Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

An All-Too-True Fish Story

November 15th, 2010 · 9 Comments

You probably already knew that times were rough in Camden, New Jersey, but this photo essay really drives home the sad reality. In a part of the nation chock full of towns that have seen much better days, the former home of RCA Victor has become the poster child for all that can go wrong when an industrial base evaporates.

Yet the ordinary ebb and flow of economic activity isn’t wholly to blame for Camden’s demise. Local politicians deserve a share of the blame, as this story makes clear:

The state invested $175 million in Camden, but most of the money went to a few big projects — like expanding a hospital and an aquarium, and building a law school — that were backed by leaders of the Democratic political machine that runs South Jersey. Much less went into neighborhood improvements like removing abandoned houses that shelter drug users and rats.

The aquarium project is a particularly sore point in Camden, as it was botched in truly ludicrous fashion. The original managers, under pressure from politicians to show Garden State pride in exchange for public funding, elected to have the aquarium highlight species that are native to New Jersey—a rather ugly lot, to be sure. (Over 90 percent of the tank space was reserved for native fish.) That decision spelled doom for hopes that the New Jersey State Aquarium might revive the troubled city:

For years the accepted wisdom about the mad public love for fish under glass meant that anybody could build an aquarium, and people would turn out in the millions. Then the New Jersey State Aquarium tampered with the formula by specializing in local fish.

There are a lot of brown fish in New Jersey waters. Brown flounder. Brown cod. Even much of the water is dun. The aquarium almost single-handedly brought down the national statistics for aquarium attendance and worse, it failed to prove the engine of redevelopment envisioned for this impoverished city across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.

“I mean, fish in New Jersey are not very interesting, they are kind of drab looking,” Wanda M. Bullion, a librarian in the Camden schools, said. “The Nintendo generation wants color, excitement — you have to get their attention.”

The aquarium did shift gears, but it never fulfilled its early promise. No longer a state property, it is now on its second private-sector owner, the same Georgia-based company that operates Dollywood. That means the state never came close to enjoying a decent return on its $52 million initial investment, not to mention the tens of millions more it dumped into renovations upon realizing that visitors didn’t want to see flukes and flounders. And, of course, the aquarium never did become the anchor for a planned $500 million waterfront improvement project that the optimists in Trenton once envisioned.

There’s no telling whether that $52 million-plus outlay might have helped reverse Camden’s fortunes if it had been spent more wisely. But I’m sure the city’s citizens wish they could find out.


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9 Comments so far ↓

  • scottstev

    Michael Moore did a great segment on the aquarium during his network television show. Pols love grand ribbon cutting home-run solutions when a lot of singles would accomplish much more.

    Penn’s Landing across the river from the Aquarium is just as barren. I joked with my resident Camden expert that Penn’s Landing looks like something Richmond would have tried.

  • Brian

    My father-in-law, a former mayor of one of NJ’s other largest cities, once summed up Camden’s troubles by noting that one of its biggest redevelopment projects–one on waterfront property no less–was a prison. It’s a sad and troubled place.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    I’d love to read a book about Camden’s rise and fall. Part of what makes the story so sad, of course, is that the city was once really prosperous–a high-tech boomtown of the early 20th century, on account of RCA. There’s history and housing stock, not to mention that key location just across the river from Philly. You have to think there’s potential there, but just not a lot of imagination.

  • scottstev

    Brendan, to amplify Brian’s point, imagine SE DC being cut off and spun off and left to fend for itself. That’s basically the relationship between Philly and Camden. Geographically, it’s tiny and is essentially linked to Philadelphia, yet has no access to any of the functional parts of the local economy.

    I’m not sure just how it got to where it is now (RCA and Campbell’s Soup were the big employers in the Industrial Era), but in trying to recover, Camden faces major structural obstacles, that imagination and even clean government would not be sufficient to overcome. Jonathan Kozol’s “Amazing Grace” has a heartbreaking chapter on Camden.

    Camden’s relationship to its relatively wealthy neighbors Merchantville and Cherry Hill is equally troubled.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @scottstev: Thanks for the reply. I should look up that chapter in Kozol’s book.

    I guess you comment makes me wonder what, exactly, is to be done about Camden. Despite all of its troubles, it still has one important thing going for it: location. In terms of dying cities located on the outskirts of metropolises, Camden certainly has a lot more going for it than, say, Gary, Indiana. (Granted, Philly isn’t Chicago, but I think the point is still valid.) So you have to think that there’s still some potential there.

    But, yeah, being in a totally different state from the city it “orbits” has to be rough on development. And nothing can be done until the security situation gets sorted out. Based on that NYT story that I cite in the post, looks like the police department is in for major layoffs—not a good sign.

  • Brian

    @scottstev: I wasn’t aware that Camden figured in Kozol’s book. That’s a book I’ve long meant to read but haven’t gotten to yet.
    @Brendan: It would be interesting to read detailed account of Camden’s sad history. As a Jersey native, I find myself comparing Camden to Newark. I imagine Newark was in way worse shape after the 1967 riots. That’s a guess, though. I was born nine years after the riots, and I have lived my whole life well north of Camden. But at this point Camden has a much worse reputation.
    Newark is regarded as having recovered in some respects, but I wonder if the average resident of Newark is much better off than his or her counterpart in Camden. Most of Newark’s redevelopment projects– the Performing Arts Center, the minor league baseball stadium, the Prudential Center where the Devils play–are concentrated in one neighborhood. They give people a reason to visit, but I don’t know what effect they’ve had on the city at large.
    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Brian: If you haven’t seen it already, I highly recommend Street Fight, a documentary about Cory Booker’s first run for mayor of Newark. It makes a pretty strong case that the city’s politics are broken, though it doesn’t go to great lengths to explain how things got that way. But as a good friend of mine once remarked, how could it be that the long-time mayor of Newark (Sharpe James) owned a yacht? Ridiculous.

  • Brian

    I haven’t seen Street Fight, though I’ve heard good things about it. Thanks for the rec. I will definitely check it out.
    James was almost too much to believe when he was mayor, and I didn’t even know about the yacht!
    I just saw this article about St. Louis passing Camden as the most dangerous U.S. city.

  • scottstev

    @Brian, I just noticed that ranking myself. And I would agree that a low-income resident is probably just as bad off in Newark or Jersey City as in Camden.

    To correct my previous post, the Kozol book that has a Camden chapter is “Savage Inequalities” not “Amazing Grace.”