The first thing you notice about Camden, New Jersey, is that pretty much everyone you talk to has just gotten his or her ass kicked.
Instead of shaking hands, people here are always lifting hats, sleeves, pant legs and shirttails to show you wounds or scars, then pointing in the direction of where the bad thing just happened.
“I been shot six times,” says Raymond, a self-described gangster I meet standing on a downtown corner. He pulls up his pant leg. “The last time I got shot was three years ago, twice in the femur.” He gives an intellectual nod. “The femur, you know, that’s the largest bone in the leg.”
“First they hit me in the head,” says Dwayne “The Wiz” Charbonneau, a junkie who had been robbed the night before. He lifts his wool cap to expose a still-oozing red strawberry and pulls his sweatpants down at the waist, drawing a few passing glances. “After that, they ripped my pockets out. You can see right here. . . .”
Even the cops have their stories: “You can see right here, that’s where he bit me,” says one police officer, lifting his pant leg. “And I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to have to shoot this dog.'”
“I’ve seen people shot and gotten blood on me,” says Thomas Bayard Townsend III, a friendly convicted murderer with a tear tattoo under his eye. “If you turn around here, and your curiosity gets the best of you, it can cost you your life.”
Camden is just across the Delaware River from the brick and polished cobblestone streets of downtown Philadelphia, where oblivious tourists pour in every year, gobbling cheese steaks and gazing at the Liberty Bell, having no idea that they’re a short walk over the Ben Franklin Bridge from a full-blown sovereignty crisis – an un-Fantasy Island of extreme poverty and violence where the police just a few years ago essentially surrendered a city of 77,000.
All over America, communities are failing. Once-mighty Rust Belt capitals that made steel or cars are now wastelands. Elsewhere, struggling white rural America is stocking up on canned goods and embracing the politics of chaos, sending pols to Washington ready to hit the default button and start the whole national experiment all over again.
But in Camden, chaos is already here. In September, its last supermarket closed, and the city has been declared a “food desert” by the USDA. The place is literally dying, its population having plummeted from above 120,000 in the Fifties to less than 80,000 today. Thirty percent of the remaining population is under 18, an astonishing number that’s 10 to 15 percent higher than any other “very challenged” city, to use the police euphemism. Their home is a city with thousands of abandoned houses but no money to demolish them, leaving whole blocks full of Ninth Ward-style wreckage to gather waste and rats.
It’s a major metropolitan area run by armed teenagers with no access to jobs or healthy food, and not long ago, while the rest of America was ranting about debt ceilings and Obamacares, Camden quietly got pushed off the map. That was three years ago, when new governor and presumptive future presidential candidate Chris Christie abruptly cut back on the state subsidies that kept Camden on life support. The move left the city almost completely ungoverned – a graphic preview of what might lie ahead for communities that don’t generate enough of their own tax revenue to keep their lights on. Over three years, fires raged, violent crime spiked and the murder rate soared so high that on a per-capita basis, it “put us somewhere between Honduras and Somalia,” says Police Chief J. Scott Thomson.
“They let us run amok,” says a tat-covered ex-con and addict named Gigi. “It was like fires, and rain, and babies crying, and dogs barking. It was like Armageddon.”
Not long ago, Camden was everything about America that worked. In 1917, a report counted 365 industries in Camden that employed 51,000 people. Famous warships like the Indianapolis were built in Camden’s sprawling shipyards. Campbell’s soup was made here. Victor Talking Machine Company, which later became RCA Victor, made its home in Camden, and the city once produced a good portion of the world’s phonographs; those cool eight-hole pencil sharpeners you might remember from grade school – they were made in Camden too. The first drive-in movie was shown here, in 1933, and one of the country’s first planned communities was built here by the federal government for shipyard workers nearly a century ago.
But then, in a familiar narrative, it all went to hell. RCA, looking, among other things, for an escape from unionized labor, moved many of its Camden jobs to Bloomington, Indiana. New York Shipbuilding closed in the Sixties, taking 7,000 jobs with it. Campbell’s stuck it out until the Nineties, when it closed up its last factory, leaving only its corporate headquarters that today is surrounded by gates high and thick enough to keep out a herd of attacking rhinoceroses.
