving into the Cooper Plaza neighborhood highlighting that the school was a potential magnet for people considering moving to the city [32
A group calling itself the Camden Social Club—largely new homeowners in the Cooper Plaza neighborhood surrounding Cooper Hospital, and one of the few middle-class neighborhoods in the city—met at a downtown bar and heard a similar message from Camden Mayor Dana Redd. In her speech, the mayor highlighted that the city was creating “housing for those of our peer group”. Such messages by key politicians and institutions are not just recruitment pitches to middle-class families considering moving to Camden. They are also clear signs to existing residents that these middle-class families are the reason for development, and that political structures have explicitly decided to help these middle-class families, though in this case the message was less specifically racial as the vast majority of the homeowners and the mayor herself were African-American.
Such an approach can also be built into physical infrastructure and local policy. The waterfront and surrounding Cooper Grant neighborhood, the site of much of the investment in the early 2000s, is an example of how “unwelcomeness” is built subtly into investment. The aquarium, which received significant public investment over its history, has used an anti-loitering device that makes high-pitched sounds to keep youth from congregating in the space in front of the aquarium. The device is clearly audible along a stretch of the public, waterfront park. A curfew for those under 18 is enforced along the waterfront, and residents have long complained of high parking prices. The result is residents receive a clear message: this space is designed to protect visitors to waterfront sites from Camden residents. Because of the surrounding communities’ sharp segregation, the unwelcomeness is often visible in starkly racial terms. The waterfront is white space. It is not designed for the residents themselves.
After waterfront concerts or fireworks shows, police actively block off streets to keep tourists from driving into North Camden—another manifestation of policy demarking what is white space and what is not. At local Cooper Grant Neighborhood Association meetings, the city’s whitest neighborhood, police routinely tout their anonymous tip line and encourage residents to call the police if they notice anything out of the ordinary. Sadly, such claims intersect with race and class assumptions. In one such incident, a local resident called the cops on a young African-American child playing in the neighborhood. The child had accidentally invaded a white space and he was not welcome. A teacher and activist asserts that policing is prevalent in the “waterfront, down by the aquarium, [and] the Camden business district”, but that there is a “deliberate understaffing of Camden’s [other] neighborhoods.” The Camden County NAACP made public records requests and found something similar; that during the city’s most violent summer (2012, the year in which the city had a record 67 murders) significant police resources were reassigned to protect concertgoers on the waterfront, despite there not being a single murder on the waterfront that year [33
Even residents inclined to see gentrification as a glass half-full note how they can be excluded in current efforts to develop the city. A young Latino man working in an auto shop is more positive about the downtown development; he calls the growth of “white people” in the Cooper Grant a “good disease.” However, he mentions that the new police force, which is significantly whiter and has more residents from farther outside the city, treats Camden residents with deep skepticism. “This is Camden”, he says, “everybody is guilty until proven innocent”. One local resident, an accomplished lawyer in the city, talks about the positive aspects of Campbell’s Soup choice to build its headquarters in the city, but pointed out that the company’s corporate campus is completely isolated. Indeed, the corporate offices include a fence around the facility and a shuttle from public transportation sites so its employees do not have to walk in Camden, and an internal cafeteria so that employees do not need to venture into the city for lunch. Adam Woods, a small business owner in Camden and former employee of Campbell’s Soup, reports that once he and another employee walked across the street for food from a local restaurant. When he returned to the Campbell’s headquarters, his co-workers were waiting to see if he had made it back without incident. The shuttles long-used by Campbell’s employees are increasingly popular in downtown Camden, where local businesses and Rutgers-Camden University have partnered on a shuttle system that requires either a corporate or student ID to use. This essentially creates a parallel transportation system that is designed to protect those working in Camden from walking in the city, and actively excludes Camden residents from new resources as the city develops.
Similarly, a blog post by Gayle Christiansen [35
], a Camden resident and an executive board member of the Cooper Grant Neighborhood Association, exposes how assumptions about the city are integrated into urban design and weaponized to exclude residents. The post describes a meeting with Liberty Property Trust, the recipient of a billion-dollar tax subsidy to develop the waterfront. When asked about jobs for Camden residents, the developer’s first response was to insist that residents would need to take drug tests. The meeting also focused on providing a shuttle for the “hypothetical 26-year-old female employee” commuting to the city, so that she did not have to walk the five blocks from a transit center to the planned high rises. Here, the perception of Camden residents from the developer of being something to be protected from, not connected to, has implications for the viability of businesses and the walkability of the neighborhood. Which spaces are white and which spaces are not gets mapped onto the design and policies of downtown institutions.
