Practitioner VoiceNeighborhood Change

Why Do Low-Income Residents Oppose Development Even When Displacement Risk Is Low?

There’s more than one way to be excluded from your community.

view of Camden, New Jersey

Photo courtesy of Stephen Danley

For decades, activists in Camden, New Jersey, have complained that investment in their city has focused on the downtown and waterfront neighborhoods that attract suburbanites, tourists, and newer residents, to the exclusion of longtime residents in the community. It’s a familiar complaint, the type you might hear from activists in Baltimore about the Inner Harbor. Residents see downtown investment and wonder—why must we depend on the theory of trickle-down economics belief that neighborhoods will be helped by investment downtown? Why can’t we invest in our neighborhoods directly?

Or in other words, as resident Luis Galindez—quoted in Howard Gillette’s book, After the Fall—put it when public funds went toward a new waterfront aquarium in Camden, “We got two and three families living in one house and fish in tanks by themselves . . . we could really have used that money.”

But in Camden, after residents argued for years that there needed to be investment in neighborhoods, a funny thing happened: A vocal group of residents opposed such investment when it came, on the grounds that it would gentrify those neighborhoods. 

[RELATED ARTICLE: What Does Gentrification Really Mean?]

An example was a plan to demolish and rebuild Camden High School. The state’s Schools Development Authority—which funds and manages school construction in 31 marginalized cities across the state—committed $132.6 million to Camden High. Investment in the school—historically the flagship of the city’s education system and located in the center of Camden’s historically African-American neighborhood—seemed like a direct answer to criticism that investment only happened downtown. Except instead of being lauded by local community members, the announcement deeply divided the community. 

In an op-ed, local activist, resident, teacher, and union leader Keith Benson argued that new development is a transparent gentrification tactic: 

“The proposal of a new Camden High School is really part of a broader Parkside development strategy intended to benefit a targeted few and victimize lower-income residents. This behavior, sadly, is consistent from our local politicians, but an honest conveyance of this issue would go far in educating our Camden community about what we stand to lose if Camden High is torn down. We, as a community of people who care about our neighbors, must fight this, because our collective future here depends on it.”

The very thing that activists and residents had spent decades advocating for—investment in their neighborhoods—was now being criticized as gentrification. Why?

When I spoke with some Camden activists and residents, they all pointed to the same thing: they felt unwelcome when development happened.

A Shelterforce ad seeking donations from readers. On the left there's a photo of a person wearing a red shirt that reads "Because the Rent Can't Wait."

The Catch-22 in the Gentrification Argument

At first glance, this new critique seemed like a Catch-22 situation. For decades, investment on the waterfront had been criticized because it did not reach neighborhoods. Then when it did reach neighborhoods, that also was criticized. 

And it was not just Camden High where residents were protesting investment in neighborhoods. In 2014, approximately 600 Camden residents gathered in the basement of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital to protest the city’s application for a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods grant (if won, the city would receive just over $13 million). But the residents were concerned about letters they received explaining that the grant might require the use of eminent domain in their community. Fearful of losing their homes, they packed the hospital to protest the application despite its potential to provide important neighborhood services.

To make the situation even more puzzling, the city of Camden as a whole, and particularly the neighborhoods further from downtown, are undergoing very little of what would classically be thought of as gentrification. According to 2018 American Community Survey estimates, the city is still 40 percent Black, 50 percent Latino, and 6 percent white. There’s been no rush of new residents, though a second luxury apartment complex has opened downtown. There’s been no evidence of widespread displacement. 

