Walt Whitman’s hometown is a Dickensian nightmare—and a warning for the rest of America
Camden, New Jersey, with a population of 70,390, is per capita one of the poorest cities in the nation. It is also among the most dangerous. The city’s real unemployment—hard to estimate, since many residents have been severed from the formal economy for generations—is probably 30 to 40 percent. The median household income is $24,600. There is a 60 percent high school dropout rate, with only 13 percent of students managing to pass the state’s math proficiency exams. The city is planning $28 million in draconian budget cuts, with officials talking about cutting 25 percent from every department, and has already laid off nearly half the police force. A sewage treatment plant on 40 acres of riverfront land processes millions of gallons of wastewater a day for Camden County. The stench of sewage lingers in the streets. There is a huge trash-burning plant, a prison, a massive cement plant, and mountains of scrap metal. The city is scarred with several thousand decaying abandoned row houses; the skeletal remains of windowless brick factories and gutted gas stations; overgrown vacant lots filled with garbage; neglected, weed-filled cemeteries; and boarded-up storefronts.
Corruption is rampant, with three mayors convicted of felonies in a little more than two decades. Five police officers, two of whom are out on bail and three of whom have pleaded guilty, have been charged with planting evidence, making false arrests, and trading drugs for information from prostitutes. County prosecutor Warren Faulk has had to drop charges against some 200 suspects, including some who’d spent years in prison, because of the misconduct.
The city is dominated by an old-time party boss, George Norcross III. Although he does not live in Camden, his critics contend that he decides who runs for office and who does not, who gets city and state contracts, and which projects get funded. Tens of millions in state funds have been used for city projects, from an aquarium on the waterfront to a new law school to an expansion of the Cooper University Hospital and construction of a medical school.
In 2002 the state approved a $175 million recovery package to save the city, but according to a yearlong investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer, only 5 percent had been used to combat crime, improve schools, provide jobs, or bolster municipal services. Those who oppose Norcross insist that he has turned the poverty and despair of Camden into a business. When I met with him, Norcross dismissed the allegations and defended his huge infrastructure projects as crucial to revitalizing the bleak downtown.
Camden, like America, was once an industrial giant. It employed some 36,000 workers in its shipyards during World War II. It was the home to major industries, including RCA Victor and Campbell’s, which still has its international headquarters in a gated section of Camden but no longer makes soup in the city. Camden was a destination for Italian, German, Polish, and Irish immigrants who in the middle of the last century could find decent-paying jobs that required little English or education. The city’s population has fallen nearly 40 percent from its 1950 level of 125,000. There are no movie theaters or hotels. There are used-car lots but no dealerships that sell new vehicles. The one supermarket is located on the city’s outskirts, away from the endemic street crime.
There are perhaps a hundred open-air drug markets, most run by gangs like the Bloods, the Latin Kings, Los Nietos, and MS-13. Knots of young men in black leather jackets and baggy sweatshirts sell weed and crack to clients, many of whom drive in from the suburbs. The drug trade is one of the city’s few thriving businesses. Camden is awash in guns, easily purchased across the river in Pennsylvania, where gun laws are lax.
The city stands as a warning of what huge pockets of the United States could turn into as we cement a permanent underclass of the unemployed, slash state and federal services in a desperate bid to cut massive deficits, watch cities and states go bankrupt, and struggle to adjust to a stark neofeudalism in which the working and middle classes are decimated.
I found the city’s homeless congregated in a collection of tents, protected by tarps, set up under the shelter of an Interstate 676 ramp. The tent city, or “transitional park,” was overseen by Lorenzo “Jamaica” Banks, 57, who bought damaged tents from Walmart and Kmart at a reduced price, repaired them, and provided them to the homeless—at $10 a pop, police told me. Banks insisted that he offered them for free.
When I walked into the encampment with my colleague, comics artist Joe Sacco, Banks was chopping firewood. There were about 50 tents in the park, and Banks owned 40 of them. He spoke in the drumbeat staccato of a man who seems about to snap at any moment. He claimed to be a Vietnam vet, to have been a heroin addict now clean for 37 years, to have ended up after the war in a mental institution, to have jumped off the Ben Franklin Bridge in a suicide attempt because of “a lot of flashbacks,” and to have spent “22 years, six months, three hours, and 33 seconds” in prison for shooting to death his best friend because he was “killing his baby in front of me.”
“I’m better now,” he assured us as the commuter train into Philadelphia rumbled along the tracks overhead. “I’m on medication. I live here because it reminds me of the jungle.”