Once the jobs started to disappear, racial tensions rose. Disturbances broke out in 1969 and 1971, the first in response to a rumor about the beating of a young black girl by police, the second after a Hispanic man named Rafael Gonzales really was beaten by two officers. Authorities filed charges against the two cops in that case, but they initially kept their jobs. The city exploded, with countless fires, three people shot, 87 injured. “Order” was eventually restored, but with the help of an alarmist press, the incidents solidified in the public’s mind the idea that Camden was a seething, busted city, out of control with black anger.
With legal business mostly gone, illegal business took hold. Those hundreds of industries have been replaced by about 175 open-air drug markets, through which some quarter of a billion dollars in dope moves every year. But the total municipal tax revenue for this city was about $24 million a year back in 2011 – an insanely low number. The police force alone in Camden costs more than $65 million a year. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s a little more than $450 a year in local taxes paid per person, if you only count people old enough to file tax returns. That’s less than half of the $923 that the average New Jersey resident spends just in sales taxes every year.
The city for decades hadn’t been able to pay even for its own cops, so it funded most of its operating budget from state subsidies. But once Christie assumed office, he announced that “the taxpayers of New Jersey aren’t going to pay any more for Camden’s excesses.” In a sweeping, statewide budget massacre, he cut municipal state aid by $445 million. The new line was, people who paid the taxes were cutting off the people who didn’t. In other words: your crime, your problem.
The “excesses” Christie was referring to included employment contracts negotiated by the police union. A charitable explanation of the sweet deal Camden gave its cops over the years was that the police union had an unusually strong bargaining position. “Remember, this was the only police force in South Jersey whose members regularly had to risk their lives,” says retired Rutgers-Camden professor Howard Gillette. The less-charitable say these deals were the result of a hey-it-isn’t-our-money-anyway subsidy-mongering. Whatever the cause, until Christie came along, the Camden police had a relatively rich contract, with overtime up the wazoo and paid days off on birthdays. If a cop worked an overnight, he got a 12 percent “shift enhancement” bump, which made sense because of the extreme danger. But an officer who clocked in at noon under the same agreement still got an extra four percent. “Every shift was enhanced,” says a spokesman for the new department.
But a big reason that Christie hit Camden’s police unions so hard was simply that he could. He’d wanted to go after New Jersey urban schools, which he derided as “failure factories.” But a series of state Supreme Court rulings based on a lawsuit originally filed on behalf of students in Camden and three other poor communities in the Eighties – Abbott v. Burke, a landmark case that would mandate roughly equal per-pupil spending levels across New Jersey – made cuts effectively impossible. The courts didn’t offer similar protection to police budgets, though. By New Year’s 2011, the writing was on the wall. After Christie announced his budget plans, panicked city leaders got together, pored over their books and collective-bargaining agreements, and realized the unthinkable was about to happen. Camden, a city that even before any potential curtailing of state subsidies made Detroit or East St. Louis seem like Martha’s Vineyard, was about to see its police force, one of its biggest expenditures, chopped nearly in half.
On January 18th, 2011, the city laid off 168 of its 368 police officers, kicking off a dramatic, years-long, cops-versus-locals, house-to-house battle over a few square miles of North American territory that should have been national news, but has not been, likely because it took place in an isolated black and Hispanic ghost town.
After the 2011 layoffs, police went into almost total retreat. Drug dealers cheerfully gave interviews to local reporters while slinging in broad daylight. Some enterprising locals made up T-shirts celebrating the transfer of power from the cops back to the streets: JANUARY 18, 2011 – it’s our time. A later design aped the logo of rap pioneers Run-DMC, and “Run-CMD” – “CMD” stands both for “Camden” and “Cash, Money, Drugs” – became the unofficial symbol of the unoccupied city, seen in town on everything from T-shirts to a lovingly rendered piece of wall graffiti on crime-ridden Mount Ephraim Avenue.
Cops started calling in sick in record numbers, with absenteeism rates rising as high as 30 percent over the rest of 2011. Burglaries rose by a shocking 65 percent. The next year, 2012, little Camden set a record with 67 homicides, officially making it the most dangerous place in America, with 10 times the per-capita murder rate of cities like New York: Locals complained that policing was completely nonexistent and the cops were “just out here to pick up the bodies.” The carnage left Camden’s crime rate on par with places like Haiti after its 2010 earthquake, and with other infamous Third World hot spots, as police officials later noticed to their dismay when they studied U.N. statistics.
