Walt Whitman once said, "I dream'd in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth." Whitman wrote this during his last years in Camden, New Jersey. Most people know Camden today as one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in America. Here's the real tragedy of Camden.
Camden was incorporated in 1828. It acted as a secondary economic hub to Philadelphia. Camden began as a suburban town, drawing into it cultural icons like Walt Whitman and James Fenimore Cooper. A ferry service connected the rest of South Jersey with the city of Philadelphia. This ferry service helped Camden grow into a larger city.
During the Civil War and Reconstruction Era, Camden had a large influx of immigrants who became the workers of the growing industrial companies of the city. Until the end of WWII, Camden remained an industrial city. After the war, many of the factories began to close shop. Many of the immigrant families, which were now one or two generations rooted in America, began to leave Camden for the surrounding suburbs. This left Camden with a stagnant economy.
Since the loss of industry, Camden has faced increased corruption and economic malaise. Angelo Errichetti was mayor of Camden from 1973 to 1981. During his tenure, he was able to keep Camden’s economy stable. However, Errichetti was later found guilty of bribery and corruption in the Abscam. Errichetti was only the beginning of the corruption in Camden City politics.
Camden’s next mayor, Randy Primas, did initiate urban renewal, but it didn’t last long. Arnold Webster, mayor from 1993 to 1997, was found guilty of federal wire fraud. Following Webster, Milton Milan became mayor. Milan was involved in racketeering, drug running, bribery, and political intimidation.
With the third mayor in 20 years being found guilty of corruption, the New Jersey State Government found an excuse for a citywide takeover. In 2002, the City of Camden was given $175 million dollars for economic relief in exchange for allowing state officials to strip the city government of most of its power. This takeover ended in 2010 but was shortly followed up by a takeover of the Camden School District in 2013.
Also in 2013, the New Jersey legislature passed an Economic Opportunity Act (EOA), which was supposed to send up to 1.1 billion dollars of economic redevelopment aid to Camden. Both money from the takeover and the EOA never made its way to poorest and hardest hit areas of Camden. Why? Three people: George, Phil, and Donald Norcross.
The Norcross Brothers lead probably the biggest political machine in New Jersey. George, Phil, and Donald hail from South Jersey. George, the oldest of the trio, is described as “the de facto dictator of the South Jersey Democratic Party” (Huffington Post, 2016). Phil, the middle brother, is a lawyer and lobbyist. The youngest brother and current US House Representative for NJ District 1, Donald, acts as the public face of the political machine.
Most of the money meant for economic development in Camden has made its way into the pockets of the Norcross machine (mainly George). Companies like Holtec International, Cooper Health System, American Water Works, the Philadelphia 76ers, and Lockheed Martin received much of the funds but did not bring job growth to Camden.
These companies all have one thing in common. George Norcross is either a board member or owns a sizable share of stock in them.
The takeover of Camden’s education system has also benefited the Norcross machine. Most of the new charter schools are either owned wholly or partnered with the Norcross Foundation. These charter schools have been criticized for expelling under-performing students to keep statistical numbers high.
Schools are not the only Norcross-connected part of Camden criticized for playing with the statistics. The new Camden County Police was set up by the Norcross-led Camden County Board of Freeholders in order to replace the failing and underfunded Camden City Police in 2013. The new police force has been criticized for playing with the math in order to show better crime rates in Camden.
It is not the fault of people that live in Camden, who are some of the strongest and most resilient people around. Decades of political corruption have burdened Camden, but with virtuous leaders, I know Camden will come roaring back.
Again, as Walt Whitman once said, "I dream'd in a dream, I saw a city invincible."