Can Chris Christie Claim Camden Victory?

New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie has been mentioned a lot as a possible Republican candidate for President in 2016. There are those who see him as a moderate Republican with a can-do demeanor, a chief executive from a crucial state in national politics. Others view him as an obnoxious bully who is more talk than achievement. An event that particularly tarnished his image is the BridgeGate Scandal of September 2013, a huge traffic-jam episode which pitted several New Jersey politicians against each other. While this particular episode, as well as his outbursts and arguments with hecklers at several public events, may hurt his presidential chances (and it is still in the news), he also touts his achievements in improving the Garden State, especially his demands for federal aid in the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation.

This summer I traveled throughout New Jersey and visited several cities, towns and suburbs. I observed cities such as Jersey City and Newark that are experiencing noticeable improvements, and there is a good deal of new construction and renovation going on in these two cities that have weathered many problems over the years. Paterson and Atlantic City have also had their share of problems, but have seen some improvement as well. While all four cities still have their share of crime, poverty and infrastructural woes (and some of these made the news during the summer and fall), they are still in much better shape than Camden.

Camden is a city that is need of a major overhaul. There are sections that feature appealing tourist attractions (the Aquarium, the baseball park, some publicized renovated buildings, etc.) but it is also home to much urban blight, unemployment and poverty. CampNmoreExShulsNJ 120

Camden was home to many businesses; few remain.
Camden was home to many businesses; few remain.

I drove around the Cooper Point, Lanning Square, Gateway and other neighborhoods that have frightful conditions. There are blocks full of buildings that are abandoned or marked with X’s (uninhabitable), and many streets feature overgrown, weedy plots where houses once stood. While there are certainly individual homes in decent shape, there is a large percentage of homes in poor to terrible shape. In the western section of Kaighn Avenue, I drove on small streets with rutted roads, the blacktop ripped up.

abandoned former glory
Abandoned former glory

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Where there used to be many vibrant factories, there are now disheveled and crumbling buildings. I know Camden natives (who now live elsewhere) who have told me about the many companies that moved out of Camden in the 1960s, and after that. Most of the middle-class families relocated when those companies and jobs left. Campbell’s Soup headquarters remains, but their big factory moved out.

Concurrent with the drastic economic decline has been the growth of poverty and crime in Camden. The total population has greatly decreased over the years. However, Governor Christie has made a few highly publicized efforts to aid Camden.

Or are they mostly for show?

Camden has seen some minor improvements, but a two-hour drive around the city leaves me with the impression that it is the worst-looking urban area in all of New Jersey. When I stopped by the bus station I saw homeless people, people nodding off from the effects of drugs or alcohol, a few people scuffling with each other. The nearby Dunkin’ Donuts was perhaps the crummiest looking branch of that chain that I have ever seen. Empty lots were strewn with garbage around here and elsewhere.

Yet there are sparks of life in Camden and I wouldn’t want anyone to give up on the city. For instance, the group Cure4Camden is a community-based violence intervention program that has seen positive results.

As well, I encountered friendly and helpful people in three different neighborhoods. I spoke with a family and a few other people who were all polite and kind, and one older man reminisced at length about a former synagogue that is now a church. Society is often ready to demonize a city such as Camden. Look at the developing renaissance in Detroit, for example. Can the same thing be stoked in Camden? And can possible presidential hopeful Christie claim Camden as a victory? Not yet. I do hope he is sincere in his efforts, even if he does not reach the White House.

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Ellen Levitt is the author of The Lost Synagogues of Brooklyn (2009), The Lost Synagogues of the Bronx and Queens (2011) and The Lost Synagogues of Manhattan (2013), all published by Avotaynu. She is a lifelong New Yorker, a veteran public school teacher, writer and photographer. Bird lover as well.