Rewind Camden

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A common theme surrounding Camden’s coverage in the mainstream media can be described as Bad News, Camden, but an examination of the city’s history could lead to open dialogue about revitalization. Camden’s gradual shift from economic sustainability into its current state is an ongoing and complex dialogue. Many scholars examine the effects of urban riots during the 1960s, which lead to Camden residents and businesses moving out in sizable numbers. Since then, there is no denying that Camden and the State of New Jersey could do a better job of providing the best economic security and job creation for the residents. Some might argue that both parties have not done enough. But lately, the media has chosen to exploit the people who live in poverty rather than holding those in power accountable. Fluctuating murder rates, unemployment, urban decay and poverty rates have flooded the media when describing Camden, New Jersey. Some stories constitute as ‘news worthy,’ but various articles have written about the state of Camden that ranges between satires, personal attacks and fear. his echoes sentiments of a commonly known phrase of fear propaganda called, “if it bleeds, it leads.”

Fear-based stories sell to the public like an R-rated movie might appeal to a 16 year-old teenager. It goes back to a term that Rutgers University professor, Stephen Danley, referred to as “poverty porn” when describing Mark Taibbi’s Rolling Stone article, “Apocalypse, New Jersey: A Dispatch From America’s Most Desperate Town.” “Poverty porn” is a term that has resurfaced within the last few weeks. Steve Patrick Ercolani’s article, “American media has an addiction to poverty porn” in The Guardian, referred to “poverty porn” in the simplest of ways. “Americans love the kiss-kiss-bang-bang,” Ercolani writes. “We love when the hedge fund baddy gets his, (but only after a decade of wanton saturnalia); we love it when a stoic and principled anti-hero thwarts a precinct of corrupt cops.” The content of each story, including in Taibbi’s Rolling Stone piece, may reflect accurate scenarios that non-profit, community organizers and residents have confronted when working in the city on a daily basis. But Camden residents know that the city has to change for the better. Many residents are working toward rebuilding their community, but the regurgitation of articles themed toward Camden’s woes does nothing except reinforce negative stereotypes that lead people to think why Camden should matter. Instead people think that there is no good coming out of Camden, and somehow, that residents are responsible for their own trauma.

The issues surrounding articles like Taibbi’s have more to do with sensitivity and the writer’s inability to see a bigger picture. What affects Camden has a profound impact on the surrounding regions. Public historian in residence at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities at Rutgers-Camden and co-editor of The Public Historian, Mary Rizzo, shared her thoughts on Camden’s connectivity to Camden County, and vise versa. “All cities are connected to the places around them and Camden is no different,” says Rizzo. “In many ways, Camden is in the condition it’s in today because of its suburban neighbors. In the post WWII era, government policy encouraged people to move to the suburbs through the building of highways and easy loans to buy new homes. This drew people who could afford to move and who weren’t impeded by racism to leave cities, making cities increasingly places where only poor people of color lived. To use one evocative example that Father Michael Doyle of Sacred Heart Church always talks about, because Camden is poor, facilities that suburbs don’t want get placed there, like sewage treatment facilities. So, as he says, whenever anyone in the suburbs in Camden County flushes a toilet, it goes directly to Camden, which pretty accurately shows that relationship.”

There has been a narrative – as broken as an old, dusty RCA record – about Camden as a city, dilapidated and beyond repair. It always starts with Camden’s golden years. Camden is the home of RCA Victor, Walt Whitman, James Fenimore Cooper and Campbell’s Soup. It also happens to be a city that was settled before Philadelphia – Camden first in 1626, and Philadelphia in 1682. Most of the region’s goods were produced out of the city, including Joseph Campbell’s canning business known as Campbell’s Soup in 1869.  Companies such as the Victor Talking Machine Company (RCA Victor) and the New York Shipping Company also elevated Camden’s national prominence in the world of manufacturing industry. During the 20th Century, companies that began employing in Camden, which also originated from the city, were the Courier-Post, Haddon Press and the Radio Condenser Company.

Surrounding regions were more than willing to take a piece of Camden, but when people left, no one was willing to give it back. There is more to the history of Camden than its famous people and businesses. “What I’d like to know is what the regular folks in Camden were doing 50 and 100 years ago, because cities are made of people who struggle, build, work, and get by. Those are the stories that we should tell,” says Rizzo. These are the stories that the mass media has the capacity to investigate and tell. Camden was a city that was winning and it still has the capacity to do so.

The media has a profound influence on how society perceives city culture. Camden should be acknowledged for the community’s resiliency. By doing that, the general public might realize that  (1) Camden could have happened to anyone, and (2) resiliency is at the very heart of America. Consider the impact that The Great Depression had on Americans. It taught us that we could lose something as quickly as we earned it. But we were determined to rebound and win. Nothing thrills America more than a story of a winner, and maybe that is a problem. Our culture is one that rewards those for winning while sometimes marginalizing those who appear less than able to succeed. People like to align themselves with history, success and recognition in order for these elements to influence their future, or be associated with the same success. The media persistently feeds its audience the same sob story about Camden and the history being lost. It is distracting readers and listeners from some obvious truths: Camden is still resilient. Camden still stands. Camden still matters.

 

 

 

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