Final Project-AC

In Dirty Water: How Political Power and Gentrification Resulted in the Unequal Drinking Water in Camden’s Neighborhoods, 1970 – 2000

By Alex Chang

Pyne Point Neighborhood, Camden, NJ

Walking into a Camden district school one of the first things that enters your field of vision would be a black plastic bag duct taped onto a decommissioned water fountain. That is the case for almost every water fountain in all of the Camden district schools for nearly 20 years. The water fountains haven’t been used since concerns about lead pipes were brought up in the early 2000s. “My school is broken” echoed Fred Stine, the citizen action coordinator for the Delaware Riverkeeper network, who told me how a math teacher at the old Camden high school described the situation with the water fountains. It was surprising, because it was not an adjective that was commonly used to describe a high school.[1]  A student could have gone through his entire K-12 education at Camden district schools, without ever once seeing a single water fountains in use. The message that the image of decommissioned water fountains sends to students, parents, and teachers is not only is school is not worth fixing, and investment into the students and into education at Camden not worth it, but also that they are discriminated against because their community is made up of poor minorities.

“This would have not been the case if it was Haddonfield,” said Stine referring to the wealthy historical neighborhood neighboring Camden. “They would have resolved it immediately.” This statement rang true to me, as well, because when I was a student at Carusi middle school in the middle-class school district of Cherry Hill which is less than 10 miles away from Camden, what Fred said would happen happened. One of the water fountains was producing water that came out a bit yellowish, most likely due to rust or excess minerals, was replaced by a new water fountain with a built-in filter within months. The difference in responses to the unsafe drinking water was unquestionable between the two school districts. The disparity in water treatment is not only between Camden and other neighboring wealthy neighborhoods, but also within Camden city itself. Since the 1970s Camden has become a city separated by gentrification of the Camden Waterfront and its poor minority neighborhoods.

So why have the lead pipes in Camden not been replaced in homes and the Morgan village neighborhood, and have been replaced in the Camden Waterfront? My argument in this paper is that the lead pipes in Camden have not been replaced in homes and schools of poor minority neighborhoods, because there is no political interest to restore and fix the infrastructure in neighborhoods like Morgan Village, whereas the Camden Waterfront has become gentrified through political interest been heavily invested into with new housing and buildings that do not have the issue of old lead pipes. The gentrification of the Camden waterfront has aggravated the inequality between the Camden waterfront and poverty-stricken neighborhoods like the Morgan Village neighborhood.

This paper will first explore how deindustrialization caused Camden to become economically broken and contaminated the water in both the drinking water and Delaware River. Then, how the Clean Water Act in the 1970s cleaned up the Delaware River, but also led to the gentrification of the Camden Waterfront.[2] The paper will then look at the gentrification of Camden Waterfront and it became an undisturbed by the water issues around it because of political interest in the area. Lastly this paper will also discuss the inequality and struggle of living in Camden with lead pipes. The city of Camden has focused its attention onto the Camden Waterfront and efforts to gentrify the city, a new start for the city, all while ignoring the impoverished resident neighborhoods and the old issues of lead pipes and unsafe drinking water, and this began with the deindustrialization of Camden.     

Camden, Deindustrialization, and Water Quality

Deindustrialization in Camden had molded the city that it has transitioned into at the end of World War II and the loss of industry hit Camden particularly hard, because it meant that jobs and white people left the city along with any hope of urban renewal. Camden today is seen as a city with high crime rates, poverty, and dangerous. But Camden was not always seen as the problem child of South Jersey that it is today, in fact it was an industrial powerhouse. Camden was a prime city to become an industrial center due to its location, because of its access to the Delaware River and proximity it’s to New York and Philadelphia.[3] Unions in the 1950’s and 60’s began to conflict with the industrial companies, and eventually drove companies out of Camden.

The deindustrialization of Camden not only left behind minority residents without jobs, but the city also was heavily polluted with industrial toxins left behind by the factories. The pollutants contaminated both the Delaware River and drinking water. The Delaware River had made so that Camden became a habitable city and the only people that lived there were the minorities who could not afford to move into the suburbs.[4] The drinking water was also plagued by industrial contaminants, but was later on dealt with by new filtration systems and wastewater treatment facilities. The issue that residents of old neighborhoods is the lead pipes in the infrastructure of the buildings.

