An American Crime – Bulldozing the Gardens
Racist Socio -Economic Cleansing In Mt. Holly, NJ
Now Tom said “Mom, wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there’s a fight ‘gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I’ll be there
Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand
Or decent job or a helpin’ hand
Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you’ll see me.” (“Ghost of Tom Joad” (listen to Springsteen & Pete Seeger)
[Update: 11/2/10: – Professor David Tulloch of Rutgers at his wonderful blog “Places and Spaces”, provides some history I was unaware of, including a superb video - read and watch it here]
I read Bill Potter’s superb Op-Ed in NJ Spotlight this morning and was appalled by what I learned was going on in Mt. Holly at a place ironically called The Gardens (please read it: Speaking Truth to Power in Mt. Holly – Under the guise of ‘redevelopment,’ Mount Holly has been carrying out what amounts to ‘socio-economic cleansing’ of lower-income areas.
As corrupt as NJ has become, I still found it hard to believe that such racist egregious abuses could happen here – a NJ local government acting like Russian Oligarchs or Chechen rebels, mimicking the worst of the Maoist Cultural Revolution or the Castro expropriations.
No, something this ugly could not happen in 21st century America – and surely not in “progressive” suburban NJ.
So, I decided to take a little trip down to Mt. Holly to go to the Block Party protest against the mistreatment of the Gardens residents.
I walked around, spoke to several homeowners and renters – and here’s what I saw and found – descriptions under the photo captions. But photo’s really can’t do justice to the scene I observed.
What is wrong with the peope of Mt. Holly that they would allow their local government to do this?
My first impression was one of disbelief.
As I approached from a distance, I saw what initially looked like a typical suburban garden apartment complex, surrounded by wooded areas. But it was badly fragmented. Large open spaces existed between the buildings and some were actively being demolished. I imagined that this is what bombed out post WW II European cities must have looked like. It was far worse than abandoned areas of Camden and the South Bronx I have visited, because these were not abandoned buildings: people were living amidst the chaos. Worse, the chaos was being created by a local government!
Occupied row homes were surrounded by condemned units – some bearing spray painted messages that eerily reminded of post Katrina New Orleans.
Other homes had been isolated by demolition, and stood alone.
The Gardens neighborhood was built just after WW II to house vets from McGuire AFB and Fort Dix. Over time, units were sold. A mix of homeowners and renters formed a stable, diverse, and tightly knit neighborhood of predominantly black, hispanic and modest income folks, where peope could pursue their own version of the American dream.
The Gardens neighborhood provided exactly what today’s land use planners are trying to create: a vibrant, pedestrian friendly, appropriately scaled and sufficiently dense “sustainable community”.
People walked to nearby stores, jobs, and churches. Kids walked to nearby schools and neighbors looked out for each other. Backyard gardens provide fresh produce. There remains a diversity of race, age, and income groups. Tolerance and community solidarity prevailed. Stable inter-generational reationships were forged over time. A sense of place was created.
The buildings may have declined over time, but the core human relationships that define a community persisted and longtime residents aged gracefully as their children and grandchildren prospered.
But, Mt.Holly decided in 2000 to “redevelop” the neighborhood.
In 2002, they determined it was “blighted”.
The case may become another national poster child of gross abuse of eminent domain condemnation powers, as the City takes privately owned homes not for any legitimate public purpose, but to benefit other private developers and collect more tax revenues from upscale (white) homeowners.
I first spoke with David Wright. He grew up in the Gardens, walked to nearby schools as a kid, and has served for 23 year in the Navy, including a tour in Iraq. His mom is 93. Here is their home, for which Mt. Holly has offered $39,000
David brought me inside to meet his mom – he was extremely proud of her and his family’s experience living in the Gardens. He spoke of wodnerul ties growing up and all the careeer and other accomplishments of his family and the kids he had grown up with. He strongly resented the lies that the neighbohood was populated by drug dealers and bad kids.
Here are some more shots of a neighborhood under seige by their own govenrment and the people that live there.