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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Waterfront South

Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth’s Chris Ballman reports on the fate of a neighborhood in Camden, New Jersey called Waterfront South. To spur jobs and tax revenue the city wants to site more industry in the Black and Latino community whose residents say they already bear more than their share of pollution.


CURWOOD: Our final story this week is about whether a neighborhood in Camden, New Jersey will live or die out. You’ve probably never heard of Waterfront South -- but there’s a clash of values going on there that echoes throughout working class pockets in nearly every American city.

Waterfront South is a patchwork of row houses and heavy industry that straddles the Jersey-side of the Delaware River - just across from Philadelphia. If you came to this port 50 years ago, you’d find a vibrant community, anchored by a huge ship building industry. Its streets lined with shops, restaurants and theatres.

Blighted buildings in Camden’s Waterfront South (Photo: New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection)

Today, drug dealers and prostitutes work streets marked by abandoned buildings and vacant lots strewn with trash. But crime and poverty aren’t the only problems. Like many places where poor people live, Waterfront South has become a dumping ground for polluting industries.

Still, many of its many residents cherish their neighborhood and want to see it thrive again. But their loyalty raises a question: At what point is a place no longer worth saving? Living on Earth’s Chris Ballman has our story.

POMAR: You can smell the sewage treatment plant now. That’s the headquarters right there, that big brown building.

BALLMAN: Olga Pomar knows Waterfront South well enough to take me down back alleys and dirt roads - through the industrial no man’s land that walls off the neighborhood from the river. Pomar is an attorney who works with an environmental group here called South Camden Citizens for Action. She drives me past the long line of shipping terminals, the giant cement factory and what seems like the endless string of scrap metal yards that ring this one community.

POMAR: You can also see the amount of diesel truck traffic. And diesel fumes are among the most dangerous sources of air pollution.

BALLMAN: We drive by the neighborhood’s two Superfund sites and the other 13 fenced off lots with signs warning residents to keep out because of environmental hazards.

POMAR: I hope you noticed how close these houses are to all this stuff. That’s what I mean about there being inadequate buffers.

BALLMAN: Buffers from the sewage treatment plant and the incinerator and the trash to steam facility and an electrical power plant - - all of them built here with the approval of the county -- because, Pomar says, land was cheap and the largely black and Latino community lacked the political muscle to keep the facilities out.

POMAR: It’s definitely I think one of the most classic examples of the results of environmental racism that you’re gonna find.

BALLMAN: The last stop on our tour: the Terraces, a blighted five block neighborhood that’s been slowly cut off from the rest of Waterfront South by encroaching port facilities, factories and an interstate highway. There were once 112 homes here. Today only 45 remain. On one vacant lot the city’s posted a For Sale sign offering the land to anyone willing to buy out and relocate the residents. When she looks at the Terraces, Olga Pomar sees the future of Waterfront South - and it scares her.

POMAR: My fear is…my fear is that the terraces represent the fate of every little enclave in waterfront south, that all the little residential areas that we saw eventually the things around them are gonna die and be moved and changed into industrial uses. And all of waterfront south is gonna look like little clumps of houses like this.

PRIMAS: I don’t have a grand plan to eliminate people from Waterfront South. People were moving out of Waterfront South long before I got here. (Laughs)

BALLMAN: From his 13th story office at City Hall, Melvin Primas – everyone here calls him Randy -- has a pretty good view of most of Camden. And well he should. Primas is the state appointed chief operating officer for Camden – and his mandate is to attract jobs and commerce to this city now under state control due to its mounting fiscal problems. Primas says that beyond the Terraces he has no immediate plans to abandon Waterfront South. But he’s quick to warn its residents that they need to face reality.

PRIMAS: The reality is that it has been the industrial corridor for Camden. And it is true that one of Camden’s other challenges are jobs. We’ve got far too many people unemployed. And we also don’t have a lot of available land. And so, in what is our industrial corridor, we need to be able, in my mind, to take advantage of some of the land opportunities that are there to bring in the type of industry that provide living wages, and that does not harm the environment.

BALLMAN: Primas has a redevelopment plan for Waterfront South. He wants to bring in low impact industries such as food processing plants and warehouses. He says they would mean jobs for the neighborhood and tax revenue for the city. But citizen opposition to any further industry led the Camden City Council to reject that plan and now Primas is asking the courts to enforce his vision.

PRIMAS: The vision for Waterfront South is a neighborhood coexisting with an industrial neighbor.

BALLMAN: Sitting on the steps of his office in Waterfront South, Chris Auth has his own vision for the neighborhood.

AUTH: We have enough industry. We want to build the residential core of the neighborhood. So we’re saying no more industry.

BALLMAN: Chris Auth says Waterfront South needs an influx of new housing to be a viable community again. New homes and new parks and schools and a community center. He runs a housing corporation here called The Heart of Camden, which has already renovated 120 homes over the past couple of decades. Now Auth says the city needs to step in and finance the construction of new homes. And at the same time, he adds, government agencies need to clean up the environment - starting with the odor from the sewage treatment plant.

AUTH: Because that’s really killing us in terms of attracting people to move in here and just make it a livable neighborhood. And we know the technology exists, the county just hasn’t been willing to spend the money. But something has to be done about the sewage treatment plant to reduce the odor. If they can eliminate the odor, get the trucks out of the neighborhood and make all the existing industry comply with all the rules and regulations for clean air standards, and no more heavy polluting industry, then it’ll be okay.

BALLMAN: Okay enough, says Auth, so that people will at least stop fleeing the neighborhood.

