Fifty Years Out, the Graduates of ’64 Have Much to Reflect On

Fifty year anniversaries offer special opportunities for public reflection. For those old enough to remember, there is always the chance for gaining perspective over past experience and its consequences. For younger people, there is the opportunity to learn about the ways the past has helped shape contemporary life.

2014 has supported a particularly robust series of retrospective anniversary observations, starting with PBS’s American Experience’s program on 1964, followed by an ongoing series on the year at NPR, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Freedom Summer 1964 was celebrated this past weekend at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians. Once can only wonder what will be done to mark passage of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution August 10, 1964 or the Free Speech Movement that convulsed the Berkeley campus during the fall of that year.

reunion2008-500x335Soon the graduates of 1964 will be celebrating at reunions the fifty years that have marked the period since they left college.  Such occasions have often been the subject of humor.  Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury immediately comes to mind. But such occasions inevitably lead to serious reflection as well, and that is reflected in projects being undertaken at a number of universities.

At Amherst, the Class of 1964 has titled its reunion, “The World We Inherited and the World We Will Bequeath.” In an effort not just to remember the past, reunion organizers  have invited classmates and their spouses to join a problem solving team “to provide a forum for engaging with class members (and their family members) prior to, during and, perhaps, following the reunion.” Among the problems identified has been climate change, which strikingly enough has generated skeptics as well as true believers that the world faces an imminent environmental crisis.

Recognizing the centrality of the Vietnam War to their lives, Dartmouth ’64 has compiled a volume of Dartmouthmemories from those who served in the military.  Like those in other elite colleges who graduated before the war heated up, a significant proportion of these men joined the military, never imagining they would find themselves entering, defending, and criticizing a war that quickly divided the nation.

Yale ’64 also intends to interrogate the past. We’ll open with a panel I will chair entitled “The Legacy of Our Sixties.” Participating will be Steve Bingham, a veteran of Freedom Summer and subsequent civil rights actions; Gus Speth, a leading figure in raising awareness about climate change; Tom Powers, a longtime commentator on national security; and Nick Danforth, who played a key role in advancing Roe v. Wade to consideration before the Supreme Court.  To assure debate among these men, former Washington Post managing editor Bob Kaiser will chair a panel composed of former U.S. Senators Ashcroft and Lieberman under the provocative title, “Did We Blow Our Chance?”

No planned problem solving appears in the program for the Yale reunion, but it is worth noting that Bob Musil, a veteran who was honorably discharged from the Army as a conscientious objector and who has subsequently written about the environmental crisis urges his classmates in his 50th reunion book to form an action network.  Such a force, he imagines might appear together “at the White House and Congress, on campuses, at churches, in shareholder meetings, to demand an end to fossil fuels, rampaging gun violence, economic insecurity, a world at war. Imagine when our grandchildren speak of legacies, when they whisper in awe the name of Yale’64, the class that started the tradition of alumni social action. That would be a legacy.”  

Whatever comes of the debates and the resolutions at these class reunions, the past is bound to be investigated for what it tells us about contemporary life.  I intend to follow this process in the coming months as a run-up to my own assessment of what the collective experience of this particular generational cohort reveals about the 1960s and its aftermath.

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Hopes Boosted for “Eds and Meds” in Camden

camden-rowan-rutgers-1200Well before “eds and meds” became a primary focus for revitalization strategies in post-industrial cities nationally, the State of New Jersey was placing a big bet on such institutions in Camden.

Under recovery legislation enacted by the legislature in 2001, Cooper Hospital and Rutgers-Camden were singled out for major investments, as anchor institutions that could spur the city’s depressed economy.

Today that investment brought a major return with the creation of the Rowan University/Rutgers-Camden Board of Governors. Authorized under the Higher Education Reorganization Act of 2012, this new institutional partnership is designed to promote Camden as a major center in health sciences education.

This partnership is the alternative to the failed plan to have Rowan University take over the Rutgers-Camden campus. The board aims to bolster Rowan’s new medical school at Cooper and to spur more investment in facilities that will link the two universities. A new $62 million Rutgers nursing and science facility expected to open within three years half way between the Cooper and Rutgers campuses serves as a first step in that direction.

The board’s initial meeting today was upbeat. Camden Mayor Dana Redd, one of two representatives named by Rutgers-Camden to the board, said it was a great day for the city. Former New Jersey Assembly speaker Jack Collins, who holds his bachelors degree from Glassboro State before its name changed to Rowan and a law degree from Rutgers, was equally upbeat as he assumed the position of chair of the joint governing board.

