Efforts to quell the blight that years of joblessness, corruption and crime have brought on this former industrial dynamo are coming at a price, activists say — the people of Camden don't have much say when it comes to the direction of their city or its most important institutions.
The schools, the police department and even the libraries have been taken over by the state or county governments in rescue attempts, meaning key municipal agencies and functions are not directly accountable directly to voters and potentially setting the city up for a future without experienced leaders.
Mary Cortes, the president of the Cramer Hill Neighborhood Association, said she has been finding it more difficult to get the ear of decision-makers as bigger governments have taken a larger role in her city.
"We don't have too much power, but when we do exercise it, somebody listens," Cortes said. "I hope."
On Monday, President Barack Obama came to Camden to announce a nationwide policy to make it harder for local police departments to get military equipment. To some local officials, his choice of venue validated the changes to policing in Camden. Since the police department was disbanded two years ago and replaced by a bigger county-run department, crime has fallen dramatically. Still, a group of activists is suing officials who blocked a ballot measure that would have given voters a say on the reconfiguration.
Camden, whose population has fallen from a peak of more than 120,000 in the 1950s to just 77,000 today, has plenty of company in takeovers of government functions. Across the Delaware River in Philadelphia, the policymaking School Reform Commission is appointed by the governor and mayor. In Detroit, a state appointee took control of police and fire operations two years ago as the city prepared for bankruptcy proceedings; the mayor and city council have since had their power restored, though the public schools are still run by a state-appointed manager. And Congress has veto power over local government action in Washington, D.C.
"This is common in many minority urban areas all across the country," said Keith Benson, a high school teacher who has done canvassing in Camden. "These people don't have a chance to make these decisions. Other people do."
Like some of those other places, Camden has a history of government corruption and ineffectiveness. Three current or former mayors have been sent to prison for corruption since 1980. And the financial reality is that the majority of the city and school budget revenues are contributed by state subsidies, rather than local property taxes.
With that history, help has often arrived with strings attached.
In the early 2000s, the city took over many functions of city government as part of a plan to infuse the city with $175 million in state money to improve the infrastructure and expand hospitals and universities.
When Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, took office in 2010, he set a new course. The mayor elected at the same time — Democrat Dana Redd — got back some mayoral powers but has relinquished others. Christie's administration has used tax incentives to get several companies to agree to move into Camden. He also supported the move to the county police force and took over the school district.
Among other plans, a major push is on to bring in new types of schools, including some run by charter-school operators. Residents complained that a series of meetings on changes to the school district didn't give them adequate opportunity for input on specific proposals — and they aren't able to vote out those with whom they disagree.
Benson, the teacher, said that in one neighborhood where a school is being considered for a charter takeover, residents were of different minds on whether it would be better for children. But on one issue they all agreed.
"Everyone was like, 'Why didn't they ask me? Why didn't they tell us or why didn't we have any say in what goes on?'" he said. "It sort of spurs their lack of engagement, because their opinions don't matter."
Local leaders dispute that democracy is being damaged. The county government offices are in Camden and are accessible to residents, spokesman Dan Keashen noted. And city council members work closely with other levels of government on projects, City Council President Frank Moran said.
"What this is all about is collaborations," Mayor Dana Redd said Monday.
The interventions may improve things in the city in the short run, but they do create some longer-term problems, said Stephen Danley, an assistant professor of public policy at Rutgers University's Camden campus who has moved into the city and is researching it.
"You don't end up developing that local leadership for the next generation," he said. "That's the existential question."
As for the schools, the governor appoints the superintendent and the mayor selects all nine members of the board.
Breaking news and the stories that matter to your neighborhood.
Sean Brown, now a Rutgers public-policy graduate student, was an appointed member of the school board in 2012. He said he willingly left the board two years ago, but noted that all the members at the time who voted against bringing in privately operated but publicly funded schools have since also left — including some who had wanted to be reappointed.
Now, Brown is running a petition drive to try to have an elected school board return.
"In most cities, there's debate on issues," Brown said. "We don't have those debates in the city, because once you say something bad against the power, you become an outcast."
Redd said Monday that she doesn't mind the push to restore an elected school board but doesn't favor the idea.
"If you look at the years when we had an elected board," she said, "I don't think we had a school district that was working well."