AUTH: Well, it’s still about 1,700 people here, there’s about 500 families. There’s a lot of hardworking people – some people work 2-3 jobs. About 55 percent of families in the neighborhood own their own home. These little row homes, as you can see. And so they’ve made an investment, they want to stay here, they don’t want to be moved out. But they want things to be improved, especially the environmental issues.

BALLMAN: Carmen Alvarado wants to see improvements in Waterfront South. She’s lived here for 20 years. Her latest home is a neat brick row house on Emerald Street with a garden in the front yard. She stands at the kitchen stove cooking rice and beans with - she wants me to know - fresh chicken.

One of her seven grandkids watches TV nearby and her dog Precious scurries about. Carmen doesn't want to leave Waterfront South. She just wants the city to pave her street, knock down the abandoned houses, clean up the vacant lots - along with the air and water. And she doesn't think that's asking too much.

ALVARADO: That’s what we want because we had enough, you know. They're abusing us, you know. The reason that we complain is because of the smell and everything else so now they say that, you know, we don't got the right to live here in this neighborhood because we complain.

BALLMAN: Carmen Alvarado and many of her neighbors say the city is using their complaints about the environment as an excuse to declare Waterfront South unfit to live in, then slowly take homes by eminent domain and move people out and industry in. But, she says, let them come.

ALVARADO: What they going to do, run over me with the machines? Are they gonna do it? My daughter she live right here next to me. You think I'm going to have another opportunity to live with my family all together? My daughter next door. My grandkids. Never. This is a one life opportunity that I got to keep my family together.

BALLMAN: For Waterfront South residents who don’t want to leave their homes, Camden Chief Operating Officer Randy Primas says the city and state are taking steps to make the neighborhood as livable as possible. He says the city will reroute truck traffic to cut down on diesel fumes, and make air filters available to homeowners to mitigate pollutants available to homeowners.

The state is studying the neighborhood’s hazard waste sites with an eye towards clean up, and the city, he says, will establish a Waterfront South Environmental Wellness Center. Its purpose is to let residents know about the threats to their health and advise them of health care options. Primas says the city will help people fix up their existing properties, but he draws the line at new housing because he thinks it's wrong to bring more people into the neighborhood.

PRIMAS: I kind of use as a barometer: would I live there? Or would I put a member of my family there? And I’m not sure, that given the current circumstances that the residents have to deal with. It is not an environment that I would find conducive for a good quality of life. I’m told by the residents that they can’t go out in the backyard and barbecue during the summer because the odors are so bad.

Industrial smokestacks are a common site near Waterfront South housing. (Photo: New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection)

And so why would we build new houses in that kind of environment and invite people in? It doesn’t make sense to me. And I am all for supporting the residents who are there, and providing resources to help improve their quality of life. But I think that there is an inevitable reality that it is the industrial corridor, and there are challenges that come for those who choose to live in a neighborhood that is surrounded by industry.

BALLMAN: And in growing numbers residents of Waterfront South are heeding that message.

STEWART: We have a neighborhood that’s on the mat, and the refs counted it out.

BALLMAN: The Reverend Al Stewart heads the Camden Rescue Mission, a shelter he runs in Waterfront South that offers emergency services to the poorest of the city’s poor. For the past 15 years Reverend Stewart has watched industry move on to parcel after parcel of land in Waterfront South. He’s also watched some of the neighborhood’s best citizens leave to escape the adverse health effects - like the nation’s second highest rate of infant mortality; and rates of lung cancer, asthma and other respiratory illnesses that are much higher than in other parts of the city.

Reverend Stewart says there’s been a psychological toll on the neighborhood, too.

STEWART: The industrialization broke the will of the people. They kept dumping and dumping and dumping and as they dumped on the people you got less and less and less city services. And people saw that, they saw the dumping, they saw the trash to steam plant, they saw the electrification plant. That’s dumping on people.

See, the people know that, and the people know that the people downtown don’t care. No, we’re not gonna stay in this neighborhood. I see the train on the track. I don’t foresee a good ending to this situation. I like this neighborhood. I’ve lived here for ten years. My family’s here. But the resources are not available, the priorities are not here. It’s the city and it’s the state and it’s the federal policy makers who have decided to kill this neighborhood.

It sounds harsh but it’s the truth. And we can’t stop those trains. We can fight with them. We can prolong the inevitable. But we can’t stop them. And my brothers who want to stop it, my heart goes out to them. I support them in their endeavors. I just don’t have the energy. I don’t have the energy to keep fighting this.

BALLMAN: A few blocks away children play while waiting for their parents to pick them up at Sacred Heart School. The school and the church that supports it have been an anchor in Waterfront South since the turn of the last century. Its Pastor Michael Doyle says it would be an enormous racial and environmental injustice to allow this neighborhood to die. He says society has a responsibility to clean up and restore Waterfront South. Not just for the residents here, he says, but as an example to the rest of the nation.

DOYLE: The easy political solution is to get rid of the people, and then you get rid of the problem. But I say no. So I say we strive to renovate that which is trampled.

BALLMAN: Chiseled into stone on the side of Camden’s City Hall are these words from one of the Proverbs of Solomon: “If there is no vision, the people will perish.” Whether Waterfront South will ultimately perish depends largely on which vision for the neighborhood prevails in this land-use struggle between residential and industrial interests.

A court will soon decide if the state’s redevelopment plan to site more industry in the neighborhood can move ahead. If it does, even the most optimistic residents of Waterfront South – those who want to save their neighborhood even if it’s scarred by industry and pollution – say it won’t survive for long. For Living on Earth, I’m Chris Ballman in Camden, New Jersey.

[MUSIC: Miles Davis “Shhh-Peaceful” MILES DAVIS: IN A SILENT WAY (Columbia – 1969)]



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