Speakers at the opening ceremony assiduously avoided reference to the acrimony that surrounded the controversial proposal to merge Rutgers-Camden into Rowan. Instead, they stressed collaboration among the seven members intended to represent each of the board’s constituent elements.

Because the legislature has granted the board powers of eminent domain and because the by-laws as passed today give the chair virtually unlimited powers to enter into contracts, there is reason to be wary about the board’s intentions. Jack Collins assured his audience, including board member Robert Mortensen who questioned the chair’s designated powers, that there would be modifications in the bylaws to assure board review of operational matters and transparency in its actions.

If Collins holds to his promise, this new initiative could be historically significant. The new arrangement falls short of creating a new Carnegie-Mellon as promoters of a merger had speculated, but the existing partnership between Carnegie-Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh has been rightfully credited with helping Pittsburgh make the transition to a thriving post-industrial economy. It can happen in Camden too.

Camden’s problems extend well beyond its downtown institutions. Still, if the board lives up to its potential of attracting new research money to the city and facilitating associated opportunities for employment as well as educational training, its formation should be a milestone in Camden’s long trek back from the depths.

This post originally appeared on WHYY’s Newsworks site on April 7, 2014.

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Governor Plays Blame Game, but it Could Come Back to Haunt Him

Oh what a difference a bridge scandal can make.   Seeking to make a return to his comfort zone, Gov. Christie held forth in his first town hall meeting of 2014 Friday in Port Monmouth.  Seeing blood in the water, the New York Times chose to emphasize what a hard time the crowd gave the governor.

Not so the Inquirer, which pictured Christie back at the top of his game.  Even more striking was former Inquirer reporter Matt Katz’s glowing report for New Jersey Spotlight.   Most notable in Katz’s account was the blame Christie was directing at the federal government for not getting money into the hands of Sandy victims, excuses that Newsworks’ Rob Tornoe isn’t buying.

Blaming federal regulations is serious business, not the least after the governor milked national assistance for all it was worth in the aftermath of the storm.  But as Bill Wolfe, a former Department of Environmental Protection planner and policy analyst who now heads New Jersey Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, pointed out in his account of the February 20 meeting:

       -The federal regulations at issue (HUD and FEMA) were known in advance of Sandy.

      -Compliance with those regulations should have been a core part of the plan and  program that the Christie administration designed.

        -The Christie administration selected a private consultant to write NJ’s plan and design NJ’s programs. Then they relied on private consultants to administer the programs.

          -The Christie administration wrote the RFP and the specifications of the contracts for those services.

Only today did a Christie administration representative state on the record that the state’s termination of a contract with HGI to administer Sandy Funds was due to incompetence. 

Once the jewel in the crown of Christie’s case for re-election, the Sandy effort is looking increasingly like an anchor that could drag down his entire administration.  Were people upset in Fort Monmouth? If they were, it should be reported.  Did they have a right to be upset? Time will tell, as anecdotal reporting gives way to the kind of analysis the Fair Share Housing Center has been doing about prejudicial uses of the funds. The governor reverted to calling this group “hacks.”  It’s unlikely he’ll be quite so emboldened if the facts point to his incompetency, not to those whom he would blame.

 

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Behind a sensational story, serious issues in Camden

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Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi has stirred the pot on the tribulations of a city mired in extreme poverty by producing yet another sensationalist story on Camden, “Apocalypse, New Jersey: A Dispatch From America’s Most Desperate Town.” In doing so, he adds one more link in a chain of damning national exposes that go at least as far as a 1983 edition of Sixty Minutes as well as more recent program segments from Diane Sawyer and Brian Williams.

As always, there are the usual passionate defenses, that a reporter has missed the good side of the city.  Rutgers-Camden professor Stephen Danley leads the way in this effort, but from the many comments to his blog and to the Rolling Stone essay, he is far from alone in his views.

Taibbi’s contribution might well be dismissed, as Danley does, as “urban porn,” a thriving industry in the post-industrial era. Think of Charlie LeDuff’s recent book, provocatively titled, Detroit: An American Autopsy. To his credit, LeDuff is a Detroit native with a long history in journalism. Still, his title and his unvarnished revelations helped get him on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks.

Clearly Taibbi is pointing in the same direction if one considers the description of his forthcoming book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, due out in April. The pre-publication publicity makes clear why Taibbi became interested in Camden. The primary American divide, he will argue, lies in “the seam in American life where our two most troubling trends—growing wealth inequality and mass incarceration—come together, driven by a dramatic shift in American citizenship: Our basic rights are now determined by our wealth or poverty.”