Banks, who called himself “the mayor,” ran the tent city, which had a population of about 60, ranging in age from 18 to 76, like a military encampment. He had a second-in-command, his “CEO,” who took over when Banks had to buy supplies. There were weekly tent inspections on Saturday, meetings every Tuesday night, and a list of 16 rules written on plywood tacked to a tree. These included restrictions on fighting and arguing, admonishments to clean up the trash, and several other blunt prohibitions, including “Don’t bring your tricks here” and “No borrowing money or sex from anyone.” Residents received two warnings for infractions before they were evicted. Drugs were banned. Alcohol was not. Banks had even set up a bank account for the enclave.
At night there were shifts when someone—Banks said he preferred a vet—had to stand guard. There was a Dumpster filled with trash at the edge of the encampment, white folding tables with white plastic chairs and five-gallon plastic water containers outside many tents. “Take a look at the American Dream,” Banks said as he guided us through the tents, stepping around rusted bicycles and shopping carts. “Everybody is one paycheck away from being here.”
Officially, Camden has 775 homeless people, but there are only 220 shelter beds in the county, so city officials nervously tolerated the encampment, despite its illegality, until late last spring, when they swiftly dismantled it and those who were tossed out scattered. Camden’s streets are filled with the unemployed. Ali Sloan El, who recently got out of prison, is chatting with some men in the street, several of whom are Muslims like him and have shaved heads and long black beards. The group of men around Sloan El have just witnessed a botched robbery at a barbershop a few minutes before Joe and I arrive. A young gunman, nervous and unsure of himself, had pulled out a pistol and tried to rob the barbers. He was chased out of the shop by a group of men and tackled on the sidewalk. One of the barbers is at the police station filing a report.
The mood inside the shop is hostile. “How did you know about the stickup?” asks a barber who says his name is Sam. “We were told about it on the street,” I answer. He arches his eyebrows in disbelief. “No one would talk to you on the street. No one would tell you nothin’,” he says coldly. “A mother with a 2-year-old in a stroller told us,” I tell him. “Yeah,” he admits reluctantly, “maybe that’s right, maybe a mother would talk.”
The rumor on the street, Sloan El informs us, is that the robber was high on a narcotic called wet. The drug of choice of Camden’s criminal class, wet is made by soaking marijuana in embalming fluid, which is a mixture of formaldehyde, methanol, ethanol, and other solvents. Phencyclidine, or PCP, known on the street as angel dust, is often added to the mix. Wet is smoked dry; the leaves, which glisten, give the drug its liquid name. Wet numbs its users and endows them with what seems to them to be superhuman strength. Their body temperature rises, their blood pressure drops, and they frequently hallucinate. The high can last up to six hours. Two Camden police officers who do not want to be named tell us they fear confronting street thugs on wet. “You shoot them and they just keep coming,” one says warily.
Those who do not join street gangs live like minnows, darting through the currents to avoid the predatory fish. Darnell Monroe, 33, wearing a new pair of brown Timberlands, a black leather jacket, jeans, and a black-and-white checked kaffiyeh as a scarf, sits with us in the barbershop. One of the barbers immediately turns up the radio to a deafening roar, I suspect to drive us out. Monroe, also a Muslim, is a tall man with a shaved head and a full black beard. He spent four years in prison for dealing drugs. He became a father when he was 13. The mother was 16. “I’m sociable,” he says when I ask him about surviving in Camden, “but I keep moving. I don’t want to draw the wrong kind of attention. I don’t want a conflict.”
Monroe was shot three times in the stomach in 1998 when he was coming out of a bar and tried to break up a fight. “To this day I don’t know who shot me,” he says. He lifts his shirt and exposes a massive scar on his stomach that looks like a brownish mountain range with jagged edges. “It was a .380 automatic,” he says. Until he was laid off in 2009, Monroe had a job as a forklift operator in the scrap yards by the port.
The city is busily cannibalizing itself in a desperate bid to generate revenue. Giant scrap piles rise in hulks along the banks of the Delaware. The piles, filled with discarded appliances, rusted filing cabinets, twisted pipes, old turbines, and corrugated sheet metal, are as high as a four-story house. A crane, outfitted with a large magnet, sways over the pile and swings scrap over to a shredding machine. There are about 20 scrap merchants in the city, and they have created a market for the metal guts of apartments and houses.
As soon as a house is empty—even if only for a few days between renters or because it is being painted—the hustlers break in and strip every pipe, radiator, screen door, and window. Over the past three or four decades, thousands of owners, faced with the destruction, have walked away from their properties. Camden produces a million tons of scrap a year. Its huge shredding machines in the port can chop up automobiles and stoves into chunks the size of a baseball. Ships from Turkey, China, and India pull into the port and take the scrap back to smelters in their countries.
