by Wayne Deluca
CAMDEN, N.J.— The home of poet Walt Whitman has closed two of its three public libraries, including the main branch of the Free Public Library. In 2010 all three had been slated to close but an outcry has saved one.
Since the 1960s, Camden has shed jobs and residents in unprecedented ways. It used to be a hub of industry, with 23 RCA Victor electronics factories. All have been closed or relocated, as have the shipyards that once lined the Delaware River and employed thousands. Campbell’s Soup still has its headquarters in Camden but is no longer the mass employer it was.
Racial tensions and deindustrialization have bled the city dry. Immigrant communities that thrived in decades past are simply gone today, as the children of Polish and Italian workers drawn here nearly a century ago left for the suburbs. Today, Camden has among the highest unemployment, homelessness, and high school dropout rates in the country. Two out of five residents are below the poverty line. The violent crime rate is over five times the national average, with 2380 per 100,000 residents.
“Transition Park,” a tent city that was described by journalist Chris Hedges in The Nation magazine (Jan. 28, 2011), sprang up in 2009. It has since been removed, but the grinding poverty and homelessness that it represented have not gone with it.
Over the years, millions in reinvestment funds, including grants and tax incentives for the corporate developers, were directed to a narrow strip of the waterfront, but failed to change the city for the working people who live here. An aquarium, marina, entertainment complex, stadium, and a small amount of restored housing have created a tiny, gentrified bubble removed from the blight and accessible by freeways. Most of the city is stunning in its desolation, broad streets devoid of hope, while the pet projects of city and state bureaucrats have only generated a handful of low-paying jobs.
Failure has become the hallmark of civic leadership. Three mayors—all Democrats—have been jailed for corruption, the most recent in 2001. From 2002 to 2010, the state of New Jersey directly administered the city’s government, and since 2005 the police and school system have been run by the state.
Mayor Dana Redd has joined Newark’s Corey Booker in shifting the burden of budget shortfalls onto public employee unions, a trend that has sparked controversy across the nation. The Democrats have moved from their former rhetoric about being “friends of labor” to promoting open attacks on public workers. Meanwhile, the union officialdom, mired in the Democratic Party, has proven unable to mount any defense.
In January, Camden laid off over 400 city workers (a quarter of the total), including 167 police officers and 68 firefighters. In April, emergency state funds will cover rehiring 50 police and 15 firefighters—but only for six more months. Like so much of the tragic history of Camden, this is a token gesture to save face. All this represents an historic abandonment of the people of Camden. In a city already stretched to the limit, the brutality of the cuts demanded by tough-talking New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is at its most transparent.
In many ways Camden is a picture of the grim future awaiting all American cities abandoned by big industry. Only a workers’ fightback that aims at the creation of durable, high-paying union jobs can begin to revitalize Camden and the other cities that have been abandoned by the capitalist system.
> This article was originally published in the April 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.