Residents pick up on these signals. They coalesce into an opinion that such investment is not designed for existing residents. They believe new developments are designed with fear of existing residents in mind. The design strategy is to isolate new development from existing residents to make middle-class whites feel comfortable and safe. It is to create white spaces. Vida Neil, in her “bubble city” video, states it plainly. “They’re not building it for us”. The Latina educator mentioned above sees the development as for “rich little white kids”. A mixed-race Camden resident in his late 20s, with both African-American and Latino heritage, sees investment as “a way to keep the waterfront area beautified for tourists and to make that the staple of Camden”. Though some residents feel new investments are made for newcomers, others feel it is all for show and that gentrification is not happening at all. This trend reflects the wider movement towards “disneyfication” of cities [20
]. The headline of an article on the movement of Subaru’s headquarters into the Campbell’s Soup complex captures the same sentiment, calling the development a “city within a city” [36
]. Cities are increasingly seen as tourist hubs and playgrounds for those with money and without children. As cities cater to this audience, they create stark divides across communities, especially those racial and ethnic minorities who have long lived in the city. White spaces lead to “unwelcomeness” felt by residents of color.
Those divides are felt in Camden. A local leader of the charter school movement, and former Camden resident, dismissed talk of gentrification, describing the changes being made as not a part of “real Camden”. He argues that he “has to sell that shit [Camden’s revitalization] every day”, but that it is “in no way close to reality.” He says “I’ve seen the trees get planted, the sidewalks redone, I’ve seen the construction. Tell me when the nurses from Cooper [the local hospital] actually live here”. He purposely drives himself down Broadway Street, the once-thriving commercial corridor now struggling with drug trade and blight, to remind himself of the “reality of what Camden really is”. That duality is at the heart of how Camden residents view neighborhoods targeted for investment and gentrification. They see them as the “other”. These new spaces are so set apart that residents do not even consider them part of the city.
While areas hoping to attract middle-class families to the city are seeing new investment, existing neighborhoods have a long history as locations for unwanted facilities or businesses. This makes the dichotomy between white spaces and the rest of the community even sharper. According to one activist, there has been “a regional effort to systematically and diabolically put all their shit into the city of Camden.” The most visible example of this phenomena is the Waterfront South neighborhood.
Already burdened with the twisted legacy of forgotten industry, Waterfront South has two Superfund Sites (highly polluted areas needing long-term intervention) and over a dozen brownfields [37
]. Yet, a bevy of unpopular county facilities were built in the neighborhood. The neighborhood is home to the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority, where the county’s human waste is processed, to a trash-to-steam facility, to a steel crushing industry and a cement factory [24
] (p. 171), [39
]. The result of such an industrial footprint is that 33% of residents in the neighborhood suffer from asthma [38
]. Waterfront South is the most vivid example of a neighborhood excluded, but just outside the city center there is a county prison, and from 1985 to 2009 there was a second prison located in North Camden [41
]. Many of the county’s homeless and drug abuse services are also located in Camden. One activist contends that even the drug trade is pushed into Camden from the county, a claim supported by recent analyses of drug overdoses and drug arrests [37
], which show that the vast majority of those purchasing drugs in the city come from the suburbs. More recently, a methadone clinic has been moved from downtown to a south Camden neighborhood adjacent to Waterfront South.
These issues convey a message to Camden residents that the parts of the city where they live will not receive investments and that residents are not welcome in parts of the city that do. That message crystalizes and results in an avoidance of areas that see investment by existing Camden residents.
One young Latino man who grew up in North Camden is now a professional in the education sector and works downtown. Despite growing up just blocks from the waterfront park, he never visited the waterfront as a child growing up in the city, saying he “never made it to this side”—a reference to the Ben Franklin Bridge that separate his North Camden neighborhood from the downtown and waterfront only a few blocks away. It was only when he returned to the city as part of “professional Camden” that he even visited the downtown and waterfront. Another resident of North Camden who works at a prominent nonprofit in the city describes a similar phenomenon, saying that the locally owned Camden Children’s Garden is the only place residents felt welcome on the waterfront. In the rest of the development there, residents “don’t see people who look like you,” and that “if you don’t see anything nice where you live, this is a foreign land.” They are white spaces. Camden residents also complain about the prohibitive cost of parking on the waterfront, which raises money for the city when suburbanites come to concerts or the aquarium, but makes a waterfront walk cost-prohibitive for any Camden resident outside of the downtown—a complaint that local non-profit Cooper’s Ferry Partnership heard and addressed in the building of a new North Camden park on the waterfront. Others pointed to the new police force as a sign that Camden residents are unwelcome in developing parts of the city.
The result is that residents are hesitant to take advantage of developing neighborhoods, and the perception is that increased investment in neighborhoods around largely white institutions, paired with unwanted county facilities and industry in surrounding and existing neighborhoods, makes Camden “a city for others” [30
]. Even residents who eventually move to downtown see it as a betrayal of their roots. A young Latino woman who grew up in East Camden, came back to live with her mom after going to school, and now lives in the Victor Luxury Lofts on the waterfront, is “sometimes ashamed” about where she’s living. She wonders if living in the Victor is “selling out” and calls it “its own separate world, different than the world that the people of Camden live in”. These gentrifying neighborhoods are understood as “bubble cities” not the “real Camden”.
