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Camden, New Jersey

Camden Waterfront and Ben Franklin Bridge, City of Camden, New Jersey

Camden, New Jersey is the Most Dangerous City in America two years running, snatching the top spot from Detroit—a near legendary ghetto where motels, drugs, and life are cheap. But can a bad city go good? Crime capital Camden, New Jersey - a place jam-€"packed with cocaine, heroin, murder, rape, and general violence - has yet to establish itself as a leading vacation hot spot.

If the Grim Reaper had a favorite vacation spot, it would be Camden, New Jersey. Three decades ago it was a vibrant indus-­trial center fueled by manufacturing plants for companies like RCA and Campbell Soup; now this once-proud city of 80,000 is a brittle shell, decaying on the banks of the Delaware River across from Philadelphia’s muscular skyline. A downtown Camden address buys you more rubble than rowhouse, street corners infested with gangs loitering like vultures, and the chance of being one of the city’s homicides in a near weekly ritual of bullets, screams, and sirens that puts it in the same miserable company as urban nightmares like Bogotá, Johannesburg, and Mexico City.

Although once a thriving center for manufacturing and industry, Camden is perhaps best known for its struggles with urban dysfunction. Three Camden mayors have been jailed for corruption, the most recent being Milton Milan in 2000. Since 2005 the school system and police department have been operated by the State of New Jersey; the takeover will expire in 2012. In 2008, Camden had the highest crime rate in the U.S. with 2,333 violent crimes per 100,000 people while the national average was 455 per 100,000.

Based on statistics reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Camden was the third-most dangerous city in the U.S. during 2002, and has been ranked the nation's most dangerous city in 2004, 2005 and 2009. "Most dangerous city" is based on crime statistics in six categories: murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, and auto theft.

However, in 2005, homicides in Camden dropped sharply, to 34 - fifteen fewer murders than were reported in 2004. Though Camden's murder rate is still much higher than the national average, the reduction in 2005 was a drop of over thirty percent. Then in 2006, the numbers of murders climbed to 40. Murder rates are generally not static and change from year to year especially in smaller cities.

Camden has ranked in the top ten most dangerous cities in the U.S. since 1998, when they first included cities with populations below 100,000. It was ranked the most dangerous overall in 2004 and 2005. It dropped down to the fifth spot for the 2006 and 2007 rankings but rose to number two in 2008 and to the top spot in 2009.

Street Violence
252 — Number of crime guns confiscated in Camden County in 2003–04
10 — Times Camden’s murder rate is greater than U.S. average
61 — Murders per 100,000 residents
973 — Aggravated assaults with a gun in Camden in 2003
Child Welfare
100 — Percentage of fourth-graders who passed a standardized math test in one school. After an investigation began, only 23 percent passed the next year.
49 — Percentage of residents without a high school diploma
304 — Violent incidents in public schools, 2003–04
51 — Percentage of children who live in poverty
45 lbs. — Weight of a 19-year-old Camden boy who made headlines when cops busted his abusive foster parents
Housing Bust
19% — Housing vacancy rate in Camden
$1,900 — Up-front cost of Habitat for Humanity home
$35,900 — Price for townhouse by “anxious seller”
$200 — Rent paid by 17 percent of residents
Random Acts of Violence, 2006
Grant Street: A whopping 102 people are arrested during a one-day drug sting.
Pierce Street: An illegal immigrant stabbed a man twice and then ran over his body.
Haddon Avenue: Three men are shot on a Saturday night after an argument.
Federal Street: A 22-year-old man was shot and killed outside a local restaurant.
Mount Ephraim Avenue: One shot dead, five wounded outside a fried chicken joint.
Café II on Ferry Avenue: A bouncer is shot and killed, purportedly by a member of the Bloods.
Arms Deals
192 — Missile parts a Camden smelting company attempted to illegally sell to China
Drug Users
$3 — Minimum crack rock price.
40 — Drug overdoses in Camden County in 2005.
Camden's Guns of Choice
1. Smith & Wesson 9 mm semiautomatic pistol
2. Ruger 9 mm semiautomatic pistol
3. Harrington & Richardson .32 revolver
4. Intratec 9 mm semi-­automatic pistol
Murder Rates Per 100,000 Residents
Camden, NJ — 60.8
New Orleans, LA — 56
Gary, IN — 53.7
Las Vegas, NV — 10.6
Killeen, TX — 5.1
Brick Township, NJ — 1.3
Salary Caps
46 — Percentage of residents living at or below the poverty line
25 — Percent of households earning less than $10,000 a year
3 — Recent Camden mayors convicted of corruption
Sex & Violence
56 — Rapes reported in 2003
500+ — Sex offenders in Camden
2,610 — HIV/AIDS cases in Camden County
85 — “Erotic services” listed on Craigslist
Median Household Income
Camden, NJ — $23,421
Brick Township, NJ — $52,092
Newton, MA — $86,052
New York, NY — $38,293
Los Angeles, CA — $36,687
Detroit, MI — $29,526

