As Camden leaders tout a budding renaissance in the city, one Rutgers-Camden project will be keeping an objective eye by tracking neighborhood changes in the Cramer Hill section.
The Camden Neighborhood Change Study, nearing completion of its initial data-collection phase, will create a database of every property in Cramer Hill, along with a variety of indicators of condition: broken windows, graffiti, vacancy status.
Once complete, an online map will allow anyone to explore the baseline information. A year from now, researchers will survey the neighborhood again. Done annually, researchers hope, this will help them develop a robust data set that will provide insight into effects of urban development, and help drive policy in the city.
"There's very much a social justice component that we've envisioned in the design of this program," Natasha O. Tursi, who heads the study, told about two dozen people Friday afternoon at a presentation on campus.
Tursi, associate director of the school's Center for Urban Research and Education, said she hopes to continue the program in perpetuity, potentially expanding to other neighborhoods that may soon see change due to private development or public policy. Cramer Hill was chosen first because Tursi believed development planned there would have effects in the neighborhood.
As data are collected by other groups - MacArthur "genius" grant winner Dr. Jeffrey Brenner's health data being a high-profile example - an evidence-based approach to public policy can make governance more rigorous, she said.
"What we're hoping to do is link our data that we create with other data that's being collected: education, crime, policing, health," Tursi said. "So we envision our component to complement other data that's being collected across the city in other neighborhoods, to have a comprehensive picture of what's happening."
But Tursi was careful to state that the project is about academia, not advocacy. The data will be available to everyone, for any use, but "there's no desired or anticipated outcome that we are looking to achieve with this," she said. "This is value-neutral data collection."
The project is also a hands-on introduction to field work and the city, and Tursi was able to enlist the help of some graduate students in Rutgers-Camden's master of public administration program.
First, Tursi hired a 2014 Rutgers-Camden graduate, Anthony Voci, to help run the study. Then she made an offer to one of her classes last semester: Write a paper or do field work helping Voci.
Armed with iPhones, Voci and the students set out three times a week, filling out forms for three hours at a time. At a rate of about a block an hour, they talked to residents, examined housing conditions, and tried to match aerial maps, block maps diagramming properties, and street-level photographs they took.
"I promised them fun. I promised them it wouldn't be all hard and cold and data-retrieving," Voci, 54, said after the presentation.
As they learned about the neighborhood - "there are a lot of distressed properties in Camden, of course . . . but there is a lot of good housing stock," Voci said - they also began to think of Cramer Hill, and the city, as their own.
"It was beyond the grade. At first, you think it's about the grade, the paper," said Danielle E. Davis, 28, one of the graduate students. "But then, it was beyond the grade. I didn't even care what the grade was."
With about 60 blocks surveyed, only a handful remain, the equivalent of about two weeks' worth of data collection. The researchers will then organize the information, clean it up, and prepare it for online publication in a month or two.
For the graduate students, their grades are in, their commitments complete. But as the study nears completion, they say, they will see the work through to the end. (And then, Tursi will have to find more students, and funding, to keep the study going each year.)
"I want to do it," said Zaid N. Mazahreh, 24, one of the graduate students volunteering in the program. "I'm not being forced to do it, this is my part of giving back. Making a change."