At times in 2011 and 2012, the entire city was patrolled by as few as 12 officers. Police triaged 911 calls like an overworked field hospital, sometimes giving up on property and drug crimes altogether, focusing their limited personnel mainly on gun crimes committed during daylight hours. Heading into 2013, Camden was sliding further and further out of police control. “If Camden was overseas, we’d have sent troops and foreign aid,” says Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum, a guy Chief Thomson refers to as his “wartime consigliere.”
Then, this year, after two years of chaos, Christie and local leaders instituted a new reform, breaking the unions of the old municipal police force and reconstituting a new Metro police department under county control. The old city cops were all cut loose and had to reapply for work with the county, under new contracts that tightened up those collective-bargaining “excesses.” The new contracts chopped away at everything from overtime to uniform allowances to severance pay, cutting the average cost per officer from $182,168 under the city force to $99,605 in the county force. As “the transfer” from a municipal police force to a county model went into effect last May, state money began flowing again, albeit more modestly. Christie promised $10 million in funding for the city and the county to help the new cops. Police began building up their numbers to old levels.
Predictably, the new Camden County-run police began to turn crime stats in the right direction with a combination of beefed-up numbers, significant investments in technology, and a cheaper and at least temporarily de-unionized membership. Whether the entire thing was done out of economic necessity or careful political calculation, Christie got what he wanted – county-controlled police forces seemed to be his plan from the start for places like Camden.
In fact, just a few months ago, Christie publicly touted Camden’s new county force as the model he hopes to employ for Trenton, and perhaps some of Jersey’s other crime-sick cities. (For a state with one of the highest median household incomes in America, New Jersey also has four of the country’s biggest urban basket cases in Camden, Trenton, Paterson and Newark.) Local county officials, echoing Christie, called Camden the “police model of the future for New Jersey.”
In recent months, Christie has visited Camden several times, making it plain that he puts the daring 2011 gambit here in his political win column. And not everyone in Camden disagrees. One ex-con I talked to in the city surprised me by saying he liked what Christie had done, and compared Camden’s decades-long consumption of state subsidies to the backward incentive system he’d seen in prison. “In prison, you can lie in your bed all day long and get credit for good time toward release,” he said, shaking his head. “You should have to do something other than lie there.”
No matter what side of the argument you’re on, the upshot of the dramatic change was that Camden would essentially no longer be policing itself, but instead be policed by a force run by its wealthier and whiter neighbors, i.e., the more affluent towns like Cherry Hill and Haddonfield that surround Camden in the county. The reconstituted force included a lot of rehires from the old city force (many of whom had to accept cuts and/or demotions in order to stay employed), but it also attracted a wave of new young hires from across the state, many of them white and from smaller, less adrenaline-filled suburban jurisdictions to the north and east.
And whereas the old city police had a rep for not wanting to get out of the car in certain bad neighborhoods, the new force is beginning to acquire an opposite rep for overzealousness. “These new guys,” complains local junkie Mark Mercado, “not only will they get out of the car, they’ll haul you in just for practice.”
Energized county officials say they have a plan now for retaking Camden’s streets one impenetrable neighborhood at a time, using old-school techniques like foot patrols and simple get-to-know-you community interactions (new officers stop and talk to residents as a matter of strategy and policy). But the plan also involves the use of space-age cameras and military-style surveillance, which ironically will turn this crumbling dead-poor dopescape of barred row homes and deserted factories into a high-end proving ground for futuristic crowd-control technology.
Beginning in 2011, when the city first installed a new $4.5 million command center – it has since been taken over by the county – police here have gained a series of what they call “force multipliers.” One hundred and twenty-one cameras cover virtually every inch of sidewalk here, cameras that can spot a stash in a discarded pack of Newports from blocks away. Police have a giant 30-foot mobile crane called SkyPatrol they can park in a neighborhood and essentially throw a net over six square blocks; the ungainly Japanese-robot-style device can read the heat signature of a dealer with a gun sitting in total darkness. There are 35 microphones planted around the city that can instantly detect the exact location of a gunshot down to a few meters (and just as instantly train cameras on escape routes). Planted on the backs of a fleet of new cruisers are Minority Report-style scanners that read license plates and automatically generate warning letters to send to your mom in the suburbs if you’ve been spotted taking the Volvo registered in her name to score a bag of Black Magic on 7th and Vine.
