Contrarian: Tear Down Camden!

If liberals and conservatives both think eminent domain isn’t the way to save New Jersey’s poorest city, you know it’s the right thing to do.

Cramer Hill is hardly the worst neighborhood you’ve ever seen. It’s not even the worst neighborhood in Camden. But Cramer Hill is the home of the only bridge to Petty’s Island, the 400-acre island in the Delaware that is the last undeveloped scrap of land for miles around. That accident of geography has made Cramer Hill the starting point for Camden’s ambitious long-term plan to regenerate itself — and ground zero for one of the largest urban renewal projects in America.

A North Carolina development firm called Cherokee Investment Partners is willing to bet $1.2 billion that Cramer Hill can once again become a desirable place to live. Cherokee wants to replace the post-industrial wasteland along Cramer Hill’s Delaware River front with new homes, parks, a marina and a golf course, all with a Petty’s Island view. Unfortunately, about a third of Cramer Hill’s shabby brick and wood-frame houses stand in the way of this grand vision. Some 600 properties need to be condemned and demolished to make way for Cherokee.

The wrecking balls would already be swinging if the whole project weren’t stalled in the courts. Despite the city’s efforts to buy out and relocate 1,200 families in the area, a lot of Cramer Hillers want to stay. They just don’t think their neighborhood is so bad, which is kind of like saying a blown tire is only flat on the bottom. South Jersey Legal Services has taken up their cause, claiming, liberally, that Cramer Hill isn’t a blighted ghetto, but a “diverse” neighborhood that is “almost suburban in appearance.” (Mind you, Cramer Hill is where three boys suffocated last June in the trunk of an abandoned Toyota that didn’t look particularly out of place in a weedy backyard.)

To declare eminent domain and take possession of some 50 blocks of homes, vacant lots and businesses, Camden must claim a “public use” in handing over the cleared land to Cherokee. This should be a no-brainer, since Camden is flat broke and in state receivership. The project would double the city’s entire annual take in real estate taxes.

Instead, an unholy alliance of eggheaded liberals and conservatives — educated people who would rather gargle Cooper River water than wager a nickel buying Cramer Hill real estate — are trying to change New Jersey eminent domain law, just to scratch their own perverse ideological itches. To Amy Goldsmith of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, Cramer Hill is a “stable neighborhood” that should be left alone, presumably to decline for another 40 years. To right-wing androids like Inquirer columnist Jonathan Last, the right to private property is inviolable, even if the U.S. Constitution states emphatically that it is not.

Both viewpoints are stunningly divorced from Camden’s brutal day-to-day reality. Camden’s real estate market has fallen so low that only mass demolition can hope to revive it. But Camden suffers from the classic plight of the prisoner’s dilemma. So many ­Camdenites have grown dependent on its cheap, substandard housing that the city is increasingly made up of very poor people. Such a city, consisting entirely of failing neighborhoods, cannot afford to provide basic city services and will inevitably go broke, which Camden has.

The Cramer Hill plan calls for moving about one-third of the neighborhood’s population out of the blocks marked for demolition and into new subsidized housing either within the Cherokee development or elsewhere in Cramer Hill. Even these plans have run into legal problems. Last year, South Jersey Legal Services got a judge to block the demolition of about 30 Cramer Hill properties where 162 new units of affordable housing would have helped accommodate Cherokee evictees. The developer lost a $7 million state tax credit as a result, and another bit of hope for Camden’s renewal was extinguished.

That the right and left can each find reasons to promote the death spiral of an entire city is pretty horrifying. Soft-headed liberals would like to see ghetto conditions improve, but not too much, since any real growth in neighborhood reinvestment would risk forcing some of the poor to move away. They gaze upon Cramer Hill’s run-down firetraps and see affordable housing, though most of them would rather die than live there themselves.

For hard-hearted right-wingers in the ­property-rights movement, it’s not really their concern that killing the Cherokee deal would condemn Camden to its present fate — a hopelessly broken city unfit for the raising of children. As we have learned from Iraq, principled right-wing positions usually demand the sacrifice of other people’s children.

The more I go over the reams of materials and court filings, the more the battle for Cramer Hill looks like a creepy kind of unspoken class war. It is a war against the poor, waged by blinkered, college-educated elites with the meritocratic illusion that poor people must somehow deserve to live in such awful places. Whether they’re defending private property or sentimentalizing the plight of unfortunate evictees, the efforts of the right and left will have the same effect when Cherokee gets away: The city will remain a ghastly poorhouse. And how is that a good thing for all the Jonathan Lasts and Amy Goldsmiths out there? Well, they sure don’t want Cramer Hill’s dispossessed moving in next to them and sending their kids to the same schools. Would you?

Perhaps the saddest thing about Camden’s struggle to recover from 50 years of decline is that the planners and state overseers aren’t looking to turn Cramer Hill into Chestnut Hill. Their modest goal is to help the rest of Cramer Hill grow more like humble, mixed-income, mixed-race Pennsauken next door. Eminent domain is the very last thing of eminence that Camden has. Take it away, and the city has no future, nor do the 27,000 children currently growing up on its feral streets.

Which may be the point. Every region needs a few places for its marginally employed and chronically unemployed to go. The vile unspoken consensus in the battle for Cramer Hill is that such places should remain forever hopeless perditions where their kids can’t screw with our kids and all their social problems can fester and feed upon themselves. Reward the few with the moxie to make it out, and to hell with the rest of them. Seal the lid on these dying cities and neighborhoods tight enough, and on the drive home, you won’t have to smell the rot.