Civil Liberties

Eminent Domain & the GOP National Convention


Camden, NJ—Evening's coming in mid-March and a neon "OPEN" sign lights up the front window of the Four Winds Motor Lodge, perched on Admiral Wilson Boulevard, a particularly desolute stretch of road that links this ruin of a town to Philadelphia via the Ben Franklin Bridge. Come April 30, the neon sign will be switched off for good, and the two-story brick building will be razed. Just in time for the Republican National Convention, which is set to take place this summer in the City of Brotherly Love, just across the Delaware River.

Such timing is sad, not only for the Four Winds, but also for the few non-wealthy or adventurous Republican conventioneers who might have saved a few bucks by staying there (rooms start at $39.95). A bevy of other tourist-friendly businesses are also being flattened just before the big GOP show: Buyrite Liquor, a booze megastore that shares the Four Winds parking lot; gas stations that charge rock-bottom prices; and Showgirls' Palace, a strip joint just a brief stroll down from the Four Winds. Showgirls' may be the one that will be missed the most: It's easy to believe that after a hard day of bickering over family values, any number of party stalwarts would have continued the conversation while experiencing the club's signature "couch and shower dancing." Indeed, Showgirls'–which advertises free "Big Rig Parking"–seems to have been designed with the Lincoln Navigators and Town Cars favored by conventioneers in mind.

The prime mover in all this destruction is New Jersey's Republican governor, Christie Whitman. She views the strip as a gateway to the Garden State and wants to make sure New Jersey has the "gem it deserves." Forget that the Republicans position themselves as the champions of small business. Forget even that any business–small or large, legal or illegal–is rare in Camden, a town so down on its luck that even pimps collect unemployment. Whitman helped develop a $45 million plan to turn these businesses into a public park, whether their owners like it or not.

The Four Winds owner, Jagdish Gupta, certainly doesn't. The Delaware River Port Authority, the agency exercising eminent domain, will only pay for the value of the land, not for licenses, stock, or any projected future income for the businesses. "I'm losing everything," explains Gupta in a clipped Indian accent. "If the move benefits society, fine. What we are losing they should compensate us for. We are losing both the land and the business. They are different." Gupta, who reportedly paid $1.5 million for the hotel in 1993, won't tell me how much the DRPA is offering him, how much he wants, or how much he has spent on lawyers to fight the government. Since I'm neither a congressman nor the governor, he figures I'm worthless to him.

No one would mistake Admiral Wilson Boulevard for Miracle Mile. A reflection of the city that it connects to Philadelphia, it's seen better days. Car dealerships and restaurants are now strip bars, gas stations, and liquor stores, if they're anything at all. The once-grand Oasis Hotel, built in the '20s as part of the country's largest YMCA, now rents rooms in an attached motor lodge to the strung-out prostitutes loitering in its parking lot. A couple doors down, a former old hotel and go-go club is now the Gatekeepers Fellowship Church, dedicated to saving the types who frequent the Oasis. It's sort of a self-contained economy.

But the strip is not useless, even for those who don't pay for sex. With 80,000 cars passing by on their way in and out of Philadelphia each day, it's ideal for gas stations and liquor stores, which can leverage New Jersey's relaxed liquor laws (Pennsylvania still sells hooch in state stores). A car stereo store has thrived on the strip for five years. A fur shop has found the strip profitable for six decades.

"Because Philly's right there, we could sell anything: $100 bottles of wine, $50 bottles of tequila," says the soon-to-be-out-of-work Sandy Shah, who works Buyrite's register. Co-worker Cheryl Gattuso figures the prostitutes who work the streets and frequent the hotels will just move their business to the new park, which is slated to open in time for the July convention. Perhaps it will become a cruiser's park, I venture, as a regular customer buys a bottle of Captain Morgan's Spiced Rum and complains that her preferred size is no longer in stock. Gattuso says guys already work the strip; she doesn't doubt that they'll move to the park. So maybe things won't be so bad for the Republican conventioneers after all.

Michael W. Lynch is REASON's Washington editor.