Another decaying US city: Camden, New Jersey

Rolling Stone has a long article, subtitled: “No jobs, no hope – and surveillance cameras everywhere. The strange, sad story of Camden”.

Although the article cannot blame everything on the Republican state government of Chris Christie, the article lays as much blame there as it can.

Its story is typical in some ways: once full of factories, these have gradually moved elsewhere. As the jobs dried up, the “race tensions rose,” with “disturbances” in 1969 and 1971. The article describes the 1969 incident as:

The city exploded, with countless fires, three people shot, 87 injured. “Order” was eventually restored, but with the help of an alarmist press, the incidents solidified in the public’s mind the idea that Camden was a seething, busted city, out of control with black anger.

That kind of city. The article notes:

All over America, communities are failing. Once-mighty Rust Belt capitals that made steel or cars are now wastelands. Elsewhere, struggling white rural America is stocking up on canned goods and embracing the politics of chaos, sending pols to Washington ready to hit the default button and start the whole national experiment all over again.

But in Camden, chaos is already here. […]The place is literally dying, its population having plummeted from above 120,000 in the Fifties to less than 80,000 today. Thirty percent of the remaining population is under 18, an astonishing number that’s 10 to 15 percent higher than any other “very challenged” city, to use the police euphemism. Their home is a city with thousands of abandoned houses but no money to demolish them, leaving whole blocks full of Ninth Ward-style wreckage to gather waste and rats.

It’s a major metropolitan area run by armed teenagers with no access to jobs or healthy food, and not long ago, while the rest of America was ranting about debt ceilings and Obamacares, Camden quietly got pushed off the map. That was three years ago, when new governor and presumptive future presidential candidate Chris Christie abruptly cut back on the state subsidies that kept Camden on life support. The move left the city almost completely ungoverned – a graphic preview of what might lie ahead for communities that don’t generate enough of their own tax revenue to keep their lights on. Over three years, fires raged, violent crime spiked and the murder rate soared so high that on a per-capita basis, it “put us somewhere between Honduras and Somalia,” says Police Chief J. Scott Thomson.

“They let us run amok,” says a tat-covered ex-con and addict named Gigi. “It was like fires, and rain, and babies crying, and dogs barking. It was like Armageddon.”

The city became infested with drug dealers as legitimate businesses moved out. In 2011, the municipal tax revenue was $24 million, yet the police force alone cost $64 million. Most of the city’s budget was funded by the state, and this is what Christie cut.

Even the Rolling Stone admit the police union had negotiated themselves a sweet deal:

[T]he Camden police had a relatively rich contract, with overtime up the wazoo and paid days off on birthdays. If a cop worked an overnight, he got a 12 percent “shift enhancement” bump, which made sense because of the extreme danger. But an officer who clocked in at noon under the same agreement still got an extra four percent. “Every shift was enhanced,” says a spokesman for the new department.

Christie could not cut back on the school budget–that was protected by court rulings. The city laid off 168 of 368 police officers in January, 2011. “Police went into almost total retreat” says the article. Then, this year:

Then, this year, after two years of chaos, Christie and local leaders instituted a new reform, breaking the unions of the old municipal police force and reconstituting a new Metro police department under county control. The old city cops were all cut loose and had to reapply for work with the county, under new contracts that tightened up those collective-bargaining “excesses.” The new contracts chopped away at everything from overtime to uniform allowances to severance pay, cutting the average cost per officer from $182,168 under the city force to $99,605 in the county force.

Things began to improve:

Predictably, the new Camden County-run police began to turn crime stats in the right direction with a combination of beefed-up numbers, significant investments in technology, and a cheaper and at least temporarily de-unionized membership. Whether the entire thing was done out of economic necessity or careful political calculation, Christie got what he wanted – county-controlled police forces seemed to be his plan from the start for places like Camden.

Although the article makes it clear they disapprove of the whole thing terribly, they do not answer the question of what a city is supposed to do when the money runs out. Take it from the state. But what about when that runs out too?

(Photos from, where else, The Daily Mail.)

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