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America's 'invincible' city brought to its knees by poverty, violence

By Shoshana Guy, Producer, NBC News

CAMDEN, N.J. -- Inscribed on the walls of City Hall are the words of Walt Whitman, the great American poet who spent his final years in this city: “In a dream I saw a city invincible.”

But the decades since have not been kind to Camden. Today it is the poorest in the nation.

Directly in the shadow of the glittering skyline of Philadelphia, Camden has long suffered the indignities that poverty breeds. A drive through the streets of the 9-square mile city reveals a moonscape of crumbling infrastructure and abandoned homes, nearly 4,000 in all.

“I always think of Camden as the best visual aid in America to see what has gone wrong and what is going wrong,” said Father Michael Doyle, who has been serving the city’s poor from his Sacred Heart Church for more than 40 years. 

Camden was once a manufacturing boomtown, home to RCA Victor, Campbell’s Soup and the biggest shipbuilding company in the world. But once industrial jobs began drying up decades ago – as they did in so many other cities across the United States – many people left for greener pastures.

Then came a crushing blow: the race riots of 1969 and 1971, which left the city mortally wounded. In the decades that followed, civic corruption and mismanagement rendered Camden increasingly poor and violent. Three mayors have been indicted in the past few decades, adding to the sense of hopeless among residents.

Last year was the bloodiest in Camden’s history; the city of just 77,000 had 67 homicides. On average someone was shot every 33 hours.

“It was a tough, tough year,” said Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson. “And for a city as hardened as Camden is and has become over time, it buckled the city to its knees.” 

Distraught over the level of violence, the community erected crosses on the lawn of City Hall to try and draw attention to the crisis.

Thomson said crime rates have gone up because he has fewer cops. In early 2011, unable to fund its obligations, the city cut the police department in half, leaving roughly 200 officers to police one of the most violent cities in the country. 

“It’s gotten to the point where even in our daytime hours in this city people are scared to leave their homes,” said Thomson.  “And this is the United States of America. Children should not have to fear even sitting on their own front steps.”

There is movement to get more officers on the streets. In April of this year, a new county force will take over for the City Police Department, adding 200 officers to the ranks.

The decision to regionalize the force enraged the Camden Fraternal Order of Police, which has charged the city with union busting. 

“The experienced officers are the best chance they have to provide safety to the public,” said FOP spokesperson Nancy Webster.

But Chief Thomson hopes more boots on the ground will help stabilize the city. “At no point in time can we ever quit,” he said. “Failure is not an option.”

Chrissy Rodriguez, who lives on one of the most violent streets in the city, worries about her two young boys constantly. 

“My kids don't get to go outside. They don't get to play,” said Rodriguez. “And I'm not gonna let them ride a bike down the street … in the afternoon. People are getting shot.”

But it’s hard for people like Rodriguez to scrape together enough funds to leave. Roughly 30 to 40 percent of Camden’s citizens are out of work. Rodriguez has only been able to find a part-time job, which brings in about $700 a month. 

About 42 percent of Camden’s population lives below the poverty line, with the average income hovering around $26,000 a year. That is in stark contrast to the rest of New Jersey, where the average household income is $71,000 a year — the third highest in the nation. 

“America has decided to concentrate its poor,” said Father Doyle. “The wall around Camden is very high, it’s an economic wall. You can’t get over it.”

The “walls” of Camden hold in a population that is 48 percent black and 47 percent Hispanic.

The city is trying to revitalize. Old buildings along the waterfront have been turned into luxury condos. Cooper Hospital and Rutgers University have created stability on handfuls of blocks. And recently Cooper opened a medical school. Still, the main industry remains the drug trade and it’s been so bad for so many years that the city’s tragedies often seem to go unnoticed.

Recently, a former citizen of the city paid for a billboard near the Camden exit off I-676 that read, “Say something nice about Camden.” 

Camden’s got heart. And you’ll find that heart in community leaders like Tawanda Jones. Better known as Ms. Wawa, Jones is the leader of the dance troop the Camden Sophisticated Sisters Drill Team for school-age girls.

“There's a lotta people from Camden that are so gifted and so talented,” said Jones.

Jones has been volunteering her time for more than 25 years. She raises money to help the team travel, visits the children’s schools on her days off, and dedicates herself four nights a week, all year round to creating a safe space for children.

“We practice all year round cause there’s danger all year round,” said Jones.

For now, through the efforts of people like Jones, the City Invincible marches on. 

“There's a spirit in poor people, resilience and a hope and a generosity,” said Father Doyle. “We might be invincible in that regard, that human beings do not give up.”


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