One of New Jersey’s most notoriously dangerous cities is looking to clean up its image.
In May 2013, Camden’s 141-year-old police force came under county control and was revamped in a bid to make one of the most crime-ridden U.S. cities safer. That appears to already be working. In the past year, homicides declined 20 percent along with an overall drop in crime.
Indeed, a study released in 2012 in an urban economics journal reinforced the significant relationship between changes in crime rates and property values. In Camden, there have already been several initiatives to initiate this shift. For instance, realtors cite a boom in the healthcare industry within the city, with schools like Rowan University expanding in the downtown area. In addition, the city started programs like the “Live Where You Work” initiative to offer economic assistance to working-class home buyers.
While the latest American Community Survey lists the median value of owner-occupied units in the city of Camden at $90,000, a recent search on Trulia.com showed much lower property values for vacant homes. One listing was priced at $19,900 for a 1,600 square-foot, single-family unit in Parkside, located in the eastern part of the city.
However, just a few miles north in the up-and-coming downtown area known as Cooper Grant, the situation is almost Brooklyn-esque: a 1,600 square-foot apartment costs renters over $2,000 a month. This central waterfront area is located near the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, which connects to downtown Philadelphia in 3.2 miles.
“Ever since the police officers got their beats, their presence has definitely been more visible,” said Jeff Pierson, a real estate agent at Dennis J. Zisa & Associates.
Pierson added that the real estate market in Camden is doing better since the restructuring of the police force a year ago, although he couldn’t quantify just how much it has improved because some of the negotiations with investors are still pending.
But turning Camden around won’t be easy. For years, it has been notorious for its high crime rate, recently cited as the most dangerous city in the United States by the FBI. In a city with just over 77,000 people, the chances of one being the victim of a violent crime were one in 39, compared to one in 345 in the rest of the Garden State.
With such high crime statistics and a low budget, city officials announced in 2012 that the department would be dissolved. A total of 270 officers were laid off from the city police force and a new, smaller unit was added to the Camden County Police Department Metro Division. The new contract for officers may look attractive at first glance, but critics say that it is an aggressive attack on unions because this deal does not allow for collective bargaining.
Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice is both a former prosecutor and former New York City cop, told NPR that the Camden plan is a disguised attempt to trample a police union and undo years of collective bargaining.
Despite the contention regarding the implications of the contract, Camden residents and businesses welcome the city’s revamped law enforcement.
In December, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced that the new police department and the state takeover of the school district in Camden were the two keys to bringing the crime-stricken city back. But he did not say how long it would take for changes to come, or where they would occur first. One of Camden’s biggest hurdles is bringing back a strong tax base. Since 1990, the city’s population has declined by 11 percent. For Camden-based businesses like Powell-Peters Real Estate, crime reduction is just a small part of the problem.
“As someone who’s been in the business for a long time, sales are really slow here. Mortgage rates may be good, but the people who live here can’t even qualify because of their credit,” said an employee of Powell-Peters.
While the city is showing signs of gentrification in some areas, the reduction in crime is keeping the locals happy. Raymond Gramenzi, who has owned Harry’s Plumbing in the southern part of Camden for over 28 years, welcomes the new police force.
“It’s been a blessing. When I would come into my store I’d see drug dealers and prostitutes in the empty lots, but not anymore,” said Gramenzi.
He added that while his business had not really suffered, sales have been on the rise. Recently, his business was almost robbed. By the time he got off the phone with the police dispatcher, there were officers already at his door.
“Whatever they’re doing, they should keep it up,” he said.