After thirty years, New Jersey is tearing down the Riverfront State Prison located on approximately fourteen acres of prime waterfront property in North Camden. Former Governor Corzine, then Mayor Faison, current Mayor Redd, and a handful of elected officials attended the demolition ceremony where County Freeholder and Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) Vice Chair, Jeff Nash spoke of this event as a community victory.
[wpaudio url=”http://colabradio.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/prison_demolition.mp3″ text=”Listen to Nash’s enthusiastic 4-minute speech:” dl=”0″]
On this day of celebration, I cannot refrain from thinking critically about the future of this site. If residents should be able to determine what their neighborhood looks like and how its physical structure serves their daily life, I worry about the redevelopment of the Riverfront State Prison site given the following observations:
1. Few members from the neighborhood attended the demolition ceremony and those in attendance stood at a distance with tears in their eyes, most leaving before cameras captured the bulldozer destroying a part of the prison fence. If this was such a great community victory, where were the locals?
2. During a recent North Camden mapping workshop held at Hopeworks ‘N Camden, one map showed North Camden as currently having only one public access point to the waterfront. A second created by local school children equated the waterfront with dangerous activity. I share the concerns Executive Director, Jeff Putthoff stated for the Courier Post: “It is interesting to see how the existing community is so divorced from the waterfront, which many people talk about as a great asset for future development. The challenge will be figuring out how to make that area important and accessible to current residents so that they aren’t isolated when development gets going.”
3. In 2008, Save Our Waterfront spearheaded an inclusive neighborhood planning process with local residents. The resulting plan calls for community control of future development options. However, only the planning board has the power to approve redevelopment plans. No law stipulates that these redevelopment plans must follow or agree with neighborhood or residents’ plans. An official redevelopment plan for North Camden currently does not exist. If residents do not turn out to the Redevelopment Plan meetings, simply because they do not understand the legal differences between neighborhood plans and Redevelopment Plans, will their perspectives be included in the legally binding document?
As a future planner, many questions come to mind on this day of prison demolition. What does it take for a historically marginalized community to engage in the redevelopment process? How should those in power transcend class and racial backgrounds to reach and then truly listen to residents? How can community organizing transcend victories, such as the prison demolition, to create sustainable, systemic change? How do we facilitate the growth of hope and vision in a community which has learned helplessness and fear? Without involving people in shaping their own future, how can we reach what Nash refers to as a “new era of revitalization” where the “priority will be the quality of life of residents in this city,” and where “Camden will no longer be the dumping ground of everyone else’s problems?”