The streets have noticed the new technology. Dealers and junkies alike have even begun to ascribe to the police powers they don’t actually have. “They have facial-recognition on cars, man,” says Townsend, the homeless ex-con with the murder sheet. “So that when you go by ’em, they see if you are wanted for anything.”
For sure, there’s bitterness on streets in Camden over the fact that the city was essentially abandoned three years ago. But misery loves company, and this is a place where even the police seem shellshocked. Some of them, you get the sense, feel abandoned too – cut off from the rest of America just like everyone else here. Very few of them have the pretend-macho air you get from hotshot cops in other tough cities. Camden police will come straight out and tell you stories about getting their faces kicked in and/or beaten half to death. And they all talk about this place with a kind of awe, often shaking their heads and whispering through the worst stories.
“The kid happened to be on a bike,” begins a 20-year police vet named John Martinez, closing his eyes as he remembers a story from July 2011. He was riding with a rookie partner that day. The city at the time was still in near-total chaos, with drug dealing mostly going unchallenged by the police. But on that hot July afternoon, Martinez spotted a teenager doing a hand-to-hand on Grant Street, shrugged, and decided to pursue anyway.
“[The dealer] saw me walking up to him. I told the rookie to stay in the car, because 90 percent of the time, they run.” The kid started pedaling away. The rookie gave chase in the car, then stopped, jumped out and went after him on foot. Martinez started to follow, but then looked back at the car and realized his newbie partner had left it running.
“I started to run with him,” he said, “but I thought, ‘Yeah, this’ll be gone.'”
By this, Martinez meant the car. Last summer, in fact, a male-female pair of suburban junkies stole a squad car parked right in front of police headquarters, ran over the cop it belonged to (he survived, but his leg was shattered, his career over), tore across the bridge into Philly pursued by a phalanx of Camden cops (“You can imagine the public’s bewilderment, seeing police cars chasing a police car,” recalls Thomson), and crashed in Philly after a long chase – only to flee on foot, double back, and steal another car, this time a Philadelphia police cruiser.
“Junkie Bonnie and Clyde” were eventually caught, but the point is, you can’t leave a car running in Camden, especially a police car. So on that July day, Martinez went back to his cruiser instead of helping out his partner. Eventually, another experienced officer showed up, also toting a rookie partner. The two rookies ended up catching the suspect on foot and were trying to get him cuffed when Martinez started to sense a problem. A crowd of about a hundred formed in the blink of an eye and started pelting the cops with bottles and rocks. Martinez ended up chasing onto a porch a teenager who’d thrown a bottle.
Next thing Martinez knew, he was jumped by “women, older women, men, kids. . . . As soon as I grabbed the kid, everybody started trying to forcibly take him from me. They’re punching me in the back, on the side of the head. . . . ”
In the struggle, Martinez and the kid ended up crashing backward through the porch railing and tumbling to the street, where Martinez suddenly found himself looking up at 100 furious people, with an angry teenager on top of him, reaching for the gun in Martinez’s thigh holster. The three other cops rushed to his aid – the two rookies making another mistake in the process. They’d cuffed the original suspect and put him in the back of the car, but in the rush to save Martinez, they again left the cruiser unlocked. Backup arrived a few moments later, but when Martinez got back to his feet, he realized the crowd had left them all a big surprise.
“We go back to the original police car where that drug-dealing suspect was, and the back door is open and he’s gone,” Martinez recounts. The neighborhood had taken the suspect back, cuffs and all. “But I’ll take that.”
The moral of the story: Arrests in North Camden, the most stricken part of town, sometimes just don’t take. Many cops here have stories about busts that either didn’t happen or almost didn’t happen when the streets made an opposite ruling. “Ninth and Cedar. I remember chasing a guy a block and a half – he had a Tec-9,” says Joe Wysocki, a quiet, soft-spoken 20-year Camden vet. “Handcuffing him, I remember looking up and there were, like, 60 people around me. I threw the guy into the car, jumped in the back seat with him, and [my partner] took off.”
