Camden, New Jersey, one of the poorest and most crime-ridden U.S. cities, has awaited rebirth for a generation. For now, it has Christopher Toepfer and his paintbrush.
Ten feet up a ladder, Toepfer, a 51-year-old artist, is turning a rotting factory’s plywood-covered windows from a mess of gang graffiti into a railroad mural. The spruce-up, though it won’t cure the neighborhood’s ills of poverty and violence, will make a bright spot of the biggest blight on Federal Street.
Thirty years after New York City Mayor Ed Koch drew scorn for gussying up uninhabitable Bronx tenements with decals of curtained windows, urban fakery is spreading in U.S. cities where the recession’s wave of foreclosures added to decades-long decay. The city of Wilmington, Delaware, used the decal approach on a string of row houses earlier this year, and Bridgeport, Connecticut, started working with local artists in October to adopt Toepfer’s approach.
If the technique that Toepfer calls aesthetic board-up is a stopgap, it’s a cheap one, costing just $500 to $1,000 per property, a fraction of demolition costs. It’s also immediate, with a typical makeover done in less than a day.