|An 89 percent white city in 1940, today only five percent white... yes, race is all that matters|
The first thing you notice about Camden, New Jersey, is that pretty much everyone you talk to has just gotten his or her ass kicked.
Instead of shaking hands, people here are always lifting hats, sleeves, pant legs and shirttails to show you wounds or scars, then pointing in the direction of where the bad thing just happened.
"I been shot six times," says Raymond, a self-described gangster I meet standing on a downtown corner. He pulls up his pant leg. "The last time I got shot was three years ago, twice in the femur." He gives an intellectual nod. "The femur, you know, that's the largest bone in the leg."
"First they hit me in the head," says Dwayne "The Wiz" Charbonneau, a junkie who had been robbed the night before. He lifts his wool cap to expose a still-oozing red strawberry and pulls his sweatpants down at the waist, drawing a few passing glances. "After that, they ripped my pockets out. You can see right here. . . ."
Even the cops have their stories: "You can see right here, that's where he bit me," says one police officer, lifting his pant leg. "And I'm thinking to myself, 'I'm going to have to shoot this dog.'"
"I've seen people shot and gotten blood on me," says Thomas Bayard Townsend III, a friendly convicted murderer with a tear tattoo under his eye. "If you turn around here, and your curiosity gets the best of you, it can cost you your life."
Camden is just across the Delaware River from the brick and polished cobblestone streets of downtown Philadelphia, where oblivious tourists pour in every year, gobbling cheese steaks and gazing at the Liberty Bell, having no idea that they're a short walk over the Ben Franklin Bridge from a full-blown sovereignty crisis – an un-Fantasy Island of extreme poverty and violence where the police just a few years ago essentially surrendered a city of 77,000.
All over America, communities are failing. Once-mighty Rust Belt capitals that made steel or cars are now wastelands. Elsewhere, struggling white rural America is stocking up on canned goods and embracing the politics of chaos, sending pols to Washington ready to hit the default button and start the whole national experiment all over again.
But in Camden, chaos is already here. In September, its last supermarket closed, and the city has been declared a "food desert" by the USDA. The place is literally dying, its population having plummeted from above 120,000 in the Fifties to less than 80,000 today. Thirty percent of the remaining population is under 18, an astonishing number that's 10 to 15 percent higher than any other "very challenged" city, to use the police euphemism. Their home is a city with thousands of abandoned houses but no money to demolish them, leaving whole blocks full of Ninth Ward-style wreckage to gather waste and rats.
It's a major metropolitan area run by armed teenagers with no access to jobs or healthy food, and not long ago, while the rest of America was ranting about debt ceilings and Obamacares, Camden quietly got pushed off the map. That was three years ago, when new governor and presumptive future presidential candidate Chris Christie abruptly cut back on the state subsidies that kept Camden on life support.
The move left the city almost completely ungoverned – a graphic preview of what might lie ahead for communities that don't generate enough of their own tax revenue to keep their lights on. Over three years, fires raged, violent crime spiked and the murder rate soared so high that on a per-capita basis, it "put us somewhere between Honduras and Somalia," says Police Chief J. Scott Thomson.
"They let us run amok," says a tat-covered ex-con and addict named Gigi. "It was like fires, and rain, and babies crying, and dogs barking. It was like Armageddon."
Not long ago, Camden was everything about America that worked. In 1917, a report counted 365 industries in Camden that employed 51,000 people. Famous warships like the Indianapolis were built in Camden's sprawling shipyards. Campbell's soup was made here. Victor Talking Machine Company, which later became RCA Victor, made its home in Camden, and the city once produced a good portion of the world's phonographs; those cool eight-hole pencil sharpeners you might remember from grade school – they were made in Camden too. The first drive-in movie was shown here, in 1933, and one of the country's first planned communities was built here by the federal government for shipyard workers nearly a century ago.
On January 18th, 2011, the city laid off 168 of its 368 police officers, kicking off a dramatic, years-long, cops-versus-locals, house-to-house battle over a few square miles of North American territory that should have been national news, but has not been, likely because it took place in an isolated black and Hispanic ghost town.
After the 2011 layoffs, police went into almost total retreat. Drug dealers cheerfully gave interviews to local reporters while slinging in broad daylight. Some enterprising locals made up T-shirts celebrating the transfer of power from the cops back to the streets: JANUARY 18, 2011 – it's our time. A later design aped the logo of rap pioneers Run-DMC, and "Run-CMD" – "CMD" stands both for "Camden" and "Cash, Money, Drugs" – became the unofficial symbol of the unoccupied city, seen in town on everything from T-shirts to a lovingly rendered piece of wall graffiti on crime-ridden Mount Ephraim Avenue.
Cops started calling in sick in record numbers, with absenteeism rates rising as high as 30 percent over the rest of 2011. Burglaries rose by a shocking 65 percent. The next year, 2012, little Camden set a record with 67 homicides, officially making it the most dangerous place in America, with 10 times the per-capita murder rate of cities like New York: Locals complained that policing was completely nonexistent and the cops were "just out here to pick up the bodies." The carnage left Camden's crime rate on par with places like Haiti after its 2010 earthquake, and with other infamous Third World hot spots, as police officials later noticed to their dismay when they studied U.N. statistics.
The moral of the story: Arrests in North Camden, the most stricken part of town, sometimes just don't take. Many cops here have stories about busts that either didn't happen or almost didn't happen when the streets made an opposite ruling. "Ninth and Cedar. I remember chasing a guy a block and a half – he had a Tec-9," says Joe Wysocki, a quiet, soft-spoken 20-year Camden vet. "Handcuffing him, I remember looking up and there were, like, 60 people around me. I threw the guy into the car, jumped in the back seat with him, and [my partner] took off.""Telling the prisoner, 'Move over,'" joked another cop in the room."Yeah," says Wysocki. "Sometimes you just have to scoop and run."