The state has invested $175 million into Camden’s infrastructure in an effort to boost the economy and tame the city. Recently, local law enforcement noted an 18 percent decline in major crime, thanks to aggressive tactics by local, state, and federal agencies. But it’s like a Band-Aid on a shotgun wound: This year alone, a lethal supply of heroin has flooded the streets, resulting in 51 overdoses and eight deaths. The previous year, Federal agencies seized 2,307 kilos of cocaine, 157 kilos of heroin, and 10 kilos of meth in New Jersey. Invariably, the poison finds its way to Jersey’s own Super Wal-Mart of drugs. “Camden’s got 150 open-air drug markets, which creates a high level of violence, with people killing each other over petty issues of respect,” Bill Shralow, spokesman for the Camden County prosecutor’s office has said.

While many in Camden try to be optimistic, those on the front lines endure the day-to-day realities of a city struggling for its life. Dr. Amrit Ponnambalam works the emergency room of Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center, and he sees street casualties every day, sometimes up to five patients in an hour. “You get people that you don’t want to take care of. You get the guy the police take in after he shot someone.”

Camden City Hall spokesman Rev. Tony Evans likes to point out that much larger cities, like New York, have more murders; he says the ranking is unfair, noting it’s absurd to compare Camden to a city of eight million. But even Rev. Evans is a reluctant cheerleader, eventually resigning himself to Camden’s existence as human junkyard. “Camden is the dump for New Jersey,” he admits. “If you want drugs, this is where you come.”

Camden’s branding as the most dangerous city in America was determined by Lawrence, Kansas–based publishing company Morgan Quitno Press, which ranks cities based on FBI statistics in every major crime category, including murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, and auto theft. Not all is bleak lawlessness in New Jersey: Northeast of Camden sits Brick Township, last year rated one of the safest cities in the U.S. by Morgan Quitno. Camden lurks in the shadows behind such picturesque hamlets, an infernal pit of asphalt and concrete to New Jersey’s suburban paradise. Scott Morgan, a primary editor on the report, admitted to visiting Camden once, but then “drove back out.”

Morgan Quitno sells its annual reports to real estate investors and home buyers looking for idyllic places to raise families. It’s a numbers game, where Quitno can produce data that proves their proclamation, and City Hall can counter with research indicating rosier days ahead for Camden. In the meantime charity organizations like Habitat for Humanity build homes for the poor while drug dealers look on.

But some numbers can’t be massaged, like the statistics plainly laid out here that paint a bleak portrait of the ghetto that makes other ghetto’s go “Camden? Now that’s a ghetto.”

Camden was known as Pyne Point Settlement and was mainly settled by Quakers. A man named Jacob Cooper planned the city in 1773, but during the Revolutionary War Camden mainly housed the British troops who occupied Philadelphia across the river.

After the Battle of Red Bank, defeated Hessian troops used Pomona Hall to regroup before returning to Philadelphia. The Battle of Red Bank (October 22, 1777) was a battle in which a Hessian force sent to take Fort Mercer on the left bank of the Delaware River just south of Philadelphia were decisively defeated by a far inferior force of Colonial defenders. The victory supplied a sorely-needed morale boost to the American cause. There were several skirmishes near Cooper's Ferry during the British occupation of Philadelphia. On December 15, 1777, the New Jersey militia captured twenty British sailors.

Camden expanded after the year 1800 and again after the Civil War. One of Camden's historic sites is the home of the poet Walt Whitman, who lived in Camden from 1873 until he died in 1892. Visit if you want. There’s an aquarium, an amphitheater, and a ballpark. Just don’t say you weren’t warned…

Welcome to Murder City. Maxim [Print + Kindle]. August 2006.

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