The only white people visible daily on the city’s streets are the hookers. Congregated near the highway ramps on Ferry Avenue, most are heroin addicts and nearly all are infected with AIDS, hepatitis C, or other sexually transmitted diseases. The women sleep in abandoned apartments without running water, heat, or electricity.
If arresting someone on wet is the least pleasant duty for Camden police, arresting hookers is the second. “Ninety-nine percent of them are heroin addicts,” a sergeant tells us. “They have diseases. You pat them down and you find needles. You can get stuck with a needle. And they have MRSA, a skin disease with open sores. We have to get our cars disinfected afterward. Ninety-five percent have outstanding warrants, although they usually give us a wrong name.”
Despite Camden’s bleakness, valiant souls somehow rise up in magnificent defiance. In a room across the street from Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where meals are provided for the homeless on Saturdays, a group of African American women bow their heads over a table and hold hands. They are led by Lallois Davis, 67, a heavyset woman who radiates an indomitable, unbroken spirit.
“The poor have to help the poor,” Davis says, “because the ones who make the money are helping the people with money.”
Davis raised four children and then, when a neighbor died, leaving behind her two orphaned grandsons, Davis took them in and raised them as well. She wears a large cross around her neck. She is known as Aunt Lallois.
“My heart is heavy,” says a 69-year-old woman named Brenda Hayes, her head bowed and her eyes shut. “There is so much heaviness. It is wounding me. How can I not worry?”
“Yes, Jesus. Yes, Jesus,” the other women respond.
“I know you didn’t carry us this far to drop us now,” she says. “I know there is no burden so heavy that we can’t carry it with your help. I thank you, Lord, for friends who have carried me through the roughest times.”
“Yes, Jesus. Nothing is impossible with you, Jesus,” the women say.
“Bodies,” Hayes says after the prayer. “Bodies out back. Bodies upstairs. People stabbed. I don’t go out at night. The last one was 20 feet away from me on my floor. There are parents who are addicts who send their children out to sell drugs. I know a mother who is a prostitute. Her oldest daughter sells weed to go to school, and one day the mother stole the weed and sold it to buy crack.”
Father Michael Doyle, an Irish priest, has been in the Sacred Heart parish for 35 years. He has witnessed the violence of poverty devastating his congregation. Father Doyle was a member of the Camden 28, a group of left-wing Catholics and anti–Vietnam War activists who in 1971 raided the city’s draft board to destroy files. He was sent to Camden as punishment by church leaders who disapproved of his activism.
“Today’s a very hard time to be poor,” says Father Doyle. “Because you know you’re poor. You hear people my age get up and say, ‘We were poor. We put cardboard in our shoes.’ We talk like that. But we didn’t know we were poor. Today you do. And how do you know you’re poor? Your television shows you that you’re poor. So it’s very easy to build up anger in, say, a high-voltage kid of 17. I discovered that very quickly when I came to Camden. I discovered that the anger was so near the surface, you just rub it and it explodes. And there’s no respect for you if you have no money.”
I ask him why the rage is invariably self-destructive. “You have an enemy, and that enemy is greed and prejudice and injustice and all that type of thing,” he says, “but you can’t get at it. There’s no head, there’s no clarity, so you take it out on your neighbor. It’s just horrendous what people do.”
“Women have some dignity in a poor ghetto because they bear children and raise them,” Father Doyle goes on. “Men are adding nothing and feeding from the trough. A woman walks down the street pushing a little cart, and a child on it—she’s somebody. But the man standing watching her is nobody.”
It is a bleak, rainy afternoon when we visit Harleigh Cemetery. Walt Whitman’s tomb, based on a design drawn by William Blake, is here. So is the grave of another Camden poet, Nicholas Virgilio, who, as Father Doyle says, “mined beauty out of the gutters of Camden.” Virgilio died of a heart attack in 1989. The priest designed his grave in the shape of a podium.
Virgilio, who wrote his poems in his basement under a naked lightbulb next to his washing machine, chronicled the slow strangulation of his city. The hookers knitting baby booties on a bus; latchkey children “exploring the wild on public television”; the frozen body of a drunk found on a winter morning in a cardboard box labeled “Fragile: Do Not Crush”; as well as laments for his brother Larry, killed in Vietnam. I open his thin book, Selected Haiku, to a passage and place it on the marble top of his grave. Droplets of rain splatter the page:
the sack of kittens
sinking in the icy creek
increases the cold
Chris Hedges, former Middle East bureau chief for the New York Times, is a senior fellow at The Nation Institute. Excerpted from The Nation (Nov. 22, 2010), a progressive publication that weighs in weekly on politics, arts, and culture. Copyright © 2010, The Nation. www.thenation.com
This article first appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of Utne Reader.