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Camden: still the second most dangerous city in U.S.

December 8, 2011
English: Camden, New Jersey is one of the poor...

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As a life-long resident of southern New Jersey I’ve grown to love the bucolic beauty of this region, its proximity to Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C., as well as the vacation mecca of the Jersey shore.

In the middle off all that regional beauty and culture is the gritty, violent, and perpetually sad city of Camden. Hundreds of millions of dollars in state aid, millions of dollars in charity and the countless man-hours of social service and public safety workers have done little to fix whatever’s wrong with Camden.

There was a time, long before I was born, when Camden was actually a gorgeous, smaller version of nearby Philadelphia. There are still remnants of that beauty in the city, which can be seen in the truly gorgeous facades of many old buildings. Those buildings are a reflection of what was.

There are new pretty structures in Camden, too – the entertainment center, the aquarium, the minor league baseball stadium, Rutgers University’s campus, the dock to the U.S.S. New Jersey, the addition to Cooper University Hospital. All funded with massive amounts of state aid in the hopes that the middle and upper classes would flock back to the city. Developers built high-end townhouses and condos out of the old RCA manufacturing buildings, which feature a gorgeous view of Philadelphia across the Delaware River. Even the nearby state prison was knocked down recently.

But aside from notable summer concerts, few have come to see Camden or its other entertainment options. Fewer still made the city their permanent home.

Why?

Surely there are many reasons, but the most notable would have to be Camden’s perennial residence at the top of the CQ Press City Crime Rankings. Camden has sat in the top 5 of  the rankings of Most Dangerous City in the U.S. since 1998, when cities with populations under 100,000 were added to the violence equations.

The rankings are based on the following crimes per capita – murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, automobile theft.

So then, with all the federal and state aid that has flowed in the city, which included the state taking over day-to-day operations of the city for several years, why is Camden such a miserable, violent place?

For nearly five years I had the pleasure of working for a social service non-profit that ran several programs in Camden – homeless shelters, halfway houses and domestic violence services. I not only met, but got to know many Camden residents. They all wanted the same thing – something to do. They didn’t necessarily want help, they just needed something to break right. The government aid was never the answer, the social services were just an insufficient bandage.

Multiple generations have grown up in a progressively worse environment. It’s been going on for so long that only the most elderly residents can remember a day when Camden wasn’t miserable.

So then, what to do?

It’s not a mystery. If you have the benefit of living a middle or upper class existence you know what keeps you moving in the right direction. It’s a sense of purpose, which often translates to a job or more importantly, a career.

There are not enough jobs in and around Camden to serve the population. There are the union-controlled shipping docks, the high-end defense contractor L-3 Communications, the university, the hospital and all the social service offices and not much else. What Camden doesn’t need are more storefront churches, check cashing swindlers and Crown Chicken joints – I’m convinced that seeing these pop up in your town is a strong sign you’re not living in a burgeoning area.

A former CEO of mine who is very familiar with the nuances of Camden succinctly summed up why the drug trade is so prevalent there. It’s literally the only job in town where people can earn a substantial living despite a poor education. Replace that with a job that involves no jail time and/or death and I guarantee people will turn away from the drug trade in droves.

What Camden needs is manufacturing jobs – and a lot of them. Camden is the personification of all the jobs we’ve shipped to Asia and India. These non-professional positions were meaningful employment that a person could make a living working at in the hopes of helping their family step-up over time. This is what’s missing from Camden. There’s no shame in working a manufacturing job, there’s no shame in putting in your shift time at a factory. The heyday of the U.S, from the 1940’s to 1970’s, was built on the massive manufacturing this country did. Look at the towns on the Most Dangerous Cities in America list, they’re all former manufacturing towns. They all went bust when the jobs left town.

If the federal or state governments want to put their money to good use, stop drowning Camden in cash and start using that so-called political muscle to funnel significant numbers of jobs back into the city. The politician who brings working-class jobs back to these cities won’t need to worry about pandering to get elected, they’ll ride a tidal wave of support to the executives branch.

The majority of people in Camden don’t want handouts. They don’t want your charity. They want a damn job.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. December 8, 2011 4:21 PM

    Well said. You know me. I love Camden. There are many good people in Camden who just need a job that brings dignity and a decent wage. My dad worked in a factory for his entire life. Mom did factory work when we got older and needed her less at home. There was no shame in that at all. It was (and still is) good, honest work that brings dignity to a person. It also brings in tax revenue. When industry takes a better look at Camden, I hope that it sees what the future can be.

    Perhaps it is Camden’s most famous resident who said it best about the city he loved:
    I dream’d in a dream I saw a city invincible to the attacks
    of the whole of the rest of the earth.
    I dream’d that was the new city of Friends,
    Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love, it led the rest,
    It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that city,
    And in all their looks and words.

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