Camden, New Jersey, where Walt Whitman is buried, is the poorest and most dangerous city in the United States. Chris Hedges has a dispatch in The Nation that paints an almost unbelievably dystopic portrait of a place that few Americans would recognize or ever visit. It’s a tough read, and you’d be hard pressed to find in Hedges’ story a single kernel of any version of the American dream. Joe Sacco’s accompanying illustrations would not look out of place in his graphic novels set in Palestine or Bosnia.
Once a booming city of 120,000 and industrial power that employed 36,000 in its shipyards, today Camden’s population has shrunk to 70,390. The high school dropout rate is 70 percent, Hedges reports, and unemployment is somewhere in the range of 30-40 percent. Hundreds of the homeless live in elaborate encampments, and open air drug markets represent one of the city’s few viable businesses. Despite such grim facts, Hedges writes, “The city is planning $28 million in draconian budget cuts, with officials talking about cutting 25 percent from every department, including layoffs of nearly half the police force. The proposed slashing of the public library budget by almost two-thirds has left the viability of the library system in doubt.”
Not surprisingly, Camden and its residents are mining the ruins to get by:
For a little perspective, the Fall 2010 issue of Global Journalist has a slideshow of a community of 2,000 residents that has sprung up in the middle of a cemetery in Manila, and the photographs and commentary of James Chance make what might otherwise seem like an unspeakably sad story look positively hopeful when considered alongside Hedges’ bleak portrait of Camden.