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.
But then, in a familiar narrative, it all went to hell. RCA, looking, among other things, for an escape from unionized labor, moved many of its Camden jobs to Bloomington, Indiana. New York Shipbuilding closed in the Sixties, taking 7,000 jobs with it. Campbell's stuck it out until the Nineties, when it closed up its last factory, leaving only its corporate headquarters that today is surrounded by gates high and thick enough to keep out a herd of attacking rhinoceroses.
Once the jobs started to disappear, racial tensions rose. Disturbances broke out in 1969 and 1971, the first in response to a rumor about the beating of a young black girl by police, the second after a Hispanic man named Rafael Gonzales really was beaten by two officers. Authorities filed charges against the two cops in that case, but they initially kept their jobs. The city exploded, with countless fires, three people shot, 87 injured. "Order" was eventually restored, but with the help of an alarmist press, the incidents solidified in the public's mind the idea that Camden was a seething, busted city, out of control with black anger.
With legal business mostly gone, illegal business took hold. Those hundreds of industries have been replaced by about 175 open-air drug markets, through which some quarter of a billion dollars in dope moves every year. But the total municipal tax revenue for this city was about $24 million a year back in 2011 – an insanely low number. The police force alone in Camden costs more than $65 million a year. If you're keeping score at home, that's a little more than $450 a year in local taxes paid per person, if you only count people old enough to file tax returns. That's less than half of the $923 that the average New Jersey resident spends just in sales taxes every year.
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