Don't Step on the Crack

Most people in Southern New Jersey and Philadelphia didn’t need a headline in The New York Times to tell them what they already knew. They were hardly surprised to pick up the Metro section last November and find “Camden Ranked Most Dangerous City.” To its neighbors, Camden, New Jersey is an easy punch line. It wasn’t until the late 1960s, though, that the economy was devastated by the closing of Campbell’s Soup, RCA, and New York Shipbuilding, and the middleclass began racing for the suburbs. With heavy industry gone, Camden slowly started replacing vacant factory lots with low-income housing, reinforcing the suburban migration. Industry, education, and employment have all steadily declined, while the city’s homicide rate has risen with alarming consistency.

While numerous cities have witnessed closing factories, sluggish economies, and population attrition due to urban flight, America has only one “Most Dangerous City.” What went wrong in Camden? The answer is simple: crack-cocaine. In 1985, there were twelve homicides in Camden. Ten years later, in 1995, there were sixty. What happened in the interim? Crack-cocaine arrived in the mid-1980s, followed by the proliferation of open-air drug markets – venues for outdoor drug sales – throughout the city.

The advent of the cheap high plunged Camden into a culture of high school dropouts, property foreclosures, and police raids. Currently, with the vast majority of teenagers dropping out of high school, drug dealing is not just the most obvious career path; for many, it is also the only means of putting food on the table. With few opportunities for legal employment, there’s little incentive to remain in school. And even for those who do stay in school, drug use has become the norm. “When 99 percent of kids coming in front of the juvenile judge are testing positive for drugs,” said an assistant prosecutor who asked not to be identified, “their parents are measuring success by whether or not their children are going to school everyday.”

Drugs are, said the assistant prosecutor, “directly and indirectly responsible for almost every juvenile case passing through Camden’s court system.” Kids start their apprenticeship in the drug trade before they hit high school by getting fifty dollars a day from the neighborhood drug dealer to act as a lookout for police. In a city adorned with memorials to dead drug dealers (artistic murals promising “never to forget” the dealer, immortalized, gun in hand), the crack-cocaine culture will not be transformed by an incremental approach – the solution will have to be radical.

The most viable solution for many activists in Camden is a politically unpopular one: treat drugs as a problem of health, not of criminality, and implement a legalization strategy similar to that of alcohol. Drugs would exist as a legal, taxable market for those over 21, while possession would be downgraded to a misdemeanor for those who are underage. A system such as this one, said longtime Camden political activist Frank Fulbrook, would “put the drug dealers out of business because the cost of growing cocaine and marijuana is very little.” Of course not everyone agrees with the suggestion that legalizing crack will bring the city resolution. Former City Attorney Morris Smith argued that his “community has more important things to do. Legalizing drugs doesn’t advance issues of healthcare, economics and education.” Nonetheless, all seem to agree about the need to create a self-sufficient population. Self-sufficiency creates its own demand for the instruments of revitalization – the local restaurants and stores, which in turn offer additional employment.

It’s not difficult to see why the “War on Drugs” has failed to transform the city of Camden. The government’s focus on punishment rather than transformation does nothing to address the roots of the drug culture. Imprisoning a nineteen-year-old drug dealer is impractical. The young dealer lives among men guilty of similar crimes and returns to a city that offers him no more options than when he departed. Perhaps the police have raided his corner, but certain employment exists just down the street. The legal businesses left in Camden are unlikely to employ him or any of the thousands of men with a criminal record just like his. The city has provided no incentive for employers to act otherwise. As Fulbrook noted, “The drug dealers always win the drug war.”

While efforts at revitalization are currently taking place, Smith explained that the efforts “have limited objectives. They focus mostly on real estate, while the human capital component is lagging behind….People don’t have the skills to reach their potential.” In its attempt to bring in storeowners and restaurateurs along the growing waterfront area, Camden needs to educate its population to provide the human services needed for revitalization. There exists an entire generation of people without high school diplomas, let alone marketable skills. Right now, the revitalized area of Camden consists mostly of “transplants” –  government workers and a few other professionals, who rarely venture beyond the enclave of the waterfront after five in the afternoon.

Clearly, Camden has an image problem, one which its current ranking only worsens. This problem, beyond making the city a ready punch line for Philadelphians, has the disastrous effect of limiting Camden’s capacity for change. In a crisis where poverty leads to drugs and drugs lead to more poverty, obvious solutions will never emerge. Only an unconventional plan like legalization will offer Camden’s citizens the opportunity for self-sufficiency beyond the ubiquity of crack-cocaine.