Secrets of A Turnaround

Can you turn around a place whose name is synonymous with urban blight? Surprisingly, yes. Example: Camden, New Jersey, the played-out factory town across the river from Philadelphia.
October 2003
By Otis White  |  Contributor
President of Civic Strategies Inc.

Can you turn around a place whose name is synonymous with urban blight? Surprisingly, yes. Example: Camden, New Jersey, the played-out factory town across the river from Philadelphia. Camden always had more assets than most people, even residents, gave it credit for. It was an easy commute to downtown Philly and was served by a decent public transit system. There was a branch of Rutgers University near the city center. And it had a riverfront location. In the past 40 years, however, Camden became best known for blight, corruption and mass exodus--losing a third of its population and nearly half its housing stock. But Camden's coming back. The turnaround started small and with a lot of government intervention. The city focused on both the riverfront, where the state placed the New Jersey Aquarium and helped locate an entertainment center, and a historic area called Fairview, where the state government pumped in $40 million for acquisition and housing renovation. Now, officials say, a wave of market-driven investments has started. Take the Cooper-Grant neighborhood: Two-thirds of the 90 houses there were vacant 20 years ago; today only five are empty--and they're being renovated. One owner bought her triplex last year for $155,000; the previous owner had paid $4,000 for it in 1983.


Almost as surprising on the urban-renaissance front: Civic life in disaster- and scandal-plagued Miami is approaching regular-city normal. The downtown area is being revitalized, politicians are more or less working together, racial tensions are moderating. The city government, which was placed under state financial oversight in 1996, is living within its means and delivering reasonably good services. Reward: 12,000 more people moved to Miami from 2000 to 2002 than moved out, the greatest population increase in more than 20 years. "It's kind of like when a [nightclub] gets cool," said one longtime civil rights activist. "It's hard to put your finger on why a club gets popular, but you know it. You feel it and you hear it. That's kind of like Miami." Others agree. Hispanic magazine recently rated the city the best in the country for Hispanics to live in, just four years after ranking it 24th. Mayor Manny Diaz says this is just the beginning. "I think the demographics of the city are going to change substantially," he said. "I think it's going to be a younger crowd. And obviously the economics are going up because [we're] bringing back the middle class and some upper class."


Although cities are rebounding, make no mistake: We are still a suburban nation. The latest Census Bureau data, which tallied the movement of people between counties from 1995 to 2000, show that far more people moved from city to suburb than the other way. In Denver, for instance, about twice as many moved out as moved in. Cleveland's Cuyahoga County lost 68,000 residents during the period, about half of them to more distant suburbs. Some city watchers say they were surprised that the exodus to the suburbs remained so strong. "I had been theorizing all along that transportation problems were causing people to want to return to the inner city," said an official who works with Colorado counties. Cleveland officials were more circumspect. "We have to realize our limitations. Cuyahoga County cannot be all things to all people," said one county official, adding that he remained convinced that many who leave for the suburbs will return when they tire of long commutes. "We have to make sure that when people are ready to return, we have a vibrant downtown and inner- ring suburbs to offer them," he said.


Want your child to do well in school? Then get involved in his education, teachers say: Attend PTA meetings, volunteer to read to the kindergarten class, meet regularly with the teachers and make sure Junior does his homework. But this is easier said than done, since many parents are pressed for time. Among low-income families, there's another barrier: Parents are often intimidated by schools. Still, getting parents involved in schools is so important that New York's school system is hiring full-time "parent coordinators" for each school. Cost for 1,200 coordinators: $43 million a year. What will they do? Three things: Supply information to parents to help them be more effective enablers of education, encourage parents to get involved in the school and be an advocate for parents with the principal and staff. Sounds good, but there is concern that some principals might hire someone basically to be a barrier between them and the parents. "That would very much subvert the idea of what they parent coordinator was going to be," said the director of an education advocacy group. Even Superintendent Joel Klein admits he can't predict how much the coordinators will increase something as hard to measure as parental involvement. "What I can do is create the opportunities," he said. "And that's what I think we have done."