The Reality of Hope
In New Jersey, America's second-richest state, Camden is the bastard stepchild. In 2000, the state pumped $175 million into the city and installed a chief operating officer with de facto veto power over the mayor, the city council and the school board. Since that infusion of aid, unemployment has declined from 16 percent in 2002 to nine percent in 2008. That figure doesn't include the scores of people who've stopped looking for work. Despite hosting some 30,000 jobs, few of them actually go to Camden residents; come closing time at Campbell's corporate headquarters, a torrent of cars head for the suburbs of Camden County. Close to a third of Camden families live in poverty with many more living just above the poverty line. Just like Compton, California, or Gary, Indiana, Camden is a victim of deindustrialization, white flight, redlining and, more recently, globalization. Every year, these cities swap positions on CQ Press' list of America's most dangerous cities. Their problems, however, go unchanged.
Things here can often seem hopeless. Yet lifelong resident Chris Cream, like so many people in Camden, sees the light. So Cream sits on a stool at Victor's, his rangy 5-foot-10 frame draped in an oversize Barack Obama T-shirt. "The elitists who run this countryâ€¦don't have to worry about being connected to the people,â€ says Cream, a fourth(CK)-generation Camdenite, whose grandfather was former heavyweight champion "Jerseyâ€ Joe Walcott. "Obama has shown a different hand and it's not that he's black. He just [has] a different way of doing [things].â€
Should Barack Obama win November's election, his biggest domestic challenge will lie in saving cities like Camden. (Obama's campaign didn't respond to KING's interview requests.) His Web site actually lays out concrete strategies for developing green-collar industries, public-private business incubators and developing 20 "promise neighborhoodsâ€ for areas of concentrated poverty. It cites Harlem Children's Zone in New York City, "which provides a full network of services to an entire neighborhood from birth to college,â€ as an example.
There is, however, a crucial difference. The Harlem Children Zone tackles one neighborhood in a rapidly gentrifying city with a huge tax base and adds investment from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Camden's problems are overwhelming and citywide. "There are three issues,â€ says Richard Harris of the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers Universityâ€“Camden. "As businesses and wealthier residents left the city, its tax base eroded.â€ And this, says Harris, affects the other two problems: public education and public safety, which depend on tax revenue. This has been somewhat ameliorated by the state takeover, which has required the city's universities and hospitals to match public investment and has helped attract waterfront investment. But little money or jobs filter down to the no-go zones on either side of the waterfront. So when Camden rapper Big Lou asks, "Regardless if Obama gets elected, what can he do for Camden?â€ he is speaking for the city's forgotten neighborhoods.
Even if Obama has plans to address almost every problem in Camdenâ€”and, if one believes his Web site, he doesâ€”Camdenites have earned the right to be skeptical. In 2001, Mayor Milton Milan received seven years for corruption charges. Five years later, Councilman Ali Sloan-El pleaded guilty to federal corruption and bribery charges. Even the legit politicians here have a legacy of broken promises. Governor Jon Corzine, Lou says, promised to fix a boarded-up row house; two years since Corzine's promise, the rowhouse and many other historic houses that line Lou's North Camden neighborhood are still boarded up. "All the politicians that come here promise something and don't ever keep their promise,â€ Lou says. "And we wind up in the same state that we been in since the beginning. Worse, really.â€