There is a good deal in the Taibbi article I could disagree with, particularly the lack of adequate contextualization of the situations he describes. The sense that there is unequal justice in America, for rich and poor, is hardly news either. Still, Taibbi raises some important questions that deserve attention.

The drop in crime that has been reported since Camden County took over the city’s police department in May has been attributed to the introduction of new technologies and an increase in officers on the street, made possible by ending union benefits that had become unsustainable over the years.  While conservative bloggers have been quick to credit change with “dumping the police union,” Taibbi sees in the installation of a vast network of cameras and microphones that can pinpoint gunshots within seconds of their occurrence the makings of a “perpetual self-occupation.”  Camden police chief Scott Thompson calls the new devices the key to doing more with less, and arguably such devices, as they have been employed in other cities, have been actively sought by residents.

But there is room for abuse here and not much protection for residents when it occurs. Approximately 100 of the city’s current police ranks—many of them former seasonal officers in shore communities—are entirely new to the city and not familiar with prevailing urban social patterns. When people are gathered on the street, are they loitering or engaged in matters of mutual support and sympathy in obviously difficult times?  The majority of the new recruits are white, and in the effort to be aggressive, there is always the danger of racial profiling. According to a recent news report, while some areas close to the downtown are quite satisfied with the renewed attention they are receiving, residents in some of the city’s most violent neighborhoods fear police actions they witness are often too aggressive, even for the bad situation they are in. The public deserves assurances that the system is both effective and fair. Yet there is no institutionalized means of doing that: no review board and no investigative journalism worth its salt to uncover any system of abuses.       

This is the lost opportunity of Taibbi’s story. Instead of relying falling back on sensationalism, he might well have made a few recommendations. Unfortunately, he chose not to do so.

One of the positive responses to the rising violence in the city that Taibbi fails to mention was a trauma summit held at Cooper Hospital in May.  Spearheaded by Father Jeff Putthoff of Hopeworks ‘N Camden, this meeting pulled area service providers into an ongoing process of dealing with the pain and suffering that cannot be denied in Camden.  Putthoff’s effort is but one of many citizen-based programs intended to empower people against whom so many negative factors are aligned.

Grass roots efforts can only do so much to alter the structural elements that sustain urban poverty.Both police action and social services deal with the symptoms of Camden’s situation, not its causes, which are rooted in a dual housing market that keeps poverty and its attendant social pathologies concentrated in the city.

Governor Christie has taken credit for Camden’s new police system, claiming that the change can provide a model for other cities.  With 52 homicides now on the books and a murder rate well above that of Philadelphia, even since the county took control, those claims should not be taken at face value. Now it’s time to evaluate the program’s effectiveness, not just statistically, but as it relates to other programs in place.

Cracking down on crime without opening up opportunities for employment and for better schools as well as personal security is not a formula for success. The governor’s opposition to expanding affordable housing opportunities in the suburbs closes down an option that satisfies all three criteria. Instead, he is locked into measures to alter the conditions of poverty in place, certainly a strategy, but one with serious limits.

Camden’s problems won’t disappear any time soon.  They deserve considered attention. Consider Taibbi, then, not an educator so much as one in a long line of instigators. Reform demands informed debate.  Let’s use this occasion for a renewed look at the city and evaluate what is being done right and what needs to be changed.  Then, maybe something positive could well follow from Taibbi’s revelations.

This posting originally appeared on WHYY’s Newsworks site December 18th.

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What Affordable Housing Can Do: The Ethel Lawrence Homes

Affordable housing, and particularly the Mount Laurel doctrine that mandates that every community in New Jersey has an obligation to provide its “fair share” of affordable housing, is under attack. While Governor Christie has been rebuffed by the courts in his effort to eliminate by executive order the Council on Affordable Housing established by the legislature to implement the Mount Laurel decisions, he has often stated his intent to change the makeup of the high court in order to get his way.

mtlaurelAs the issue of affordable housing has become increasingly contentious, Princeton University has published an especially timely book refuting the widespread belief that the expansion of affordable housing adversely affects communities where it happens, by increasing crime and other social costs while dragging down nearby property rates. 

Authored by a team of scholars headed by the distinguished Princeton University sociologist Douglas Massey, Climbing Mount Laurel  lays to rest the myths that Governor Christie has built upon to stir support for his effort to roll back the affordable housing mandate from the courts.