A National Community Reinvestment Coalition study found that nearly half of gentrification in the United States occurred in a subset of major cities. But Camden is not San Francisco or Manhattan. In fact, Camden is not even Philadelphia, where Pew found gentrification is largely limited to a relatively small subset of neighborhoods

Even when using more theoretical understandings of gentrification, there is little evidence of it in Camden. In 1985, Peter Marcuse theorized that displacement includes not just what we think of as classic gentrification—increase in white population, increase in rent prices and the ensuing displacement—but that it includes exclusionary displacement, in which residents are priced out of new buildings, and, critically for Camden, displacement pressure in which new businesses and development are seen as signs that residents will soon be displaced. If you squint, perhaps a new coffee shop near Cooper Hospital is an example of displacement pressure, or a luxury apartment complex on the waterfront is an example of exclusionary displacement. But these facilities are the exceptions rather than the norm. Camden is not facing widespread displacement, making the opposition to neighborhood investment, and the ensuing fear of gentrification, even more puzzling. 

Gentrification as Unwelcomeness and Exclusion

When activists and residents I spoke to talked about gentrification in Camden, sometimes they were talking about future displacement. But just as often, they were talking about what new development meant for them now

Vida Neil—a lifelong Camden resident, longtime city employee, and currently retired activist —says it clearest: “They’re not building it for us.” 

The statement is a sharp rebuke of new development; it highlights how residents are excluded from new development in ways that go above and beyond displacement. 

Once Neil and others pointed this out, I saw it again and again. 

Take the KIPP-Cooper Norcross School, built in Lanning Square, just across Broadway Street from Cooper Hospital. Lanning Square has not seen rent increases. Residents have not been displaced. In the typical ways, Lanning Square has not gentrified. But that does not mean the new infrastructure is perceived as being designed for residents. And that skepticism is rooted in the way key supporters of the school describe it. 

In early 2016, I spoke at a tour for Rutgers graduate students in Camden’s Lanning Square neighborhood. The speaker after me was an employee of the Cooper Foundation—a local philanthropic organization with strong links both to the new KIPP elementary school in Lanning Square, and the adjacent Cooper hospital. The employee specifically pitched the school to the graduate students, talking about how the school was for nurses and doctors, and that there was now a place for their kids to go to school if the graduate students moved to Camden. 

Downtown, where much of the new development has occurred, that attitude can be pervasive. For years, after fireworks on the waterfront, police would block certain roads so that suburbanites would not accidentally drive into residential North Camden. New companies downtown formed a partnership to create a van system so that suburban commuters and students would not need to walk the few blocks from parking lots or public transportation to buildings, and and could instead be picked up by “Camden Rising” vans. Riding on these vans required a company or student ID. 

The waterfront has used similar tactics: The aquarium used an anti-loitering device that makes high-pitched sounds to keep people from congregating in the space in front of the aquarium. The device was clearly audible along a stretch of the public waterfront park. Residents report that a curfew for those under 18 has been enforced along the waterfront. For years, high parking prices exacerbated the perception that the waterfront was designed to protect visitors from Camden residents.

Adam Woods is the owner of Camden Printworks and a former employee of the Campbell’s Soup company. He worked at the Campbell’s Headquarters–which chose to stay in Camden even as other companies left, but created a veritable fortress by surrounding the headquarters with fences and setting it apart from the city. Woods has often complained to me about the culture that this type of defensive architecture breeds inside the headquarters. Campbell’s employees almost always drove to work or used shuttles that kept them off city streets. They typically used the facility’s cafeteria rather than leave the building to support local businesses. Woods, who had volunteered for years in Camden, had no such predilection. Once, he left the headquarters to grab lunch in the city. When he returned, he found his co-workers waiting, fearful for his safety, and eager to make sure he was OK after braving the city.

Such perspectives are both enabled and constructed through defensive design and have real impact on communities. 

For example, a blog post by Gayle Christiansen captures how downtown development explicitly centers potential white commuters while actively excluding existing residents. According to Christiansen’s report of the meeting, Liberty Property Trust highlighted its plans for a downtown shuttle for the “hypothetical 26-year-old female employee” so that this hypothetical employee would feel safe commuting to the city. When asked about jobs for Camden residents, a representative of the developer replied that they would have to take drug tests to apply for jobs. Developers saw commuters as worth of protection from residents, and residents as likely drug users and unlikely employees.  

