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Historian Howard Gillette '64 says bad luck, policies ravaged Camden

A Rutgers professor will talk about the unfortunate confluence that hurt the city and what could be done now.

from The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 10, 2001

While the travails of former Camden Mayor Milton Milan were the focus of national media attention and helped prompt the state to seek unprecedented oversight of the city, Milan's story is just a recent chapter in the sorry saga of Camden's degeneration.

It's a tale, said Howard Gillette, a history professor and urban-studies specialist at Rutgers University-Camden, that began well before the now-jailed Milan was born.

"The most honest government in the world could not pull the city out of its doldrums," Gillette, now at work on a history of the city, observed in an interview.

Gillette, who is scheduled to speak tonight at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Mariton, said geographic, historical and political conditions made Camden particularly susceptible to the urban decline that hit many cities after World War IL

"Part of it is bad luck," he said, "and that's a part of history that is significant."

Wedged between a suffering giant, Philadelphia, and booming suburbs that siphoned people and capital, Camden was unable to deal effectively with the loss of industry, Gillette said. The collapse of RCA, Campbell's Soup and New York Shipbuilding at roughly the same time hit the city hard.

While acknowledging the significance of circumstance, Gillette said his real focus is the role that people played in the city's history.

"I'm trying to challenge the notion that there is a global reason for economic decline in the cities," he said. "There are a plethora of reasons that include human agency. People do make a difference."

Gillette pointed to the redevelopment strategy of Al Pierce, Camden's mayor for much of the 1960s. The plan called for the displacement of African American families.

While saying Pierce's motives were good, Gillette said the plan led to civil unrest, especially after it was reported that city police had planted drugs on a militant activist opposed to relocation before arresting him.

While policy miscalculations had unsought results and businesses fled, the city's many ethnic enclaves, which at one time included Italian, Jewish, German and Irish populations, crumbled, Gillette said.

These communities had provided a safety net during hard times, he said, and as older groups were supplanted by African Americans and Latinos, those safety nets vanished.

"It would be a disservice to say that African Americans and Latinos did not have the same kind of internal relations" as other groups did, Gillette said. "But their constituents did not have the solid base of blue-collar employment, and that made it more difficult."

As the city continued to suffer, its voting base dwindled, and with that went potent political capital. As a consequence, "structurally and in political terms the city has become dependent on larger entities like the county and the state," he said.

Gillette said he was initially optimistic about Milan's leadership, particularly his ability to bring African Americans and Latinos together.

"He looked like he was building that coalition, bridging that gap," he said. "But that deteriorated fairly quickly. I don't think he was the person that I thought he was."

What is needed, Gillette said, is an infusion of money to bring a strong market economy back to Camden.

Gillette has been working on his book for four years and expects to work on it for several more.

"I hope that when I finish the work," he said, "the city would have turned a corner and I can say something really positive."