City of Ruins
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.
The only white people visible daily on the city's streets are the hookers. Congregated near the highway ramps on Ferry Street, 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. "I try not to deal with them. 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, despite its crime and its deprivation, despite the lost factory jobs that are never coming back—despite all this, 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 twenty feet away from me on my floor. There was one kid, he lived in the back of the projects, 18 years old. They buried him two months ago. Gunshot. There were four kids I knew murdered, one in the parking lot who was killed last year. He was 12 or 13. He was sleeping—some say he was living—in a car."
"There are parents who are addicts who send their children out to sell drugs," Hayes adds. "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 thirty-five 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, seated in the church rectory. "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 a, say, a high-voltage kid of 17. He knows he's poor, he looks at the TV and all these people have everything and I have nothing. And so he's very angry.... I'm talking about the violence that rises out of the marketing that shows the kid what he could have, creates a huge anger that explodes easily. That I discovered very quickly when I came to Camden. I discovered 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. "They can't get at it," he said. "You have an enemy, and that enemy is greed and prejudice and injustice and all that type of thing, 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 with its heavy stone front and peaked roof with the poet's name in imposing stone letters. 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. One of the poet's verses is engraved on the stone:
out of the water...
out of itself.
Virgilio, who wrote his poems in his basement under a naked light bulb next to his washing machine, chronicled the slow strangulation of his city. The hookers knitting baby booties on a bus; sitting alone as he orders eggs and toast in an undertone on Thanksgiving; 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