Residents internalize the signals that development is not for them–I have heard it over and over again when I speak to residents in the city. Vida Neil called it the creation of a “bubble city”; a Latina educator told me Camden’s development was for “rich little white kids”; a Camden resident in his mid-20s told me investment was “a way to keep the waterfront area beautified for tourists and to make that the staple of Camden”; a local educator told me that downtown development is not “real Camden” and that those highlighting the recovery of the city should “tell me when the nurses from Cooper [the local hospital] actually live here.”

These divides reinforce segregation in the city. Since white flight from Camden in the mid 20th century, there has been sharp segregation between the city and its surrounding suburbs—but exclusion can also be intentionally created within cities. This is not limited to Camden. In New York City, developers required to build affordable units have sometimes built adjacent buildings rather than put them in the same buildings. The entrances to those developments, which often seem to be alternate entrances to the same buildings, became colloquially referred to as “poor doors.”

In Camden, the messages sent by developers filter down to residents. One young Latino man told me that though he grew up near the waterfront park, he never visited the waterfront. It was only when he returned to the city as a professional that he’d “made it to this side”—a reference to the Ben Franklin Bridge that separates residential North Camden from the waterfront only a few blocks away.

Starbucks, White Spaces, and Addressing These Challenges

Certainly, activists and residents in Camden are concerned about the potential for traditional gentrification. They fear increases in the white population, increases in housing costs, and displacement. But they have another concern: that new development will exclude them, creating “bubble cities” within Camden that they cannot access. 

Elijah Anderson, a professor of sociology and African American studies at Yale, has spent much of his career exploring the dynamics of African-American life in mostly Black urban environments. Three years ago, he published a paper titled “The White Space,” which looked at the racial complexities of mostly white urban environments.

Anderson defines “white space” as having an overwhelming presence of white people and an absence of Black people with the result that “whites and others often stigmatize anonymous Black persons by associating them with the putative danger, crime, and poverty of the iconic ghetto, typically leaving Blacks with much to prove before being able to establish trusting relations with them.”

Author Jelani Cobb, writing for The New Yorker, makes an explicit link between Anderson’s concept of white space and the controversial decision by a Starbucks employee to call the police on two Black customers: 

“Academics are commonly dogged by questions of how their research applies to the real world. Anderson has faced the opposite: a scroll of headlines and social media posts that, like a mad data set liberated from its spreadsheet, seem intent on confirming the validity of his argument. The most notable recent case in point occurred on April 12, [2018], when a white employee of a Starbucks in Philadelphia called the police on two young Black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, who asked to use the rest room before they had ordered anything. They were arrested on suspicion of trespassing; it turned out that they had been waiting for a business associate to join them.” 

This all seems terribly depressing, but identifying the creation of white spaces in development also provides a tangible and practical means for addressing community concerns about development in neighborhoods. 

displacement. View of American Water headquarters in Camden, New Jersey

American Water headquarters in Camden. Photo courtesy of Stephen Danley

In Camden, this is starting to happen. In 2018, when American Water built its new headquarters on Camden’s waterfront, it allowed residents to park for free in company spots after 5 p.m. When Cooper’s Poynt Park opened along the waterfront in North Camden in 2017, it was notable because it included a playground—the first public waterfront facility explicitly built for residents rather than visitors. These small changes had almost immediate impact—areas of the waterfront that had been empty except for concerts or aquarium events are now filled with resident traffic on summer evenings. 

These changes provide a road map for future development. Part of the gentrification Catch-22—that downtown development is opposed because it is not in neighborhoods, and neighborhood development is opposed because it may cause gentrification—can be addressed through design. Municipal leaders, planners, and developers can intentionally include residents through design, choice of business, and choice of facilities. An answer to the exclusion of white spaces is to design communities specifically for use by their existing residents. 

Related Articles