Gillette, Howard Jr.: Camden After the Fall: Decline and Renewal in a Post-Industrial City.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: High, Steven
Pub Date: 01/01/2006
Publication: Name: Canadian Journal of Urban Research Publisher: Institute of Urban Studies Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2006 Institute of Urban Studies ISSN: 1188-3774
Issue: Date: Wntr, 2006 Source Volume: 15 Source Issue: 2
Topic: NamedWork: Camden After the Fall: Decline and Renewal in a Post-Industrial City (Book)
Persons: Reviewee: Gillette, Howard, Jr.
Accession Number: 167253623
Full Text: Gillette, Howard Jr. Camden After the Fall: Decline and Renewal in a Post-Industrial City University of Pennsylvania, 2005. 323 pp. ISBN: 0812219686

Howard Gillette Jr. offers us an often fascinating account of how city and state governments have attempted to manage decline. Gillette uses the apt metaphor of trying to ascend a "down" escalator to describe the challenges faced by local addressing urban decline: How can the downward slide be halted or even reversed? And ultimately, what drives the "escalator" downward in the first place? To help answer these questions, the author examines closely three renewal strategies that were attempted in Camden, New Jersey.

Camden's postwar industrial economy held up well--until, that is, the 1960s, after which forty-eight per cent of the city's industrial jobs disappeared in a single decade. The diminished tax base threw the city into a prolonged financial crisis from which Camden has never recovered. In 2005, the city had a poverty rate of forty-four percent, one of the highest in the United States, and the "debris of disinvestment"--abandoned factories, gutted houses, empty lots--are apparent everywhere.

Deindustrialization has of course been the subject of intense scholarly interest in the United States. In the past decade, a number of important books have appeared that approach the subject from a variety of angles. Few, however, have adopted the urban history approach taken here. For Gillette, a prominent urban historian based at Rutgers, the problems faced in Camden were rooted in local politics and the discrepancy between the city's wealth and that of the suburbs. He is clearly influenced by the work of Thomas Sugrue, who argued that deep-seated racial prejudice--or white flight--was as important as capital disinvestment in the fall of Detroit. In identifying the origins of urban decline, however, Gillette goes much further in shifting attention from industrial decline to urban politics. The story of Camden's fall is thus presented as one of politically-induced urban decline, not deindustrialization. In this respect, Gillette adopts the "new regionalist" approach of Myron Orfield and David Rusk.

The book consists of nine chapters organized into four parts. Part I, "Shifting Fortunes", introduces us to the "old Camden" before delving into the economic and social crisis that plunged the city into crisis during the 1960s and 1970s. Next, "Shifting Power", tells us of the early (failed) efforts to "save" Camden from urban decline and the rising political clout of the suburbs. "Shifting Strategy" (the most inspired section of the book) examines three strategies to renew the city: downtown redevelopment, grassroots community organization, and court action. In part IV, "Shifting Prospects", Gillette concludes with thoughts on the politics of recovery and on the future of Camden.

According to the author, "every urban initiative of the past fifty years has been tried and tested in Camden" (p. 11). Unfortunately for residents, all of these renewal strategies have been found wanting.

First, local politicians attempted to renew the city by redeveloping the waterfront into an entertainment district. These efforts physically transformed the area and succeeded in drawing tourists and other visitors, but they failed to generate prosperity. Despite the huge public investment, only 150 full-time jobs were created by these developments. Camden needed new residents, not visitors.

For Gillette, the second strategy of renewal based on "bottom-up" community development proved to be far more successful. Church-based community organizers formed the St. Joseph's Carpenters Society and sought to renew Camden one house at a time. In an attempt to get the housing market working again, houses were rehabilitated and sold for a nominal price to families who had completed homeownership training workshops. While Gillette is rightly impressed by these efforts, he does admit that these grassroots efforts "could not pull Camden up by its own bootstraps. The broader economic and political forces mustered against them were simply too great" (p. 168).

The third strategy examined here was based on court action. Ordinary people, infused with an environmental sensibility, resisted efforts to locate a cement factory and a garbage incinerator in the city. Court action was also essential in forcing the suburbs to take on their "fair share" of social housing. The legal system's ability to de-concentrate poverty, however, proved to be limited.

Although Gillette finds that there was a great deal of continuity in the urban renewal efforts of the state and local governments between 1960 and 2000, he suggests that the bottom-up efforts of community groups were more successful than was the wholesale redevelopment of blighted areas into self-contained middle class colonies.

Faith-based organizations alone, Gillette believes, have the moral authority and organizational structure to turn things around. While I don't wish to dispute this point, it does beg the question of whether community activists are in a position to do this. After all, Gillette himself admits earlier in the book that these grassroots efforts were incapable of counteracting the downward slide. One wonders, then, if there are not other trans-local models of renewal that might hold the key to reversing the direction of the "down" escalator of urban decline.

Steven High

Canada Research Chair in Public History

Concordia University
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.