Due to the city of Camden being made up of residents that had neither the education nor money, political corruption in the city ran rampant, and hindered the progress of getting water treatment in the city. That is what happened in the case of John J. Nero, chairman of the Municipal Utilities Authority and Porter and Ripa Associates, an engineering firm. The Municipal Utilities Authority was established by Camden county in 1973 to develop regional sewage facilities. The authorities granted the engineering firm a contract worth $600,000 and the authorities themselves had millions of dollars. The lawsuit states that there was up to at least $1 million dollars that was “illegally squandered” by both the Municipal Utilities Authorities and the Porter and Ripa Associates firms, and the treatment centers were so poorly managed that it worsened the water.[5] This is only one example of how political corruption deferred cleaning up water in Camden.

Another example of how politics disturbs the efforts to cleaning up Camden water is in a bill that was being discussed in 1983, called the Lesniak bill, to further regulate and clean man-made chemicals that entered into streams an aquifer. In the article by the Philadelphia Inquirer, it was shocking to read that Michael D. Vena, Camden’s water director, was so opposed to the bill being passed. “I don’t want to see us spend money for treatment for no justifiable reason” said Vena.[6]  These two examples of politics show how some of the city’s authorities have greed and money in their agendas over the resident’s water. There were two water issues that had not been resolved, because of the city’s inaction, which were lead piping in the infrastructure of buildings and the Delaware River.

The usage of lead pipes in United State cities dates back to the late 1800’s early 1900’s. Lead was used over iron, because it was both longer lasting and malleable than iron. Lead toxicity was also a know hazard at the time, and numerous articles and reports were written on the dangers of lead poisoning. Even with all the know dangers of using lead piping, US cities continued to use lead because of its advantages, and only local state plumbing codes were changed to prohibited and limit the use of lead. “In the EPA’s 1984 survey, approximately 30% of the respondents could not offer any estimate of the number of lead service lines remaining in their city. Nevertheless, it can be stated that with so many large cities that continued to permit the use of lead pipes, such as Boston; Chicago; San Diego, CA; Philadelphia; and Milwaukee among others, the number is likely quite significant. [7] Camden is one of those cities that had used lead pipes in their buildings.

The Delaware River was another water issue that had plagued Camden, however unlike the lead piping that the poor neighborhoods of Camden still suffer from today, the Delaware River has been cleaned up tremendously, and is unrecognizable to what it was before the 1970’s. Industrialization caused the Delaware River to become extremely polluted and it had become so contaminated with wastewater and industrial pollutants that the river caught ablaze more than once due to petroleum and other flammable liquids being discharged into the river. The pollution of the Delaware River became so bad that “In 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed the Delaware River Basin Compact creating the Delaware River Basin Commission. It included all four states – PA, NJ, NY, and DE – as well as the federal government, making it the first federal state organization to address river planning, development and regulation.”[8] It was also not unusual to see human waste in the river, along with many other industrial chemicals that you could see or smell in the Delaware River. Today there are still chemical threats that leak into the waterways, as Fred Stine explains in the interview below, but what you can smell and see of the Delaware River is “much better” than what it used to be.[9]

The Clean Water Act and Gentrification in Camden

The Clean Water act that started the clean up of the Delaware River along with other rivers and waterways was an amendment that was part of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “The law made it illegal to dump any pollutant into waterways without a permit from the EPA and set wastewater standards for industry. It also required wastewater treatment plants to upgrade to secondary treatment – meaning disinfection – and created a program whereby the federal government would fund 75 percent of those upgrades.”[10] The clean up of the Delaware River gained considerable political interest in the Camden Waterfront, and the cities politicians had ideas of the Waterfront becoming a gentrified city like Hoboken.

