No one, they say, moves to Camden, NJ by choice.
Camden is, comparatively speaking, no worse than north Philadelphia or west Baltimore or at least two of Washington, DCâ€™s quadrants. None of these cities are inhabitable, so they say, but habitants remain in Camden, though pushed away from the Delaware River, shoved deep into hollowed buildings & corridors where, if trapped, a tourist miles away from the aquarium is set up by yellow eyes undulating like beacons in the dark.
Camdenâ€™s blight is a matter of numbers, money, people and desire. Indifference is evident as one crosses Martin Luther King Boulevard to Haddon Avenue, and turns left toward Market Street–shabby roads made treacherous by corrosion and neglect: floodwaters from steady rain and the equal, opposite trickle of state funds.
Camden is New Jerseyâ€™s true Philadelphia suburb. Dive into the Delaware to the end, care about Camden just enough to keep it in mind. It is a goldmine for he who jump-starts the gentrification halted by budget cuts. A trickle-down effect: those cuts led to the erosion of half of Camdenâ€™s police force; Camdenâ€™s national reputation marks it as one of the most violent US cities–a reputation often supported by statistics which belies (or explains) the cityâ€™s small, and dwindling still, population.
No one, accordingly, moves to Camden by choice except, of course,
my wife and I.
Camden, the quietest city Iâ€™ve heard, reminds me of Newfield, NJ, the town where I grew up, except the trees and farmlands, the spice of Autumn air and the resplendent lawns, are replaced by mounds of cement and concrete, monoliths newly built or newly burned. Rolling hills adorned with buildings, with glass and more glass–reflections abound–and the air reeks of dead economy, a stench akin to pollution and garbage.
Its mood shifts toward the reckless, the manic. It cackles–the sound made by the trauma hospital helicopterâ€™s blades–as it clutches itself like a teenager, eighteen and legal, warming himself as the sting in his ass lingers, the result of being booted out of child protective services.
The depressed, when poor and unable to receive proper care, turn to alcohol and cigarettes, drugs and sex, bullets and bullets clinking into the potholes: an apocalyptic cocktail administered as catharsis.
Over here, near the river, in a fortress which once house the center of Camdenâ€™s wealth, I reconcile my position as a stranger in a strange land no one moves to by choice.
My wife and I chose this building, this neighborhood–the one chunk of land in mid-resurrection. We cannot sink our money into local business because there are few to visit. Bodegas and barbershops–traps crackling with energy, their curbs bejeweled with luxury cars as pregnant women stroll in rags–seem dubious and, for what itâ€™s worth, in no mood for our uppity money.
We can only walk but so far before the police–the ones left behind–make U-turns or take their time weighing all options before–maybe–rolling forward.
Then why are we here? Why move to a city depressed for thirty years? What could possibly be the appeal, being here, over here, near the river, in a fortress which once housed the center of Camdenâ€™s wealth?
I am in a strange land to which no one moves by choice.
mensah demary, whose prose has appeared or is forthcoming in various publications, is co-founder & editor-in-chief ofÂ Specter Literary Magazine. For more information, visitÂ www.inhelvetica.com or on TwitterÂ @mensahdemary.