Outlaws: Crime in Philadelphia
Even the criminals, the courts and the prisons of this town have a Philadelphia distinctiveness. The underworld has its own version of history.
Originally, politics had to do with the Proprietors, then the immigrants, then the King of England, then the establishment of the nation. Philadelphia first perfected the big-city political machine, which centers on bulk payments from utilities to the boss politician rather than small graft payments to individual office holders. More efficient that way.
Haddonfield (all 26)(1 of1)volume 38
Haddonfield is a bit of a secret. It's Philadelphia's "Main Line, East"
The 20% federal tax credit for historic preservation is said to have been the special pet of Senator Lugar of Indiana. Much of the recent transformation of Philadelphia's downtown is attributed to this incentive.
New Jersey (State of)
The Garden State really has two different states of mind. The motto is Liberty and Prosperity.
Montgomery and Bucks Counties
The Philadelphia metropolitan region has five Pennsylvania counties, four New Jersey counties, one northern county in the state of Delaware. Here are the four Pennsylvania suburban ones.
|Camden in 1662|
The early Swedish and Dutch settlers tended to sail up the Delaware Bay, and settle on the right-hand bank, which we now call New Jersey. In time, Seventeenth-century settlers, even William Penn, switched over to the left, or Pennsylvania, side. The Dutch, who had experience with dikes on the Zuider Zee, knew that it was quicker and easier to drain the lowlands than to chop down big trees and dig up the roots. Although the Dutch were more interested in fur trading than agriculture, they had to eat. Fish, crabs, oysters and truck gardens were enough for that purpose. After establishing a Fort Nassau at what is now the town of Gloucester, on the south edge of Camden, fur trading on the New Jersey side began to fall off, and the Dutch settlement was moved across the river as Fort Casimir, next to the mouth of the hidden river, the Schuylkill, just south of what is now the international airport. That was fine for the Dutch to stay close to their ships, but the Indians on the far side of the swamp resisted coming down the swampy river and held back to do their fur trading at Gray's Landing, on the high ground between Bartram's Gardens and the University of Pennsylvania. For the Dutch it was a pleasant paddle up from the mouth of the river at Fort Casimir, and anyway you never know about strangers.
William Penn followed the same path, buying and reselling farmland in New Jersey for a decade before he asked for, and King Charles gave him, Pennsylvania. Skipping many of the details, northern New Jersey, called East Jersey, was given to Scottish Quakers, while what we call South Jersey and they called West Jersey, was divided into ten parts among the English Quakers. The Third Tenth around the Cooper River roughly corresponds to Camden County, and was mainly purchased by Irish Quakers and for a while was called the "Irish Tenth". In time, Gloucester County was split off from Camden County, which was mainly known originally as Newton Township. After a century, the Irish origins of the local inhabitants of Newton and Haddonfield were largely forgotten. The town of Gloucester, however, was situated on the river next to what was to be the vast shipyards of New York Shipbuilding Corp.(1899-1967). First addressing the oak forests of West Jersey for the masts of sailing ships, sailing ships were built with lumber logs floated down the Susquehanna River in rafts during the Nineteenth century. This industry attracted later Irish immigrants during the time of the great Irish migrations, and still more were attracted when World War I made Camden a major steamship building center. The experience was repeated during World War II, reaching its eventual high point when the nuclear Aircraft carrier Eisenhower could be seen under construction by commuters going over the Walt Whitman Bridge.
Shipbuilding, like other heavy industry of the rust belt, moved abroad seeking cheaper labor, and what little remained on American soil moved to Norfolk, Virginia. The response of protectionist legislation made America even less attractive for unionized industry. The wiser workers saw what was happening and sought jobs in other industries, elsewhere. But Gloucester City, underneath the bridge girders and surrounded by winding creeks, held out as an oasis of working-class Irish as the southern anchor of crumbling, decaying Camden. About a thousand homes had been built by the federal government during the labor shortages of World War I, as Fairview. These two little Irish enclaves, 97% Caucasian, continue to hold out for a day that will likely never return, gathering in their taverns to sing songs about old martyrs, fighting to maintain control of the industrial unions, and dominating the Democrat politics of the county. There was a time when leverage might have established political control of South Jersey, and through that to the domination of the whole state, but that gets progressively less likely. Tough politics essentially met more than its match in the river towns of North Jersey, other groups learned to play the ethnic game, and the recent uproar about child molestation has loosened the hold of their church on young adherents with school children. The same pattern seems to be emerging on the Pennsylvania side of the river in Delaware County, where however the political machine has historically been Republican.
Meanwhile, just a little to the north, the city of Camden steadily decays and deteriorates. Now only half the size of its 125,000 "Citadel of Republicanism" in 1950, the title of America's poorest city is applied to an average income of $18,000, and various statistics of violent crime make it the first or second most dangerous place in America to live. The City is 53% black, 29% of Puerto Rican origin, and 44% below the official poverty level. In 2001, its Mayor was sent to jail as an affiliate of the Mafia, and the state took over the running of the city. In 2009, a state auditor reported that the books were in such chaotic condition that it was impossible to say where they stood, financially. Along the way to this sorry state, RCA Victor (1901-1986) finally moved out, after decades of watching its employees migrate to the suburbs, taking their tax revenue with them. Although Campbell Soup loyally maintains and is even expanding its national headquarters in Camden, the soup is made elsewhere. Frozen chicken dinners are made by the hundreds of thousands in Delaware, assembling the tinfoil, chickens, and peas from hundreds of miles to the moment when it is packaged mechanically in a manner that would shame the Japanese. There was a time in living memory when truckloads of Jersey tomatoes were lined up at the Camden soup factory for miles, but all that has moved to California. Jersey tomatoes ripened sequentially throughout the season, requiring human tomato pickers to tell green ones from red ones. A new form of hybrid tomato ripens all the fruit simultaneously, allowing it to be mechanically harvested, and taking advantage of three crops a year in California. The Golden State on our western coast seems to be having labor and tax trouble, too; but that is small comfort to Camden.
As factories close, people abandon their homes, slums result. The schools deteriorate, migration and crime increase. Most people would say it is a mess. A recent sociological study, called Camden After the Fall describes in painful detail how every idea anyone has ever had about how to turn Camden around -- has been tried, amply funded and found to be an utter and discouraging failure. The highway system has been modernized, only to allow commuters to buzz through Camden somewhat faster. Public buildings have been built, only to underline the fact that no new construction has taken place with private money in decades. Building a prison in the center of town created jobs, and now more jobs are being created to tear it down. Rutgers, the state university, has a branch under the shadow of the Ben Franklin Bridge. The battleship New Jersey is at anchor in a lovely riverside park, there's a nice little minor league baseball park. Anything you can build with tax money has been built. There's just no private industry, or business, or profession. Anyone who has a bright idea is welcome to read Camden After the Fall . It's just possible something to try has been overlooked, though it isn't very likely. Except for law, order and good schools.
After decades of watching Camden get steadily worse as I commuted hastily through it, I would say there actually is sort of a plan visible. As houses decay, they are torn down, and the grass is planted. It seems likely that the plan is to wait until a large enough plot of land is cleared and planted to grass, so it eventually becomes attractive to a developer. And then the developer will make tons of money with raw land that even the Indians in 1640 could see was very well situated.
Originally published: Monday, September 14, 2009; most-recently modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2019