Gentrification was a term that was created by Ruth Glass in 1964, and it was at a time when cites saw changes in their neighborhoods.  This “change” in the neighborhood was not necessarily physical change, but a change in the demographic, and more prominent in United States cities than anywhere else. Lance Freeman, in his journal article on 21st century gentrification, points to the “new middle class” who had a desire to live in cities, rather than the suburbs. Freeman describes this new middle class as “born of their high levels of education and white-collar work, that drew them to authentic central city neighborhoods and the type of lifestyles they would create there.”[11]

The cleanup of the Delaware River sparked the controversial idea of gentrifying the Camden Waterfront, in order to attract a wealthier demographic into the city. In 2006 the New York Times article titled “Camden Still Finds Itself Treading Water” by Robert Strauss, lays out some of Camden’s plans for redevelopment and criticism from the community, and evidence that the redevelopment in the Waterfront meant gentrifying Camden.

The first piece of evidence in the article points to Camden deciding to renovate the aquarium. In the article, rights to develop 33 acres of the Camden Waterfront, which included a 3-million-dollar grant, 15-million-dollar loan for the aquarium renovation in 2003, have been given to Steiner and Associates. In 2005, the president of Steiner and Associates Barry Rosenberg said that they are expecting a million visitors, which would be less that the 1.6 million visitors that came in 1992 when the old aquarium opened. This show that Camden is investing millions of dollars into renovating the aquarium, not because the aquarium is not up to standards, but to make the City look better, as well to draw in outside investment.

The second piece of evidence in the article that points to gentrification is the housing renovations planned in the Camden Waterfront. In the article Barry Rosenberg talks about planning to open 100,000 square feet, 2 restaurants, and eventually million-dollar condos and hotels. This piece of evidence supports the argument that Camden is looking more towards gentrification and making Camden the next rich urban city like Hoboken and Jersey City, rather than benefiting the current minority residents. The city and urban planners are clearly not looking to help the residents that live in the poorer areas.

The last piece of evidence in this newspaper article is the resident’s responses to development of the Camden Waterfront. The residents in the article are concerned their neighborhoods will be affected by the development of the Waterfront. There is both concern about if the neighborhood infrastructure will benefit from the new Camden Waterfront or if it will cause residents to be driven out of their homes due to gentrification. Frank Fullbrook, a community activist says, “I have always been pro-revitalization, just that I don’t think you need to displace people to have it.” The hope with  revitalization is that there will be environmental remediation, less vacant homes, and new jobs for the community. This piece of evidence is the hopes of the residences that along with the development of the Waterfront, their neighborhoods will also improvement.[12]

Another and more recent New York Times article written in 2015, titled “A Bold Plan to Remake Camden’s Waterfront” by Jon Hurdle, reveals that another development project planned for the Waterfront, estimated around $1 billion funded by Liberty Property Trust, to be completed by 2019.[13] Liberty Property Trust has since left the project in 2018, but has developed much of the Camden Waterfront.[14] Political interest in gentrifying  the Camden Waterfront caused lots of money to be invested into the city to redevelop the neighborhood, and build new buildings. An example of political interest aiding the gentrification of the Camden Waterfront is George Norcross. George Norcross is a political boss who had lots of influence in Camden and its redeveloping. Norcross is accused by his critics of influencing state tax laws to benefit his companies, by way of threatening to not have his businesses (Cooper University Health Care) located in Camden. By doing so he was able to get much more money for his company.[15]

In conclusion to the gentrification of the Camden Waterfront, the Clean Water Act in the 1970’s greatly cleaned up the Delaware River which garnered great political interest in gentrifying the Camden Waterfront neighborhood and subsequently removed the lead pipe issue in that area, because of new buildings and infrastructure. I was able to speak to one of my friends who is studying at the Cooper medical school and has lived in the gentrified area of Camden, for about a year, about her experience with access to drinking water while living in Camden. In the interview with her, she told me that although she doesn’t drink directly from the tap, she is never worried about being able to get clean water, and that the environmental issues that Camden don’t affect her where she lives and studies.[16] The cleanup of the Delaware River and the gentrification of the Camden Waterfront neighborhood have rid water issues from the gentrified neighborhood of Camden, which creates a water inequality, because the poor minority neighborhoods in Camden still suffer from having lead pipes in the infrastructure of their older buildings.

