“Welcome to Camden” is how commuters are greeted to a city notorious for its endemic poverty, austerity, high murder rates, and structural deficit that never seems to diminish. The lingering effects of deindustrialization mark Camden. Well-paying manufacturing companies withdrew, proving catastrophic to the city’s local economy and tight knit social fabric. Globalization, in combination with the surge of the service sector and discriminatory government policies, have exacerbated the structural problems that surfaced before the civil rights movement. As a result, most of the residents of Camden are African American or Latino living in high-poverty neighborhoods. Those who had the means to escape relocated to suburbia. The less fortunate sank into an abyss of poverty, failure, and crime.
On one side of Camden, a flourishing business district boasts Cooper Hospital, Rutgers University, Campbell’s Soup Corporate Headquarters, and series of small businesses and charter schools. However, as one advances further away from the business epicenter, the city’s deterioration becomes evident. Recreation centers and green spaces are minimal. Chemical and waste management plants have become prominent in the struggling inner city. Black-and-white patrol cars establish perimeters around the toughest neighborhoods, yet murders and violent crimes flourish within the boundaries they enforce. In the city of Camden lie two opposite worlds, each with its own set of interests.
Many citizens ask themselves: Why the disparity? The city has been consistent in offering generous tax abatements and land with the goal of incentivizing businesses to establish inside the city limits. On the business spectrum, leaders of economic development have promised to create jobs for residents in exchange for public money. Jobs have been created, the majority of which require high levels of education that residents of Camden lack. Many Camdenites are at risk of becoming homeless, but affordable housing fails to come up in the agenda. As a result hundreds of people are forced to sleep on the street, many whom choose to make their beds in front of City Hall.
A bird’s eye view of Camden, New Jersey.
Prestige as an incentive to attract economic development has become a trend in inner cities across the nation. As poor and dangerous as Camden is categorized annually, the city enjoys a set of luxurious condominiums with a nice view of Philadelphia, our bustling neighbor, struggling with similar inner-city problems. A couple meters down a vibrant aquarium and entertainment center lie at the heart of Camden’s Waterfront. Thus the question arises: Is this essential to the Progress of Camden? A city that has fallen prey to austerity, in which the public system is one of the worst of the state, and where community organizing is almost unheard of, the answer is clear.
Camden is a city in which the tax base and voter turnout are congruent, almost non-existent. Residents are desperate for increases in social services, affordable housing, jobs that match the skills of their community members and the relocation of decisions making powers to the hands of citizens. Unfortunately the plight of the poor has been ignored and sealed, leaving residents feeling powerless. This has been evident in the voter turnout of the city. Roughly 75,000 people reside in Camden, yet fewer than 5,000 votes are cast in most elections.
Unfortunately the poor have become the scapegoat of their own problems. The mere thought of redistribution of wealth is taboo and individuals argue against subsidizing those in need. Citizens have become accustomed to the expansion of economic interest, while they are left to deal with the struggles related to urban poverty. Nevertheless, sunlight continues to shines down on Camden. Community organizing will set the foundations necessary for empowerment. It will stimulate civic engagement and provide citizens with the skills necessary to affect change in the deteriorating city. Community organizing will serve as Camdenites’ chief defense system against special interests. Thus, allowing them to crawl out of the dark abyss and make decisions that will improve their standards of living.
Post and photos by Camden resident Omar Samaniego.