“Telling the prisoner, ‘Move over,'” joked another cop in the room.
“Yeah,” says Wysocki. “Sometimes you just have to scoop and run.”
Nobody in North Camden calls the police. When the county installed the new “ShotSpotter” technology that pinpoints the locations of gunshots, they discovered that 30 percent of all shootings in the city go unreported, many of them from North Camden. “North Camden would generally like to police itself,” says Thomson. “Rather than getting a call of an adult who had assaulted a child, generally you’ll get a call to send an ambulance and a police officer to the corner of 7th and York because there’s a person laying there beaten nearly to death with chains.”
Late October 2013. It’s nearly three years after the layoffs. A trio of squad cars flies through North Camden. Over the police radio, a voice chimes in from the RTOIC, or Real-Time Tactical Operational Intelligence Center, a super-high-tech, Star Trek-ish bridge of giant screen displays back at the metaphorical Green Zone that is police headquarters. There, a team of police analysts monitors the city using six different advanced technologies, watching those 121 camera feeds via 10 42-inch monitors and six different listening stations tracking cruisers by GPS. Somebody back there apparently spotted a drug deal through a camera near where this police convoy is cruising.
“Black male, white shirt, bald head,” the radio crackles. “White shirt, bald head.”
The cars take off like rockets and screech to a halt at exactly that same spot where John Martinez once almost punched his ticket, the 400 block of Grant Street. We’re right in front of that same house. The wooden railing through which Martinez crashed backward two years ago has been replaced by an iron one, and leaning against it is a similar crowd of angry onlookers, glaring at the cops. Around the corner, near the house with the new porch railing, a young black dude in a white shirt stands surrounded by police, trying not to make sudden moves.
About 10 yards off from the “suspect,” barking loudly and standing next to his handler-partner, Sgt. Zack James, is Zero, a black Czech shepherd police dog. Everything connected with crime in Camden breaks some kind of record, and Zero is no exception – he’s dragged down 65 suspects in foot chases, something only one other canine in state-police history has done. Zero is friendly enough in nonworking situations (he even drops to his back and sticks his tongue out to the command “Cute and cuddly!”), but the department’s male cops still cover their balls reflexively, even from great distances, if they see him loose in the parking lot.
Sgt. James, a burly officer who lives and works with Zero full-time, seems like he’s ready to do a Lambeau leap in celebration, if only someone would try to run on his dog and become number 66. But in this case, they’ve got the wrong guy. There’s a brief interrogation, the guy walks away slowly, and dog and humans pile back into their respective cars and screech out at high speeds, disappearing as quickly as they came.
Any reporter who’s been embedded in Iraq or Afghanistan will find these scenes extremely familiar – high-speed engagements backed by top-end surveillance technology, watched by crowds whose reactions range from bemusement to rage to eye-rolling disappointment. In that latter category is Bryan Morton, a fortysomething community leader of sorts who still lives in the North Camden house where he was born. Morton went away in his youth for eight and a half years for armed robbery and drug dealing, got out, went straight, got his college degree, worked for years running local re-entry programs, founded a North Camden Little League, and had things looking up for himself, before he was laid off last May. Fortunately, he’d bought a food cart six years before that, which he left in his backyard as a backup plan; he now drives across town before dawn every day, setting up next to the McDonald’s in Camden’s pinhead-size “downtown.”
Handsome, articulate, charming, Morton had just been robbed the day I met him. The guy he hired to fix up his cart bolted after the last payment, taking big chunks of his cart’s sheet metal with him. There had also been another murder in North Camden the day before, a drug killing a few blocks up from Morton’s house. Asked how bad things have been in North Camden since the 2011 layoffs, he laughs faintly. “Hell, the police gave up on this neighborhood long before that,” he says, hoisting the cart onto his pickup truck’s trailer hitch in the predawn light in front of his house. For years, he says, cops would drive through his block once every half-hour or so, pretending to police the place, but they wouldn’t stop unless they had to.
“We know you’re afraid to get out of the car,” he says. “We know that.”