Camden’s Waterfront vs. the Pyne Point Neighborhood

Camden Waterfront
Pyne Point Neighborhood

I chose to do image analysis on two neighborhoods in North Camden (1) the Camden Waterfront and (2) a street view of the Pyne Point neighborhood, because it shows how gentrification created an inequality between the two neighborhoods. The image of the Camden Waterfront pictures a city on the uprise, attracting professionals, students, and families alike. The other image is of a North Camden neighborhood, which has broken sidewalks, and overgrown weeds with children playing on the streets. This particular neighborhood is a lower income neighborhood and has more people of color compared to the Waterfront. This demographic difference is evident in the data from ejscreen.epa.gov pictured below.

Demographic data of Pyne Point Neighborhood

The Camden Waterfront image is an image from 2015 found in a New York Times article about the renewal of the Camden Waterfront. The reason why I chose this image is because it shows the significance of the Camden Waterfront, and why it was given such preferential treatment. The image of the Camden Waterfront pictures various significant buildings, including the United States Cold Storage (the white building in the back), the L3Harris Technology building (the flat building in front of the US Cold Storage) as well as 3 huge dedicated parking lots, the Victor luxury apartments building (building pictured right of the US cold storage), the US post office and courthouse ( building with the red building), the US district court for the district of New Jersey (building behind US post office), and the Rutgers Camden welcome center and dormitory (building with the red and white pattern). The Pyne Point neighborhood image is, also from a 2020 New York Times article, on the new policing system in Camden. The reason why I chose this image to compare it to the image of the Camden Waterfront is because shows that the city of Camden has neglected the environmental issues of poorer neighborhoods like Pynes Point in regards to replacing older buildings that still have toxic lead pipes in use. This image shows the state of the neighborhood, with the cracked sidewalk, trash ridden streets, and untended yard.

The first piece of evidence of inequality in between the Waterfront and the residential neighborhood is the parking and sidewalks. In the Waterfront image you can see that there are several parking lots and parking garages, there are 3 dedicated lots to the L3Harris building and as well as others for Rutgers Camden and the other buildings. This can show that the city wants to bring people into Camden from outside of the city to work, study, and for leisure. The image of the Pynes Point neighborhood however is completely different. None of the houses seem to have driveways, and people are forced to park their cars on the sidewalk which further damages the walkways. This shows the cities lack of investment into their current residents.

The second piece of evidence of inequality that I would like to point out is the greenery in each picture. In Waterfront image there is an abundance of trees carefully lined up in on the wide sidewalks to bring life into the city, whereas in the Pynes Point image there are much fewer trees, and weeds growing in the cracks of the sidewalks. This again shows investment from the city into the Waterfront, and a lack of attention to the residential neighborhoods.

The last piece of evidence that I would like to point out are the perspectives of both images. Since both images are from the New York Times, it can be said that the aerial view of the Waterfront is able to show an abundant, growing, and developing cityscape, while the image of Pynes Point is shot from the ground to show a more desolate and broken street. It is also important to note the context of both of these pictures. The Waterfront image came from an article about the renewal of the Waterfront and the billion-dollar investment, while the Pynes Point image came from an article about policing and crime in Camden.

In conclusion to the image analysis, Camden New Jersey has become a site of environmental injustice, because of the cities unwillingness to put money into the poorer neighborhoods that are troubled by the issue of having lead pipes in their older buildings. The cost of renewing the Camden Waterfront was estimated to be around $1 billion dollars[17], but the government is hesitant to spend the $100 million dollars that is required to fix the infrastructure and replace all the lead pipes in the schools in Camden[18]. Camden has faced environmental justice issues since postwar America, but it was not until Camden started gentrifying that the issues started to be resolved, and still yet the older schools are having trouble getting the necessary funds that they need to ensure safe drinking water to the growing youth in Camden.

