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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)

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Yellow tape surrounds the crime scene - The Gardens, Mt Holly, NJ

[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!

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Occupied row homes were surrounded by condemned units – some bearing spray painted messages that eerily reminded of post Katrina New Orleans.

I think "W/S" stands for water/sewer

I think "W/S" stands for water/sewer

Other homes had been isolated by demolition, and stood alone.

does ths home look "blighted" to you?

does ths home look "blighted" to you?

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

a neighbor cuts the grass for Ms. Wright, age 93

a neighbor cuts the grass for Ms. Wright, age 93

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.

Ms. Wright, 93, homeowner, has lived in Gardens home since 1974 (36 years).

Ms. Wright, 93, homeowner, has lived in Gardens home since 1974 (36 years).

Here is the inside of Ms. Wright’s home – the last supper scene needs no comment:
garden9
I then spoke with Kisha, a mom who rents. She told me of harrassmentby the City and how the demolition of the home next door had put a hole in her roof. Rainfall and animals now enter. I advised her that mold is a problem she should look into because it caused asthma. She already knew that and told me her kids had asthma. Here are Kisha’s kids and their friends. Look at that background: How would you like your kids to have to trick or treat between homes and condemned buildings?:

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Here are some more shots of a neighborhood under seige by their own govenrment and the people that live there.

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shame on Mt. Holly!

shame on Mt. Holly!

Is this a "public use"? This sign was on the perimeter of The Gardens - I don't know if this specific development is part of the "redevelopment plan". But knowing of Pulte's power in NJ, I wouldn' be surprised.

Is this a "public use"? This sign was on the perimeter of The Gardens - I don't know if this specific development is part of the "redevelopment plan". But knowing of Pulte's power in NJ, I wouldn' be surprised.

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  1. October 31st, 2010 at 10:50 | #1

    Politicians in nearby Mount Laurel are also guilty – maybe not to the same extent yet.

  2. October 31st, 2010 at 11:18 | #2

    Tx Deci – I really don’t know the issue or the lay of the land. Folks I spoke to told me that the dispute has been ongoing for 10 years. I didn’t do any research adn only learned of it yesterday. Still, I was appalled. This is your neck of the woods, no? Protest organizers read a letter from Senator Diane Allen, supporting theri eforts. Where are Dems and progressives? Senator Rice’s eminent domain bill is really bad, adn going nowehre. Why can’t Dems champion solutions to these problems?

  3. October 31st, 2010 at 22:58 | #3

    You can thank the U.S. Supreme Court for the right to condemn perfectly good housing in the name of progress. And don’t forget that once the market for “luxury condos” crashed, NJ developers suddenly wanted all kinds of monetary incentives to build “affordable housing”!! So they tear it down in one place and then build it in another! And the only ones making out are the developers, the realtors, and the politicians they bought off!

  4. October 31st, 2010 at 23:04 | #4

    @Polly Esther
    Thanks Poly – for our readers, you refer to the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Kelo v. New London (Connecticut)

    A couple involved in that case came to the Mt. Holly protest – I have a picture of them if you or anyone’s interested (I didn’t post, keeping pics only to residents)

    For decision, see:
    http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/04-108.ZS.html

  5. Bill Wolfe
    November 7th, 2010 at 15:39 | #5

    @Deciminyan

    One more point Mr Deciminyan: I think this post may have gotten me banned over at BlueJersey (unless there are technical difficulties, I am unable to post Diary or comment).

    As you are close to Rosi, why don’t you ask?

    I’ve had several non-productive runins with her and don’t feel like wasting my time.

  6. Bonnie Opitz
    February 5th, 2012 at 02:00 | #6

    I grew up in Rancocas Heights and spent many hours in Mt. Holly, high school, work ect. I am appalled at what is being done to the families at the Gardens. If the local goverment want to update the area, how can they think it is fair to offer someone such a low amount for their homes. The Wrights home sure looked great to me. Here is fair to me….pay for them to have other housing of the families choosing while building the new complex then give them a new home mortage free!!!!! In writing with no LOOP HOLES…..now that just might be fair.. Or maybe let the local officials who back this unfair action live at the Gardens as it is slowly being demolished. Bet they might just see a glimps of reality….one would hope. I wish the families of the Gardens all the best….and will pass this along to others.. the more coverage in the Media the better.

  7. nick sodano
    February 5th, 2012 at 12:19 | #7

    Bill,
    You’re good at asking questions, but I don’t see any answer(s). Specifically, your question “What is wrong with the peope of Mt. Holly that they would allow their local government to do this?” – is left hanging. Any theories? A major shortcoming with your essay is its failure to mention crime, which was in Relative terms, RAMPANT in the Gardens. Mt. Holly made an abortive attempt to control it with a substation, but truth be told, they gave up on policing it away, and Housing-enforcing it away… they opted for a more final solution – so to speak. They chose to bulldoze it away, along with the innocent families who lived there and were looking for help from their government. Why?? Why did the government do this? Because they dont know anybody from the Gardens. The Gardens was “YOU people” to the Five Councilpeople and their Twp. Manager, the former Chief of Police. And to the rest of Mt. Holly, the Gardens was a place that they did not drive through, a place where they did not know anybody*, and only read about shootings, drugs and violence. Most residents who I speak to have two reactions to the situation in the Gardens… they ask “When will it be done?” first. Then a significant fraction say “I dont like how they did it”. Some, frankly, dont give a @#$$ what happens to the innocent people there… they only care about property values and “bringing more money in”.

    *It should be noted, that even people who live there were FOR redevelopment, but their vision of redevelopment was vastly different from the heavy handed thing that Mt. Holly visited on them. Which explains why we are being sued.

  8. nick sodano
    February 5th, 2012 at 12:26 | #8

    @Bill Wolfe
    Ha. The only Dem on Council championed the redevelopment. Your question reveals a lack of understanding about the Dems in general.

  1. March 26th, 2011 at 17:19 | #1
  2. December 15th, 2014 at 12:10 | #2
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