In an appearance at the Southern New Jersey Chamber of Commerce’s #WeChoose event, George Norcross bizarrely stated that, “current city [Camden] homeowners, Norcross said, will sell their homes as property values rise, building their own wealth and moving to the suburbs” and “I think Camden in 10 or 15 years will almost virtually be a brand-new city, newly constructed almost in its entirety, whether it’s industrial, residential or commercial.” Quite simply, those quotes represent a misunderstanding of both what is beneficial for Camden residents, and also the potential role that New Jersey’s cities can play in a state desperate for more urban innovation.
First, the misunderstanding: the reason many Camden residents cannot move to the suburbs is partially about a lack of wealth. But it’s also a story of discrimination. Communities see residents move out when people of color move in, and it’s only conscious organizing that can avoid a repeat of the devastating white flight that caused people of color to lose so much value in their homes in the 60s and 70s. It’s not just a story of “moving to the suburbs” mean people of color get wealthy. It’s that when they do move, discrimination often limits their ability to build wealth. A recent documentary, titled The New Neighbors, gets at the dynamic with a heartwarming story of Pennsauken, NJ:
Just as critically, “new build” in cities has its own drawbacks. I suspect that part of the reason New Jersey struggles to keep its millennials goes beyond affordability. New Jersey’s cities have failed to participate in the same center city renaissance seen in cities throughout the country. Because of New Jersey’s history of segregation — with middle-class suburban communities utilizing Home Rule to price out people of color — cities are highly racialized and have fewer resources. The potpourri of vibrant economic activity, affordable housing at the fringe of center cities, and cultural institutions that are driving the urban renaissance in cities throughout the country is not as common in New Jersey.
Efforts to “build new” miss that existing infrastructure is critical for cities to take off. Cities need affordable housing, cultural institutions, and quirky local businesses in order to attract business and employees, but also a host of existing residents, artists, students and more that enable basic urbanism to work. Cities need people from different paths of life, not uniform office workers, to make sure streets or parks are safe and used throughout the day. In this way, the future of New Jersey’s cities is tied at the hip to communities of color that have been segregated and discriminated against. Displacing those residents, their businesses and their culture is both morally bankrupt and bad planning. “New” buildings and businesses do not provide the bubbling up experience of a city with jewels to uncover, but rather the type of sterile, chain brand-filled experiences already common in suburban malls. It would be a shame, as the suburbs seek to urbanize their main streets to make for walkable commercial corridors, for Camden to replace its existing corridors and the businesses that have stuck it out here through difficult years with new build that prices out these small businesses that both attract shoppers and employee locals.
There is an opportunity here. Creating new development that includes affordable housing and supports local business has the potential to both create thriving and quirky commercial corridors and improve the quality of life of existing residents / improve the financial outlook of businesses that hire locally. But that vision can’t be that existing residents will cash out and move to the ‘burbs (How many residents own their homes? And how many more would be concerned about discrimination in the suburbs?), while supporting new build of the type that is unaffordable for small business, unaffordable for millennials, and repeats the mistakes of South Jersey’s suburban development. We need to do better by our city residents, and New Jersey’s economy needs our cities to be more in order to thrive.