Water Inequality in Camden

There has been a water inequality issue in Camden because the poor minority residents of Camden are not receiving anywhere near the same type of fund and urgency to fix the lead piping issue, that the Camden Waterfront was given for redevelopment. The Camden Waterfront neighborhood is not affected from lead pipes, because new buildings are being built without lead pipes. On the other hand, some schools in Camden have been relying on water bottles, because lead has made it dangerous for the water fountains to be in use. When I spoke to Fred about Camden’s solution for people living in neighborhoods with lead pipes, he tells me that Camden’s approach to dealing with the lead issue is their “let it run approach” means letting the faucet run 2-3 minutes before using the water so that the lead can be flushed out[19]. There is an innate injustice in this approach to solving the problem of lead, because it requires the residents to not only waste 2-3 minutes to be able to use their water, but also wasting water which means a higher water bill, and no way to be completely sure that all the lead has been flushed out.   

There has been lead pipe issue awareness in the city since the 2000’s when all the water fountains were shut off in Camden district schools. The lead pipes have all been replaced “up to the curb” Fred Stine tells me, which means that homeowners, landlords ,and schools have been left to deal with the issue by themselves.[20] In an article by NJ.com the school in Camden have spent around $75,000 and around $110,000 in 2019 on water coolers and paper cups for almost 20 years, rather than spend the bulk cost of replacing the old lead pipes in the schools.[21] The treatment and bias towards the Camden Waterfront is blatantly seen in the tax breaks and funds that were poured into that neighborhood for redevelopment.[22]

I was able to speak to a resident of Camden, who lived in Morgan Village (a poor minority neighborhood), Santos who has lived in the neighborhood for 8 years (listen to oral interview below). I was surprised to learn how unaware residents were of the lead pipe issue and injustice. He said that Camden does not actively create awareness to the residents the dangers of lead poisoning, neither through newspaper nor posters. Santos told me that he does not drink from the faucet, but he does use the “let it run” method before using water to cook. I was also able to gain a unique perspective, because of Santos’s work with homeless and less fortunate people. The lead water issue affects these people even more, because they have the spend the little money, they have to get drinking water.[23]

Newark NJ also had a similar problem with lead piping, and they were able to get their lead pipes removed. I spoke to Yvette Jordan, a leader in the movement to remove the lead pipes in Newark, and she explained in the interview below how they were able to make the authorities in Newark remove the lead pipes. The NRDC ( Natural Resources Defense Council) helped residents sue the City of Newark in a lawsuit, because the amount of lead in the water exceeded the federal standard and was in violation of the Safe Drinking Water act. They were able to get national attention and pressure Newark to remove the lead pipes.[24]

Conclusion

So, what will happen to the water fountains in Camden’s schools in the poor minority neighborhood? Will they ever be available for students to drink from them? Looking back at the actions of Camden, it seems likely that it won’t be the case. Camden has shown greater interest in gentrifying Camden than fixing the infrastructure of older neighborhoods. The investment from the political leaders of Camden show this because of how the devote resources to the Camden Waterfront’s redevelopment. The poor minority neighborhoods are seen a problem for Camden, which is why I think that there will not be an investment into these neighborhoods.

The Clean Water act started Camden’s gentrification which removed the lead pipe issue that all of Camden was suffering from, but only in the Waterfront neighborhood. Political interest made it possible for the Waterfront to get the funding it needed to redevelop the Camden Waterfront. The other neighborhoods in Camden are not receiving this type of investment because the demographic of these neighborhoods is made up poor and minority residents, which Camden sees as a thorn in its side.

Camden’s actions have shown its intentions for Camden is for it to become a gentrified city like Hoboken, rather than helping the older neighborhoods. The housing, schools, and businesses that are located now in the Camden Waterfront, show that the people that Camden is trying to attract are professionals, students, and even families. The gentrification of Camden will eventually spread into the poor neighborhoods, and housing will eventually be unaffordable for the poor residents and when new residents move into the city, then will the lead be removed.  

So, what should have been done instead of gentrification. If Camden wanted to revitalize the city and improve life for its poorer and minority residents, then they should have replaced all lead pipes in the city, or at least found a better way for residents to get accessible clean drinking water. It should not have to take a lawsuit and national attention for the city to remove the environmental inequality in Camden.  


1 Stine, F. (2021, April 4). Interview with Fred [Telephone interview].

2 Patrick C. Coulter, “A City Invincible? The Transition of Camden, NJ, From Industrial to Postindustrial City,” La Salle University Digital Commons (La Salle University, Fall 2016), https://digitalcommons.lasalle.edu/honors_projects/6/.

