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:
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 three- or four-story house, and at their base are large pools of brackish water. A crane, outfitted with a large magnet, sways over the pile and swings scrap over to a shredding machine. A pickup and a U-Haul filled with old refrigerators, gates, screen doors and pipes are unloading in front of a small booth when we arrive. There are about twenty 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.
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.