Camden, N. J., today is a long way from the city it once was. From the mid 1800s into the early 1960s the city was a booming manufacturing town, and home to Campbell’s soup, RCA Victor and the largest shipbuilding company in the world. The poet Walt Whitman lived here and he wrote of the city, “I dream’d in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth.”
Scott Thomson has been on the Camden police force for 17 years. In 2008, he was just 36 years old when he became police chief of the second most crime-ridden city in the nation. Thomson has made some headway. In the last two years homicide rates have dropped by more than 30 percent but progress is slow going and overall violent crime has been difficult to reign in.
Dana Redd was elected mayor of Camden in 2009 on a platform to quote, “unite and transform Camden into a safe vibrant community.” And she believes in the city’s inherent potential, in its waterfront location just across the river from Philadelphia and in the possibility of one day turning around the city of nearly 80,000 people.
But there are huge obstacles to Camden’s revival. The city faces a more than $26 million budget shortfall this year and in an unprecedented move for such a crime ridden city, Mayor Redd cut a third of the fire department and roughly half the police force.
Camden’s story is not unique. The country has dozens of postindustrial cities that find themselves unable to meet the basic needs of their citizens. Lawrence, Mass., shuttered half its fire stations; Detroit has been ordered to close half its schools; and in Flint, Mich., the police headquarters is now closed on the weekends.
For years, cities like Camden have turned to their states to make up for their budget shortfalls. But in the current financial climate the states have their own problems. Massive budget deficits on both the local and state level beg the question of how cities like Camden that have long struggled to provide their citizens with the basics will survive the nation’s financial crisis.