There is a reason President Barack Obama picked Camden, New Jersey as the city to announce a bold police initiative on Monday in an effort to address ongoing problems with policing in minority and poor communities.
The once bustling industrial hub for shipping and consumer goods is now a ghost of its former self like so many other urban neighborhoods. Today, the predominantly Black city is one of America’s most violent and also among its poorest. In many ways, it is a worse-case scenario of how public policy can fail urban communities.
The president’s decision to announce a federal ban on some military equipment sales to police in the aftermath of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, while using Camden as a backdrop, is meant to send a message to minority communities that their voices are being heard about policing in America.
Controversy erupted last summer after St. Louis law enforcement officers patrolled the streets of Ferguson in military-style gear and hulking armored vehicles. The presence came after protesters took to the streets to demonstrate peacefully against the shooting death of unarmed Black teen Michael Brown by ex-Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who is White.
Indeed, Ferguson has come to symbolize all that is wrong with America’s largely poor, minority cities like Camden. Camden represents what can happen when jobs leave and cities are not rebuilt after urban unrest, which is why President Obama used it as vehicle to deliver a message of change.
During his speech the president did, however, mention that progress is being made in the city, adding that police reform is just one aspect of Camden’s road to recovery.
“Violent crime in Camden is down 24 percent,” Obama said. “Murder is down 47 percent. Open-air drug markets have been cut by 65 percent. The response time for 911 calls is down from one hour to just five minutes.”
“A lot of the issues that have been raised here, and in places like Baltimore and Ferguson and New York, goes beyond policing. We can’t ask the police to contain and control problems that the rest of us aren’t willing to face or do anything about,” he said.
Here are 5 facts you need to know about Camden:
Camden is one of the nation’s most dangerous cities
With a crime rate of 68 per one thousand residents, the city has one of the highest crime rates in America compared to all communities of all sizes—from the smallest towns to the very largest cities like New York and Chicago, according to NeighborhoodScout. The real estate research site this year found Camden to be one of the top 100 most dangerous cities in the U.S.A.
Camden is “the poorest city in the nation”
The city last year earned the unfortunate distinction as the nation’s poorest city with a population of 65,000, a far cry from the “invincible” status once bestowed upon it by poet Walt Whitman, who spent his final years there in the late-1800s.
NBC News reported last year that an estimated 42 percent of the city’s population lives below the poverty line, with the average income floating around $26,000 a year. The percentage is a striking divergence from the rest of New Jersey, where the average household income is $71,000 a year—the third highest in the nation, writes the news outlet.
Almost half of the city’s residents are Black
Blacks make up almost half of the city’s population of 77,344 at 48.1 percent or 37,180 in raw numbers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Hispanics comprise the city’s other majority at 36,379 or 47 percent, while non-Hispanic Whites make up most of the remaining population.
The city became a hollowed out shell after the race riots of 1969 and 1971. In the ensuing decades, civic corruption and mismanagement reduced the city to poverty and violence.
Camden was once a bustling commercial hub
Founded in 1869 in Camden, the city is home to Campbell’s Soup, which announced a restructuring plan earlier this month that involves 471 employees taking early buyouts. The company boasts 20,000 employees worldwide (pdf), though the number working in Camden now is far lower than its height of about 5,000 production workers.
Camden was once home to the nation’s largest shipbuilders
The city is located straight across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, and once served as home to New York Shipbuilding, the world’s largest shipbuilder, which was built in 1891 by Henry Morse. But the city began to lose its industrial edge as shipping gave way to faster modes of transportation, including airplanes and trains.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty