I took a three-hour tour on Tuesday and ended up stranded on the Island of North Camden, New Jersey, surrounded by water on three sides and the Ben Franklin Bridge to the South. It was a poverty tour sponsored by the Shadow Convention put together by that Eva Gabor of American politics, Arianna Huffington. By now, you may have seen the intended results: News stories chronicling the plight of the Philadelphia’s region’s poorer neighborhoods, left to deteriorate when manufacturing jobs fled elsewhere.
Camden’s been on my mind for the better part of this year. I've spent a good deal of time there working on a forthcoming welfare reform story for Reason -- and chronicling the involuntary demolition of downscale businesses to beautify a strip of highway for the Republican Convention (more on this in a moment). If a city's demise can take on tragic dimensions, Camden is the Oedipus Trilogy.
So going into the tour, I had a working knowledge of the city and its problems, but I’m pressed to think of many solutions, partial solutions, or even effective pain killers (other than a shift of emphasis from crack to heroin, the ultimate painkiller, for this miserable place). On the tour, I knew I’d get the liberal view. Perhaps they had the answers.
The trip was in a sense absurd, and a bit disturbing. Sort of like a poverty peep show. Fifteen of us, including reporters from The Economist, Daily Telegraph, and The New Republic, (look for articles on urban poverty soon) boarded an over-the-road tourist coach. The last time I was on such a coach I was I hitching a ride with French tourists to get from Italy to France. Yet instead of peering at mansions on the Mediterranean coast, we were looking out at boarded-up buildings, sagging porches, and poor people languishing in the humidity. All from our air-conditioned comfort. We stopped to meet with community leaders who were working to solve the city’s problems.
Camden is the archetypal post-industrial slum, nine square miles of almost unmitigated misery. Population peaked at 125,000 in the 1950s and has dwindled to 83,000 (and continues to drop). There are good people there: I’ve met many, both community activists and average citizens. But the desperation can’t be imagined; it must be experienced. Building after building is boarded up, burnt-out, or collapsed. There is only one supermarket (and it’s not centrally located). There are no movie theaters. There are hundreds of open-air drug markets.
City government is in complete collapse. The current mayor, an alleged drug dealer and Mafia front, is under federal indictment, the third mayor in recent times to find himself in such a situation. The city spends $120 million a year, but a mere $20 million is raised through local taxes.
We were blessed with two tour guides. Dr. Edward Schwartz, president of the Institute for the Study of Civic Values and a long time anti-poverty activist, and Randy Primas, a former mayor of Camden. As we rolled out of Philly over the Ben Franklin Bridge, Schwartz set the scene. Basically, there were once good manufacturing jobs on which even those who didn’t graduate from the awful government schools could manage to support a family. Then those jobs left, explained Schwartz, who gave no real mention of why. Those with skills left too. Those with none stayed and the places became "industrial dustbowls." The government spent millions to help out, but it’s still not enough—the communities need more. "There has been a lot of money spent," said Schwartz. "At no point did Philadelphia receive more than $200 million a year. The amount we received was a pittance compared to the amount we were losing, and that is true today." Schwartz's comments underscored a continuing omission when it comes to poverty: There is only discussion of jobs left, but never a discussion of new jobs created, or why they weren’t created. The hostility to business and industry--whether taking the form of huge levels of regulation, rising taxes, or riots--never gets mentioned somehow.
Schwartz handed the microphone to Mayor Primas. Primas, a Democrat whose first act as mayor was to let the state build a prison on Camden’s waterfront in exchange for a bailout, told us of a beautification project on Admiral Wilson Boulevard, one of the seediest roads in New Jersey. (In building a prison, one participant pointed out, he was planning for the future since it could double as the mayoral mansion.) When Philly landed the Republican Convention, NJ Governor Christine Todd Whitman quickly found $50 million to tear down a series of businesses, some serving adult needs, others not, and plant grass. A few of the businesses owners didn’t want to sell. The government gave them no choice and bulldozed anyway. All for a good cause, right?
"All along here were nothing but billboards and hotels that rented by the hour, and several gas stations," Primas told us as we rolled past a field of grass that used to be home to the businesses. He was proud of the government’s good work, yet he was engaged in selective memory.
All the businesses he mentioned were there indeed. But they weren't what Primas claimed. I know because I visited the owners earlier this year, before their businesses got flattened by the state's wrecking ball. (See "Eminent Domain and the GOP Convention.") Among the establishments: Camden’s only decent (and legitimate) hotel, the Four Winds Motor Lodge, which had been bought and renovated by an immigrant named Jagdish Gupta; a brand new liquor store; a stereo speaker store; and a bunch of gas stations. All of which thrived off the road’s heavy traffic. When I spoke with him, Gupta was especially critical of the plan to take his business away via eminent domain: "I'm losing everything," he said, explaining that the government was offering a below-market rate for his property.
I mentioned Gupta’s plight and asked Primas about the wisdom of wiping out taxpaying businesses in a city that has none to spare. "It was one of the hotels that rented by the hour," Primas declared to the bus, which simply wasn’t true. "That one wasn’t, I was there," I said, as Primas grimaced, the fellow from The Economist said perhaps I shouldn’t admit that, and a few ladies giggled. "That was a decision that was made," Primas pronounced. Spoken like a true politician--in the passive authoritative voice.
Our next stop was a corner in East Camden where a public housing project is being torn down and replaced with lower-density units. Monsignor McDermott, who runs a non-profit housing program, was our host. As the red arm of a backhoe tore down the brick building behind him, McDermott told us of his urban renewal plan to bring in middle-income residents.
Unlike the New Urbanist planners, who want to squeeze us into ever-tighter quarters, McDermott says density is a problem, not a solution. There's nothing other than women, children, and drug dealers in the nearby housing project, he explained. "How do you propose to bring in middle-income people to Camden?" I asked, knowing that when people achieve middle income they tend to leave Camden and never look back, not move into it. Indeed, Southern Jersey is populated by people who are grateful to have left the place behind. I also know that the city's tax rates are twice as high as they are in neighboring towns--there are so few property owners left in Camden, they get whammied. And the schools are 50 times worse than those in the suburbs, making it hugely unattractive for anyone with kids.
I'm sure McDermott believes in miracles, and not only because he's a priest. Just listen to his plan to bring the middle-class back to Camden: "Part of it is the type of houses we are going to build, and there will also be a light rail..." he tells me as the backhoe tears the roof from the building. McDermott is confident because former projects have raised the price of housing in the area, from $20,000 per house to $40,000 per house. That’s right, for $40,000 people can have a refurbished house, which is damn cheap. But there’s no Sooner rush going on in Camden even though the city's would-be saviors can rely on a steady stream of government cash. (Each house, he later tells me, costs roughly $100,000 to buy and refurbish).
Back on the bus, I ask about the role high taxes play in keeping residents and businesses out of town. Primas tells a personal story, one involving the bank for which he now works. They have identical buildings in Camden and a neighboring suburb. The taxes for the suburban branch, which does much more business, are $20,000 per year. The taxes in Camden $40,000. The same is true for homeowners, though on a smaller scale. A few months back, I interviewed a professor at Rutgers Camden who wanted to live in Camden out of solidarity. He decided to keep his suburban home after he looked into the city’s tax rate. Primas draws no practical lessons from his example, however. High taxes, especially on business, seem to be if not a force of justice, then a force of nature.