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Vacant-house fakery reborn to fight blight

NEW YORK -- Camden, N.J., 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, Del., used the decal approach on a string of row houses earlier this year, and Bridgeport, Conn., 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.

“Having those boards up and preserving those properties from arson, loss of value -- once we started seeing the market pick back up, buyers were willing to come in and rehab,” said Matt Lasko, assistant director of Cleveland’s Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization, which hired Toepfer to work in a neighborhood along Lake Erie. “We saved them from the wrecking ball.”

$100 lots

Around the U.S., cities are seeking ways to put decayed neighborhoods back on the tax rolls.

Detroit in May counted 84,641 vacant structures and lots among almost 380,000 parcels, and Mayor Mike Duggan wants to sell cleared areas to neighbors for $100.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter in January signed an ordinance creating a land bank, easing the city’s acquisition of titles to be transferred to developers.

Toepfer’s work has taken him to about 20 cities, including Minneapolis and New Orleans; Gary, Ind.; and Flint and Grand Rapids in Mich.

In Chicago, he painted pink flamingos on the onetime home of Muddy Waters, the blues musician who died in 1983.

A former U.S. Army captain and software engineer who studied painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Toepfer started the work as a part-time business 22 years ago, then founded a non-profit group, the Neighborhood Foundation, to teach his techniques.

Hired mostly by local housing advocates, he’s secured and added touches from faux windows with houseplants to historic motifs to about 3,000 properties.

Soup remains

In Camden, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, Campbell Soup Co. (NYSE: CPB), is the most visible remnant of a vanished industrial base.

The population of the nine-square-mile city has fallen to about 77,000 from more than 124,000 in the 1950s. Its unemployment rate was 12.3 percent in April, about double the statewide level.

Camden once was the home of RCA Victor, the world’s biggest producer of phonographs and records, and New York Shipbuilding Corp., maker of the USS Indianapolis that was torpedoed in World War II.

As industry faded, the city went from crisis to crisis -- race riots, the crack and AIDS epidemics, corruption, gang wars -- to become the most dangerous city in the U.S., according to a CQ Press analysis of Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics from 2012.

Governor Chris Christie, a 51-year-old Republican, has pushed privately run charter schools and a regional police force to turn around Camden, where 39 percent of residents live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census. That’s quadruple the rate statewide.

Economic incentive

In June, Christie’s administration awarded $82 million in tax breaks over 10 years to the National Basketball Association’s Philadelphia 76ers to build 120,000 square feet of offices and a practice center on the Camden waterfront. The investment is projected to bring 250 full-time jobs to the city.

Toepfer has projects in five Camden neighborhoods. On June 23 he broke from work on the railroad mural at Warren Webster & Co., a defunct heating manufacturer, for a look inside.

“These buildings are interesting,” said Toepfer, a wiry marathon runner, as he hopped along the second floor, testing the soundness of water-damaged areas. “They’re well-built, with old-growth timber and thick walls.”

Squatters vanished on the arrival of Toepfer’s group, leaving mattresses and a 5-gallon bucket topped with a toilet seat. A wall covered with paintball splotches bore graffiti: “Communist Revolution -- Bread for all and gold for none.”

Murder site

On another site, a row house on 10th Street, he poured bottled water on a marigold wilting among the petunias and impatiens he and the crew planted. Cheryl Robinson, a 50-year- old lifelong resident, surveyed the new look as she waited for a bus.

“Why not fix it up so someone can live in it?” Robinson said.

Around the corner, Toepfer had created a leaf motif on the plywood of 920, 922 and 924 State St. Alba Santilln, 48, visiting her brother nearby, recalled when the man at 924 had kept the tidiest house on the block.

“Someone killed him,” she said.

Betsy Clifford, executive director of Camden Lutheran Housing, which allotted $5,000 for Toepfer’s work on those and seven other properties, called the approach “absolutely a Band-Aid,” though one with potential to pay off.

“People get to the point where they’re numb,” she said by telephone. “They don’t even see the blight anymore. We can do something to bright it up.”

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