Camden, New Jersey, with a population of 70,390, is per capita the poorest city in the nation. It is also 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 30–40 percent. The median household income is $24,600. There is a 70 percent high school dropout rate, with only 13 percent of students managing to pass the state’s proficiency exams in math. 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.
Camden is where those discarded as human refuse are dumped, along with the physical refuse of postindustrial America. A sprawling sewage treatment plant on forty acres of riverfront land processes 58 million gallons of wastewater a day for Camden County. The stench of sewage lingers in the streets. There is a huge trash-burning plant that releases noxious clouds, a prison, a massive cement plant and mountains of scrap metal feeding into a giant shredder. 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 and old tires; neglected, weed-filled cemeteries; and boarded-up store fronts.
Corruption is rampant, with three mayors sent to prison 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 he has turned the poverty and despair of Camden into a business. His critics charge that the new medical school, for example, was approved because it was part of a back-room deal Governor Jon Corzine cut with Norcross in Corzine’s failed re-election bid. 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 and built some of the nation’s largest warships. It was the home to major industries, from RCA Victor to the New York Ship Building Corporation and Campbell’s Soup, 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 by more than 40 percent from its 1950 level of 120,000. There are no movie theaters or hotels. There are lots with used cars but no dealerships that sell new vehicles. The one supermarket is located on the city’s outskirts, away from the endemic street crime.