American Apocalypse (Re)Discovered: Thinking about Camden, New Jersey

by Michael Blim

ScrapYard2_img I get The Nation magazine whether I want to or not. Years ago, a close friend and I found ourselves separated by the geography of new jobs and career moves, and so we unknowingly gave each Nation subscriptions as going-away gifts. For me, it’s one of those things that I’ll read because it comes to my home free. That’s the beauty of giving: her gift is free to me, and mine to her. Since I don’t need expect my money’s worth, I can diss the magazine all I want, but still sneak a peek at it from time to time. The Nation is what used to be called a magazine of opinion. They tell you what to think, in other words. Given that we are bombarded with opinions daily, I prefer to collect facts, and keep my opinions to myself – or, well, share them with you.

Perhaps it was the graphic art accompanying Chris Hedges’ article, “City of Ruins” on Camden, New Jersey, in the November 22 issue of The Nation that slowed my eye. Hedges is a distinguished print journalist formerly with the New York Times who writes work that sticks with you.

As did this article. Hedges describes today’s Camden as one of America’s most dismal dystopias. It is achingly poor, dangerous, used up and thrown away. It’s a bomb shelter for its residents, 70,000 of whom live in a city with the highest crime and poverty rates of any city in the country. For those of you who live in Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Chicago, Oakland, St. Louis, Memphis, or Washington, D.C., and thought that portions of your city’s degradation knew no peers, consider the possibilities further down the food chain for the quality of life and for human dignity. In the seventies, I lived in a Philadelphia neighborhood nicknamed “the bottoms.” In a town full of bad neighborhoods, “the bottoms” was the worst.

Then I worked for a while in Camden. It was worse than “the bottoms.”

Hedges’ reportage jogged my memory of working in Camden soon forty years ago. I got lucky on the Internet over the past several days and found planning documents by the city’s redevelopment authority comparing Camden I knew in 1970 with the Camden of the past decade. The documents helped me put numbers on my experiences while I was working in support of early childhood education in several of the city’s non-profit community day care centers.

By the numbers, Camden is several times worse off than it was in 1970, when it seemed below “the bottoms” to me. The proportion of people in poverty has increased two and a half times, from 20% of the population in 1970 to 50% in 2006. The city’s median household income is $18,000 a year, the lowest for any city in the nation. The proportions of single parent and two parent households since 1970 have exactly reversed: in 1970, 27% of households were headed by a single parent, and 41% by two parents; in 2000, 40% of households were headed by a single parent, and 28% by two parents. Only 6% of the Camden housing stock was vacant in 1970; 20% was empty in 2000.

Today, 17% of the adult population are officially unemployed. Unofficially, as Hedges notes, it’s anybody’s guess how high the number goes. Adults haven’t much schooling: 16% have not more than an 8th grade education; another 27% got to high school and never finished; only 6% have a bachelor’s degree.

The job market is terrible. Manufacturing, construction, retail, finance, insurance, and real estate jobs have virtually disappeared, leaving the labor market almost exclusively dependent on service sector jobs. One job placement agency that performs a monthly jobs search survey finds that job openings have fallen by more than half since March 2009.

As you might imagine, the sub-prime mortgage scam did its worst in Camden, whose homeowners consist largely of the working poor of color. In North Camden, just one of Camden’s poor neighborhoods, but the one I happened to know back in the seventies, one half of the mortgages in its two census tracts were defined in 2009 as risk mortgages, short hand for sub-prime. Fully 30% of North Camden’s homeowners were paying out more than 30% of their household incomes in housing costs. When you consider that the median sale price for a home in the neighborhood is between $25,000 and $45,000, this means two things: one, the homeowners have very low incomes; and two, many of them are paying a lot of what little they have to buy their homes.

Renters have it even harder. In North Camden, 50% of renters are paying more than 30% of their household incomes in rent; 28% of all renters in the neighborhood are paying more than 50% of their monthly income in rent.

The 19th Century anarchist Pierre Joseph Proudhon started a famous tract with the words: “Property is theft.” Certainly renters can say “amen.” But surely those who pay dearly monthly or throughout the course of a sub-prime mortgage loan have tort too, especially those whose defaults are triggered by the usurious rates of so-called “risk” mortgages.

Camden, then, is as desperate a place as one can find in America. For Hedges, it is an apocalyptic warning of where the nation might be heading. Looking backward a bit, it’s fair to say that Camden became the America Hedges fears long ago. It is not becoming; it is.

Though the liberal imagination needs firing up from time to time, perhaps the one thing The Nation really does well, it is better not to read the American landscape for its signs and portents. America has been an ugly, unforgiving place for millions for a long time, my lifetime I realized this week thanks to Hedges, which is something liberal outrage tires of thinking about because it means that sticking a bit of plaster about won’t fix the house.