North Camden is one of a few neighborhoods in the city that still feels less policed than occupied. There’s even an infamous brick housing-project tower here called Northgate 1 where the middle floors carry the nickname “Little Iraq,” for the residents’ reputation for being not quite under government control. In fact, when the state raided the tower to serve warrants a few years back, they were so concerned with ground-level resistance that they invaded from the sky, like soldiers in Afghanistan, rappelling onto the roof by helicopter. The state police believed they’d sent a message, but there are locals who reacted to the Rambo-commando episode with the same you’ve-gotta-be-kidding-me incredulity you see on faces of kids surrounded by multiple squad cars and millions of dollars in technology, busted for loitering or a few lids of weed. “They pussies,” is how one Camdenite put it.
Thomson, the city’s energetic young police chief – he carries an uncanny resemblance to Homeland lead actor Damian Lewis – is trying to provide a counterargument to the alien-occupier vibe. His plan is to stabilize the city with foot patrols one neighborhood at a time. On an October afternoon he drives me through Fairview, that once-dazzling planned city full of brick homes built for New York Shipbuilding workers nearly a century ago.
A little overgrown still, the place now looks, well, nice, with few of the rat-infested vacant homes and factories that dominate much of the rest of the city. Conspicuously, there’s no obvious drug traffic here. “A year ago, this space was controlled by gangsters,” Thomson says proudly. “Now you have kids playing there.”
He nods in the direction of a street corner, where a policeman in a paramilitary-style uniform, all steel-blue with a baseball-style cap, stands on guard. There’s one of these sentries every few hundred feet, each seemingly within eyesight of the other, each standing bolt upright and saluting military-style when the chief drives by. We watch as a few elderly black pedestrians amble by, and if you listen carefully you can catch the street patrolmen diligently offering RoboCop-ian greetings to each one as they pass.
The plan is to deploy more and more of these getting-to-know-you details, moving neighborhood by neighborhood, working their way up to places like North Camden, where the police will eventually answer once and for all the question of whether they will lay it all on the line for America’s most unsafe neighborhood.
Thomson is engaging and smart, and has the infectious enthusiasm of a politician, except that he seems sincere. Driving through Camden, watching these grim scenes of pseudo-occupation that in this part of the world count as progress, my overwhelming feeling was a weird kind of sympathy: None of this shit is on him. In another life, actually, he and someone like Bryan Morton might have been co-workers, or political running mates, since both men – the chief with his foot patrols, Morton with his pan-Camden Little League – say they’re working toward the same thing: trying to create safe places for people to go in a city that historically isn’t terribly safe even across the street from police headquarters.
But Thomson’s optimism is based, again, upon the assumption that if you create enough safe streets and parks in a place like Camden, jobs will return, and things will somehow go back to normal. But what if the jobs stay in China, Mexico, Indonesia? Then the high-tech security efforts in cities like this start to feel like something other than securing a few streets for future employers. Then it’s the best security money can buy, but just for security’s sake, turning a scene like Camden into a very expensive, very dark nihilistic comedy: a perpetual self-occupation. Thomson clearly doesn’t believe this. He has hope – he’s as intensely focused on development gains like the opening of a new $62 million Rutgers-Camden nursing building as he is about locking people up – but even he at times can’t help but sound like a military commander charged with recapturing alien territory.
“What you lose in one month, it takes five or six months to get back,” he says, referring to the footing the police lost after the layoffs. “After what we went through, that’s five to seven years we don’t have.”
Early afternoon, I’m parked near a little stretch of grass and chain-link in the shadow of the “Little Iraq” Northgate 1 tower. I’m riding with Kevin Lutz, a one-time homicide detective from the old municipal police days who’s just become a sergeant in the new force. Lutz doesn’t have any issues with getting out of any cars. In fact, he seems to get along with most everyone, even the local crew chiefs. We passed one earlier, a ripped character with a shaved head and a bushy Sunni beard who, word is, someone from another block had incompetently tried to assassinate the day before.
“Hey, what’s up?” Lutz asks him. “How’s your health?”
“I’m all right, man, I’m all right,” the guy says, waving.
Lutz smiles and drives on. “He took one right in the chest yesterday, center mass,” he says. “It was just buckshot, though. But check him out, walking around the next day, like it’s nothing.”
