My good friend and colleague, Steve Silvius, sent me this article, titled San Bernardino: Broken City, as part of our ongoing conversation on the similarities and differences between Camden and his hometown. The article reminded him of the infamous Rolling Stone feature that I once referred to as “poverty porn.” And the imagines of people struggling to get by, and even doing drugs, are sharp, brutal imagines of the type that once inspired me to write: 

Rolling Stone’s article is just the latest example of the national media obsession with using Camden this way. Sooner or later, every national publication comes to Camden to do their story on poverty and violence. Brian Williams did his special. The Nation titled its expose City in Ruins. And now the Rolling Stone. The constant stream of pictures of addicts shooting up is almost impossible to look away from. It drives voyeuristic clicks, while feeding local despair. Imagine trying to explain where you live to someone who only knows Camden from these articles.

The pattern of exploiting Camden’s misfortune doesn’t start or end with the media’s “shocking” stories. It is deeply woven into Camden’s history. The surrounding region dumps its waste into a plant in the Waterfront South neighborhood and a horde of predatory businesses have left the neighborhood facing an epidemic of asthma and blight. When not literally dumping waste, the suburbs have metaphorically dumped their poor into the city by signing agreements that paid Camden to meet their affordable housing requirements, thus outsourcing their responsibilities to the poor (a now-illegal work-around to the famous Mt. Laurel case which prevented discriminatory zoning to make sure low-income families had access to the suburbs).

I recognized the same frustration from Steve as he considered the article, the inability of those writing about struggling cities to escape from the two narratives: 1) the “fall” and consequent horribleness of the city or 2) the *amazingness* that someone/something could thrive in such a brutal location. As Kevin Riordan is fond of saying, there is a lack of discussion of everyday life in these cities that captures what they are like, rather than their most glaring failures or most vivid successes. This inevitably strikes hollow to residents.

But, the San Bernardino article also struck some themes I’m been thinking about more broadly ever since visiting the city last summer. In short, it makes me think about the appropriateness of new urban visions for cities that are more car dependent and more spread out. In particular, this passage got me thinking: 

But there are still middle-class neighborhoods and amenities: a symphony, a country club, the Starbucks and El Torito along Hospitality Lane.

My first instinct was, that’s something to build from! Though I’m generally skeptical of downtown-centric strategies in a city, I love main-street models, the idea that we can create thriving, walkable corridors that people want to live near or come visit. And a symphony, for example, is a great sign that one of these corridors may be viable and have potential. However, I’m not sure this is really how San Bernardino works. During my visit, the “middle-class” neighborhoods were offset from the downtown. The restaurants we ate at were mostly accessible only by car. And there was no culture of walking. 

Those differences made me rethink my instincts around what a thriving San Bernardino looks like. In Camden, I only have to look across the river for examples of dense, walkable, thriving neighborhoods. If I squint, I can see the start of these along Haddon Avenue or Federal Street in Camden (along with Market Street downtown). In San Bernardino, the journey to thriving main streets has serious physical obstacles. The city is spread out, and doesn’t appear to have as much “main street” infrastructure to begin with. 

All of which left me asking, should we be looking for a different revitalization model for cities with less density? I think the answer is yes, but I’m not sure I know what that strategy looks like. 



  • Thank you for this analysis on the Broken City article. I overlook much of the City of San Bernardino from my 9th floor office at the Vanir Tower in downtown Berdoo. We are real estate developers and construction managers invested in staying in this City. We are tasked with figuring out what that strategy looks like, on making a city with less density truly come to life.

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