City of Ruins

Walt Whitman’s hometown is a Dickensian nightmare—and a warning for the rest of America

  • City-of-Ruins2-small

    Copyright Joe Sacco
  • City-of-Ruins1-small

    Copyright Joe Sacco

  • City-of-Ruins2-small
  • City-of-Ruins1-small

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.

Sean Dougherty
3/8/2011 9:56:17 PM

Check out this film based on Father Doyle's Bokk and read by Martin Sheen.

Jeffery Biss
3/4/2011 7:37:48 AM

Camden's Dickensian nightmare is the Republican's utopia that they've been working at implementing for the entire U.S. since Reagan. It's looking good, Republicans, at least for the top 1%. The best government that money can buy.

D Black
2/24/2011 6:48:34 PM

Pretty good description of the city in general...I lived and worked in the city for two years and am a proud Rutger's Camden grad. Many students, myself included took the opportunity to join and support many different community initiatives. This would be a great follow-up story. Many grads stayed in the city after graduation and continue making positive change.

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