Later, we’re near the towers. Lutz spots a white girl sitting on a brick wall ringing the Northgate 1 parking lot, wobbling, then suddenly falling backward over onto her head. He drives over and the girl, obviously a junkie, gets up and is walking around, disoriented. She starts spinning an impossible-to-follow tale about her friend being attacked in adjacent Northgate Park, a story that within minutes changes to a new story about that same friend just heading toward Northgate Park to get some chicken. The constant in the story is that she needs to get to Northgate Park. There’s nowhere to get chicken in Northgate Park, but you can get all the dope you want.
“Hey, go home,” says Lutz. “OK? There’s nothing good in that direction. We both know what’s going on.”
“But I’ve got to find my friend!” the girl screams.
“Go home,” Lutz repeats, driving off.
She starts in the right direction, back toward Philly, but in the rearview mirror Lutz sees her doing a 180 and heading back to Northgate. He casually turns around. About 85 percent of the heroin customers in this city are like this: young, white and from the suburbs. At all hours of the day, you can see junkies plodding across the Ben Franklin Bridge, usually carrying a knapsack that contains a set of works and, very often, a “Homeless and Hungry” sign they’ve just used to panhandle in Philly. The ones who don’t come on foot come by car, at all hours of the day, and they come in such huge numbers that police say they couldn’t deal with them all if they had a force of 5,000.
This is another potential hole in the policing plan: The fact that broken suburbs – full of increasingly un- or underemployed young people – send a seemingly limitless supply of customers for Camden’s drug trade. The typical profile is a suburban kid who tore an ACL or got in a car accident back in high school, got an Oxy prescription, and within a few years ended up here. This city, incidentally, has a reputation for having the best dope on the East Coast, which partly explains the daily influx of white junkies (“Dope,” jokes Morton, “is a Caucasian drug”). In fact, when Camden made the papers a few years back after a batch of Fentanyl-laced heroin caused a series of fatalities here, it attracted dope fiends from hundreds of miles away. “People were like, ‘Wow, I’ve gotta try that,'” says Adrian, a recovering addict from nearby Logan Township who used to come in from the suburbs to score every day and is now here to visit a nearby methadone clinic. “Yeah,” says her friend Adam, another suburban white methadone commuter. “If someone dies at a dope set, that’s where you want to get your dope.”
While I was talking to Adam and Adrian in the city’s lone McDonald’s, an ambulance showed up – somebody OD’d in the parking lot. Adrian craned her head and nodded, watching the paramedics. She says she and Adam often sit at the city transportation center in the mornings and watch the steady flow of fights and drug-induced seizures.
“The thing about Camden is, when you come back here, you can always say, ‘At least my life is better than what I thought,'” says Adrian. Two minutes later, she’s in full McNod, head all the way back, eyes completely closed, zoned out from a methadone dose she got at a nearby clinic.
A decade or so ago, you wouldn’t have seen white people just hanging out in downtown Camden. Now they’re here by the hundreds every day. “There wasn’t no white people up in this motherfucker,” says Raymond, the self-described gangster who was shot six times. Now, he says, the city is full of white kids on dope. “The last few years, it’s like an epidemic surge,” he says.
That’s the crazy thing about this city. The Camden story was originally a controversial political effort to isolate urban crime and slash municipal spending by moving political power out of dying nonwhite cities. And they do it, this radical restructuring backed by the best in Baghdad-style security technology, and for a second or two it looks like it’s working – only the whole thing might be rendered moot in the end by the collapse of the rest of America. All over the country, we’ve been so busy arguing over who’s productive and who isn’t that we might not be noticing that the whole ship is going down. There’s no lesson in any of it, just a giant mess that still isn’t cleaned up.
Back in Northgate with Sgt. Lutz, we’ve circled around now, and Lutz shouts at the girl, who’s made it all the way to the park.
“Hey, I told you to go home!” he shouts.
“But I need to get some fucking chicken!” she shouts back.
Lutz laughs, shakes his head, drives off, nodding toward Northgate Park.
“Best chicken in Camden,” he says.
This story is from the December 19th, 2013 – January 2nd, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.
From The Archives Issue 1198: December 19, 2013