3 Patrick C. Coulter, “A City Invincible? The Transition of Camden, NJ, From Industrial to Postindustrial City,” La Salle University Digital Commons (La Salle University, Fall 2016), https://digitalcommons.lasalle.edu/honors_projects/6/.

4 Dana Bate and Susan Phillips, “The Delaware River before and after the Clean Water Act,” WHYY (WHYY, January 15, 2019), https://whyy.org/articles/the-delaware-river-before-and-after-the-clean-water-act/.

[5] Sullivan, Ronald. “Jersey Charges Wide Corruption by Camden Agency and an Engineering Firm.” New York Times. March 17, 1976.

[6] Cool Clear Water, New Jersey is out in front in its programs to protect water supplies, Paul Horvitz, The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 4, 1983, pg 11-B

[7] Richard Rabin, “The Lead Industry and Lead Water Pipes “A MODEST CAMPAIGN””, American Journal of Public Health 98, no. 9 (September 1, 2008): pp. 1584-1592.

[8] Bate, Dana, and Susan Phillips. “The Delaware River before and after the Clean Water Act.” WHYY. WHYY, January 15, 2019. https://whyy.org/articles/the-delaware-river-before-and-after-the-clean-water-act/.

[9] Stine, F. (2021, April 4). Interview with Fred [Telephone interview].

[10] Bate, Dana, and Susan Phillips. “The Delaware River before and after the Clean Water Act.” WHYY. WHYY, January 15, 2019. https://whyy.org/articles/the-delaware-river-before-and-after-the-clean-water-act/.

[11] Freeman, Lance M. “Commentary: 21st Century Gentrification.” Cityscape 18, no. 3 (2016): 163-68. Accessed March 24, 2021.

[12] Camden Still Finds Itself Treading Water, Robert Strauss, The New York Times, April 30, 2006, pg. NJ6

[13] Hurdle, Jon. “A Bold Plan to Remake Camden’s Waterfront.” New York Times, September 29, 2015.

[14] Walsh, Jim. “Camden Waterfront Developer Selling Its Office Projects.” Courier. The Courier-Post, October 23, 2018. https://www.courierpostonline.com/story/news/local/south-jersey/2018/10/23/liberty-property-trust-plans-sell-its-camden-waterfront-site/1738784002/.

[15] Moran, Tom. “Is George Norcross Helping Camden or Himself?” nj, November 24, 2019. https://www.nj.com/opinion/2019/11/is-george-norcross-helping-camden-or-himself-moran.html.

[16] Mui, J .(2021, April 27). Interview with Jessica [Telephone interview].

[17] Hurdle, Jon. “A Bold Plan to Remake Camden’s Waterfront.” New York Times, September 29, 2015

[18] Barchenger, Stacey. “Lead in NJ Water: Lawmakers Urge State to Use $100M Now to Fix Schools.” North Jersey Media Group. Trenton Bureau, October 4, 2019. https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/2019/10/04/lead-nj-water-state-needs-100-m-spent-fix-pipes-schools/3858318002/.

[19] Stine, F. (2021, April 4). Interview with Fred [Telephone interview].

[20] Stine, F. (2021, April 4). Interview with Fred [Telephone interview].

[21] NJ.com, Bill Duhart | For. “After 17 Years of Giving Bottled Water to Students, Camden Schools to Review Policy.” nj, November 8, 2019. https://www.nj.com/camden/2019/11/after-17-years-drinking-bottled-water-camden-schools-may-change-110k-lead-policy.html.

[22] Duhart , Bill. “After 17 Years of Giving Bottled Water to Students, Camden Schools to Review Policy.” nj, November 8, 2019. https://www.nj.com/camden/2019/11/after-17-years-drinking-bottled-water-camden-schools-may-change-110k-lead-policy.html.

[23] Santos (2021, April 10) Interview with Santos [Telephone interview]. [1] Jordan, Y. (2021, April 7) Interview with Yvette [Telephone interview].

[24] Jordan, Y. (2021, April 7) Interview with Yvette [Telephone interview].