The case study is the Ethel Lawrence Homes, named for the original lead plaintiff in the Mount Laurel decisions, and located after years of obstruction at the heart of Mount Laurel itself. As Fair Share Housing Center sought the necessary permits to build what eventually became 140 units for people with incomes ranging from 20 to 80 percent of the state medium, opponents raised every possible ill effect that could follow from that investment.  As Climbing Mount Laurel  documents, in stunning detail, none of these fears materialized.

Using sophisticated statistical analysis, as well as in-depth interviews with successful as well as unsuccessful applicants to occupy the new units, which were opened finally in 2001, Massey and his colleagues demonstrate that Mount Laurel taxes subsequently showed no significant deviation from trends in other like communities nearby.  Not only did crime continue to fall in Mount Laurel, most area residents were not even aware that the Ethel Lawrence Homes existed.

As part of the ongoing academic discussion about whether poor people benefit from being relocated from centers of urban poverty to opportunity-rich suburbs like Mount Laurel, Climbing Mount Laurel is equally sure of its results.  ELH’s residents reported a significant drop in traumatic experiences in their lives, and their physical as well as their mental health improved significantly in the new environment. While their children did slightly less well in school than they had previously, the drop in grades was made up for both in the quality of the schooling they obtained and in the increased prospects for attending college on the basis of that schooling.

The residents at Ethel Lawrence are not the typical poor, having been culled from a large pool of applicants. They receive social services, including afterschool assistance for their children, that are not readily available elsewhere.  And the housing not only looks like other developments in the area, thus removing any immediate association that this is low income housing; it also has been sited to facilitate community, through the provision of play space for children and other group amenities.

Residents reported some dissatisfaction with their new lives, but their complaints paled compared to those associated with the places they left, most notably Camden, where crime,  pollution, and failing schools remain terrible constraints on even the most ambitious of families.

Governor Christie has bought into a charter school movement and generally backed anchor institutions in their ambitions to expand as his solutions to Camden’s continuing tragic state. For those living in concentrated poverty who hope for something better, these initiatives are not enough. The governor should revisit his opposition to the Mt Laurel doctrine to assure  that there are more options for the poor to move to additional locations of opportunity. As Climbing Mount Laurel attests, the outcomes generated through such options can be embraced by everyone, regardless of party. 

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If Demolition is the “Price for Progress,” Where’s the Larger Vision?

As the recession passes all too slowly into memory, building activity is picking up even in the most distressed communities, including Camden.  Renovations of housing are proceeding around Cooper Hospital, work on the impressive Kroc Center in Cramer Hill is coming along nicely, and a new charter school located off Linden Street seemed to appear overnight.

Demolished BuildingEven as these new opportunities opened up, headlines captured the end of an era with the demolition, after many delays, of the historic Sears building on Admiral Wilson Boulevard and the coincidental revelation that the Elgin Diner on Mt. Ephraim Avenue would also be coming down before long. Such demolitions often signal progress, as abandoned properties give way to new uses suitable to contemporary needs.  In these two cases, a much larger question arises: what is the vision for post-industrial Camden?

The Sears building, when built in the 1920s was intended to serve as part of the gateway to the city, boosted by the opening of a bridge over the Delaware River to Philadelphia.  Not everything that was expected of the area materialized, but Sears remained for many years a magnet to shoppers from the region.  In a new era, the developers of the property, Camden’s major business Campbell Soup, wants to develop an office park, one that would both look like and operate like the complexes located in suburban Mount Laurel. Such a complex, operating 9 to 5 would draw people from the region into Camden, but its isolation from the rest of the city would not encourage further interconnections with existing places of business in the city. It would, like much of existing suburban development, operate as a pod within the city, but not be part of its 24-hour-a-day life.

Elgin DinerAccording to recent news reports, the Elgin Diner, which also drew customers from nearby suburbs into the city, would give way to a dollar store, serving largely local customers whose limited incomes might incline them to look for bargains they might not otherwise find nearby.  In the process, not only a distinctive building would be lost, but also a place where people from both the city and the nearby suburbs could get a meal at reasonable prices and feel a sense of community at the same time.

Among Camden’s highest priorities for recovery from a slide of half a century is not just economic development, but the capacity to reintegrate into the larger region.  As long as Camden is perceived as starkly different from its surrounding communities, it will continue to be demonized at worst and certainly avoided by many.  Carving up the city into distinct destination zones—office parks for suburban employees, dollar stores for poor residents—doesn’t do much to advance regional reintegration.  Surely, there will be those who will celebrate the demolitions of these structures as part of the city’s progress. The rest of us should be pressing for uses that do more to advance not just profit but a more comprehensive approach to enhancing Camden as a vital part of the South Jersey region.

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