Nobody in North Camden calls the police. When the county installed the new "ShotSpotter" technology that pinpoints the locations of gunshots, they discovered that 30 percent of all shootings in the city go unreported, many of them from North Camden. "North Camden would generally like to police itself," says Thomson. "Rather than getting a call of an adult who had assaulted a child, generally you'll get a call to send an ambulance and a police officer to the corner of 7th and York because there's a person laying there beaten nearly to death with chains."
North Camden is one of a few neighborhoods in the city that still feels less policed than occupied. There's even an infamous brick housing-project tower here called Northgate 1 where the middle floors carry the nickname "Little Iraq," for the residents' reputation for being not quite under government control.
In fact, when the state raided the tower to serve warrants a few years back, they were so concerned with ground-level resistance that they invaded from the sky, like soldiers in Afghanistan, rappelling onto the roof by helicopter. The state police believed they'd sent a message, but there are locals who reacted to the Rambo-commando episode with the same you've-gotta-be-kidding-me incredulity you see on faces of kids surrounded by multiple squad cars and millions of dollars in technology, busted for loitering or a few lids of weed. "They pussies," is how one Camdenite put it.
The report spoke directly to the situation int he greater Camden area. During the 1990s, the suburbs immediately adjacent to Camden, most notably Pennsauken, but also Collingswood and the western portion of Cherry Hill, began to be affected by the same patterns of blight and unsettling demographic change that affected Camden's outer residential areas. In both Pennsauken and Collingswood, the area between the Camden border and U.S. Route 130 began to look more like Camden, both physically (with more rental units) and demographically. As a sure sign of change, the presence of black and Hispanic children in Pennsauken schools increase to 46 percent in 1995 and 68 percent in 1999.
White flight was beginning in Pennsauken. When one family, the Bonifacios, decided to leave for Cherry Hill, the sale of their home was delayed because only minority buyers who found financing difficult to obtain considered the home.
As early as 1987, some white homeowners had begun to express alarm. "I'm afraid the value of my property will depreciate because East Camden is moving in slowly, " one commented. "You can see it coming. I'm talking about drugs, theft, noise." Quipped one Pennsauken resident only a few years later, "Let's face it, everyone is moving out of Pennsauken: just ask a realtor. There are more than 600 houses for sale in Pennsauken."
Responding to the perception that crime was spilling over from Camden into their townships, perception that crime was spilling over from Camden into their township, Pennsauken officials in 1994 instituted spot police checks of cars crossing the border. Only when Camden Mayor Arnold Webster, backed by a constitutional expert who saw racism in Pennsauken's actions, objected strenuously did the practice stop.
Most accounts of urban decline have emphasized white flight, but have underestimated the ill effects of politicians dealing ineptly with growing minority populations. African Americans had lived in a largely contained area of South Camden as far back as the 1830s. As employment opportunities grew during World War II, their numbers increased dramatically following the pattern of most northern industrial centers. Even then, labor shortages encouraged Campbell's, among other companies, to import workers from Puerto Rico.
By the late 1950s, these newcomers were facing the dual problems of declining opportunities for manual labor and increasingly crowded and inadequate housing conditions in the few segregated areas available for their residence... redevelopment plans worsened the situation by calling for uprooting as many as 14,000 mostly minority residents to make way for highways, new commercial facilities, and modern housing. Inevitably, these efforts provoked resistance, which grew increasingly militant in coincidence with the emerging black power movement. Determined to execute policies he believed were essential to the city's financial stability, [Mayor Al] Pierce (who thought he was destined to "save his city" -- a vision he had while flying aircraft over Germany during World War II) directed his police department to root out his opposition. Not only did efforts to convict black activists and their white religious supporters under phony charges get thrown out in court, a civil rights coalition managed to bring redevelopment to a halt through court action. (p. 146)
... the situation he inherited in 1973 was dire. Graphically describing his view of his native city as he made his way through the old [white] ethnic neighborhoods toward City Hall for his first day of work, he said: "It looked like the Vietcong bombed us to get even. The pride of Camden... was now a rat-infested skeleton of yesterday, a visible obscenity of urban decay... The years of neglect, slumlord exploitation, tenant abuse, government bungling, indecision and short-sighted policy had transformed the city's housing, business and industrial stock into a ravaged, rat-infested cancer on a sick, old industrial city." (p. 147)
African Americans, whose presence was always limited in heavy industry, were less affected, but as their number continued to grow, they competed with whites for housing. Workers congregating in older and thus more affordable housing located near the city's industrial core had reason enough to leave when they lost jobs.
Pressures to sell their homes gave them one more excuse to leave, however attached they might have been to their old neighborhood. During the 1960s another 28,000 whites left Camden. Now, clearly, economic change was contributing to the metropolitan area's demographic shift, even before the civil disturbance of 1961.
Industrial employment continued to decline in the 1970s, though not as rapidly as white flight rose. By the end of the decade, two features stood out: Camden could no longer be considered a manufacturing center, nor was it a predominately white working-class city. For the first time, whites no longer constituted a majority of Camden but just over 30 percent.
To the degree that racial and economic change were conflated in the public mind, subsequent reports of rising crime and social disorder, or what the Manhattan Institute's Fred Siegel calls "rolling riots," sealed the city's reputation as an undesirable place. (p. 43-44)