Given these observations, we argue that before widespread displacement takes place in areas targeted for gentrification, signals (sometimes explicit, sometimes subtle) are sent to residents of the city, largely people of color, that they are not welcomed in new development. The result is that residents are aware that the new residents and suburban customers are well-treated in the waterfront and downtown areas while they are not well-treated in those neighborhoods, and their own neighborhoods are often ignored or excluded. They choose not to live in or visit neighborhoods with new investment. At the extremes, this new development is not even understood as part of the city—described as not a part of real Camden, as a city within a city, or a bubble city.
4.3. How Unwelcomeness Leads to Protest of Neighborhood Investment
Residents’ unwelcomeness in new development has political impact. Even in Camden, where the housing market has not risen to the point of much displacement, repeated experiences of being excluded from new development in public and private spaces results in the same type of deep cynicism that Freeman [6
] reports with more traditional gentrification. That cynicism expresses itself as opposition to development, even when new development may be in under-resourced locations in the city. We look at two cases of such opposition: one surrounding the city’s application for a federal Promise Neighborhood designation, the second surrounding the demolition and rebuilding of the city’s flagship high school. In both cases, the city received major influxes of resources for new developments and residents rallied against these developments out of fear that their communities would not benefit.
The first example is Camden’s receipt of a Promise Zone designation, a Promise Neighborhood planning grant and eventually a Promise Neighborhood designation from the federal government. The Promise Zone designation gave Camden a competitive advantage over other cities seeking federal grants, and the Promise Neighborhood planning grant provided $500,000 towards a planning effort to receive a more lucrative Promise Neighborhood award to cover the Cooper Plaza, Lanning Square, Bergen Square, Liberty Park and Centerville neighborhoods. When the city applied for a second designation, that of Promise Neighborhood, a letter went to residents explaining that their homes may end up being taken through eminent domain. Politicians insisted it was a pro forma letter that did not reflect actual plans to use eminent domain but was required by the grant process, but within a week, local activists had scheduled two information sessions at Our Lady of Lourdes to organize opposition to the application. Approximately 600 residents attended each organizing meeting, with many fearful that they would lose their homes. Activists threatened to sue and local politicians tried to assure residents that there were no plans to use eminent domain. Quickly, city council incumbents, feeling pressured by an election challenger using the Promise Neighborhood application as a wedge issue in the election, came out against the development proposal. Despite the opposition, the proposal went forward, and four years after the initial planning grant was awarded, Camden received $6,000,000 as a Promise Neighborhood. That funding now provides a variety of cradle-to-college services including parenting classes in these neighborhoods. While the program has struggled at times to reach deeply into the community with its resources, there have not been conflicts with local community nor displacement.
Similarly, after years of waiting, the State Development Agency (SDA) committed $
132.6 million to redevelop the famous Camden High facility [43
]. In 2005, at the end of the Governor Jon Corzine’s administration, the school district was promised funds to renovate Camden High along with funds to rebuild the collapsed Lanning Square School. When Gov. Chris Christie came into office, he froze all SDA spending, eventually converting the Lanning Square school into the first Renaissance school, and promising $
50 million to Camden High. Later, that number would be increased to $
132.6 million. However, residents protested the decision to demolish and rebuild the school. There were a host of reasons for that skepticism, some grounded in historical preservation, others in the fine print of what to do with students while the new facility was being constructed. However, the largest public statement against the new school was made, again, by Keith Benson [44
], who argued in an op-ed that the school was being built as part of a wider plan to redevelop and gentrify the neighborhood of Parkside.
What is striking about these two examples is that one of the longstanding complaints in Camden has been that there has been no investment in neighborhoods such as Parkside, Centerville and others. In Katz’s [45
] investigation of Camden’s waterfront development, activist Luis Galindez sharply criticized the public funds going towards a waterfront aquarium telling The Inquirer, “We got two and three families living in one house and fish in tanks by themselves…we could really have used that money.” Indeed, one of the primary complaints of the state’s 2001 investment of $
175 million in the city was that too high a proportion of money went to downtown institutions, including Rutgers University, Cooper University Hospital, and the aquarium, not neighborhoods with crumbling infrastructure, and yet, when a decade later resources were invested beyond those boundaries, there was still local pushback.
This pushback is clearly linked to displacement pressure but also to the potential that residents end up “unwelcome” in new development. The new Camden High building is a particularly strong case—residents fear that the new school will be transitioned to a charter school and be less welcoming and rooted in the surrounding community. Similarly, residents worry that the Promise Neighborhood will turn their community into a white space and they will be unwelcome as a result. As Freeman [6
] finds, these fears extend even to individuals unlikely to be displaced, and in neighborhoods unlikely to face displacement but we argue that these fears—and the political opposition that grows out of them—are also related to more daily interactions with institutions and new development that actively exclude residents. Residents feel unwelcome in white spaces, and see how new development caters to whiteness. Displacement is only one component causing cynicism about development. Residents who are unable to access the waterfront, youth actively targeted by a new police force, anti-loitering devices discouraging use of the waterfront park by the residents, and beyond breed frustration in the community and a perception that “they’re not building it for us”.