The exodus is complete.

I will always be apprehensive to post blighted urban scenes on this blog, particularly if it depicts residential disinvestment. First of all, I don’t want to exploit obvious signs of economic distress and poverty when it involves families, and photography can easily be very exploitative; secondly, even if my analyses attempt to deconstruct dire situations with the aim of understanding how to prevent or rectify them, I never want to turn the hapless subjects of these photographs into laboratory animals to gratify my own curiosity.

Yet I’m still posting the images below; I’ve overcome my hesitancy in this case. I feel I can make an exception in the pictures below because there are no longer people to exploit; any dwellers (at least legal ones) have moved out of this single block of rowhouses in Camden, NJ. All that is left are the homes themselves, and from these pictures you can see that I first approached the homes, then looked down the Arlington Street (barricaded by a row of tires), then pivoted to my right to take one last picture before leaving the scene.

Camden, New Jersey sits directly across from the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Not as much a suburb of the larger city as a secondary hub, it rose to prominence as an industrial center and headquarters of RCA Victor, the New York Shipbuilding Corporation, and Campbell’s Soup; the latter retains its headquarters in the city. However, widespread relocation of the industry (beginning during the Depression), political corruption, and high crime helped the city’s population plunge from its peak of 125,000 to a current rate of about 80,000. The city remains a contender for the poorest big city in the country; recent US Census reports estimate that over 40% of the population is below the poverty line.

This single block in a neighborhood south of downtown near the riverfront may exemplify the devastating impact population loss can exert on a city. But population loss fails to account for something this profound. A number of cities have lost a third of their population since the dawn of suburbanization, but most of these places don’t look like Camden. What specifically contributed to Camden’s decline, or, more specifically, what happened in this specific neighborhood? I am going to try to shy away from being the armchair sociologist, and look at this more from the perspective of the principal demographic group that left the city. In short, I’m going to get into the head of a working class white resident of Camden from decades past. Here are my speculations on what took place over time, based empirically on what residents might have experienced in prior decades:

1) Obsolescence of housing stock. The attached rowhome is probably the most common typology for working class residences in the greater Philadelphia area, particularly in the old cities that directly abut the Delaware River. Unlike the neighboring northern city of New York, Philadelphia had a relatively high degree of homeownership among its laborers even prior to the GI Bill and rampant suburbanization in the late 1940s. The average “trinity” is three stories, about 900 square feet and originally designed to house family of between five and six. Fitting this many people into such a small home is inconceivable by today’s standards; even the Levittowns, one of which was built outside Philly in Bucks County, offered more space than this, with the added benefit of personal lawns and private walls. As old neighborhoods in north Philadelphia and Camden declined, the white working population left these rowhouses for slightly more spacious homes; even if they didn’t have the income to buy a fully detached house, at least they sought something bigger and with a patch of land or an alley for off-street parking in the back. Philadelphians of moderate incomes moved to former pasture lands in northeast Philadelphia; though they left a devastated North Philly in their wake, at least many of them remained in the city limits. Camden, at an extremely compact 10 square miles, had little or no vacant land, so the middle class flight involved an exodus from the city, depleting the area of its tax base and living scores of homes with no one to fill them. Neighborhoods such as Arlington Street pictured above were among the older, less desirable and the first to go. Conversely, some of the newer “suburban” areas of Camden, though still very urban by any observer’s standards, have newer homes with slightly more modern features; these neighborhoods are often largely abandoned as well, but not completely vacant.

2) Racial integration of school systems. Unsurprisingly, in a country with such a turbulent racial history, nearly all white flight is a response to a certain stimulus caused by a non-white “other”; in this case (as in most) a burgeoning African American population seeking factory jobs after departing the South in the Great Migration, then arriving to industrial centers such as Camden. Most likely Camden experienced de facto segregation in the earliest decades of its decline, in which school districts were drawn to along neighborhood boundaries that essentially preserved racial homogeneity: white schools and black schools. I feel it’s safe to make this assertion based on what I know about the Fairview neighborhood in far south Camden, which was, according to a person who grew up there, “still Mayberry” even into the 1970s when the rest of Camden had largely collapsed. Separated geographically from the rest of Camden by a limited access highway and a river, the Fairview neighborhood—which was a government sponsored “garden city” built to house workers after the First World War—remained almost completely white while the rest of the city was African American and Puerto Rican. However, in the 1980s, leaders built a bridge over the Newton Creek and changed school district lines again, thereby connecting Fairview to the rest of Camden and integrating the most critical institution people typically use to gauge neighborhood quality—the school system. In only a few years, white flight in Fairview was so profound that today the abandonment and decay in the neighborhood almost compares to the rest of the city. A further indicator of Camden’s hapless role as a tinderbox for regional racial hostilities is the fact that the surrounding communities generally remain majority white. While trendy Collingswood and tiny Woodlynne are relatively diverse, the town of Gloucester City to the South of Camden, is, by some locals’ estimates “what Camden used to be”, a town comprised of blue collar Caucasian laborers. What is striking about Gloucester City is that it is unusually homogeneous for a city within a state as diverse as New Jersey: over 97% white and over 40% of Irish ancestry, according to the 2000 Census. Any time a place of such homogeneity abuts a city as diverse as Camden, one can surmise that the residents have made every effort to prolong the segregation. Though civil rights laws of the 1960s prevent de jure segregation from existing today, zoning regulation or laws limiting rental housing often preserve de facto segregation, which might explain why Gloucester City has retained a population of white laborers—perhaps many of them former residents of the Fairview neighborhood.

3) Proliferation of the car allowed workers to commute to Camden. Though Camden suffered tremendous job loss after World War II, it hemorrhaged residents at an even faster rate. Campbell’s Soup retains its headquarters in the city, and because it is the seat of government for Camden County, Camden is a principal place of employment for many white collar government workers. However, nearly all of these workers living in affluent neighboring suburbs such as Pennsauken, Cherry Hill, Haddonfield, and Collingswood. The availability of the automobile to working class individuals meant that people with some financial means could escape the city just as easily as the wealthy had in earlier decades; the fact that the old housing stock in Camden does not accommodate vehicles with garages or driveways made the prospect of leaving the city in favor of newer housing that much more appealing. Today, only a handful of areas in Camden show any real sign of reinvestment: Rutgers University keeps a campus there, and the neighborhood surrounding it is in generally good maintenance. Beyond this, the waterfront of Camden has become the target for the vast majority of revitalization monies: among them are an aquarium, an outdoor concert venue, a minor league ballpark, and the USS New Jersey. While many of these attractions have been successful, they typically lure visitors from elsewhere in the region, who drive to their destination, park in a secure garage, and attend the event. Revitalization in Camden remains quite isolated to the waterfront, though city revenue has no doubt improved through taxes collected on these highly profitable entities. Nonetheless, Camden remains a scary place in the perception of most people in metro Philadelphia, and automobiles serve as a buffer from crime as one reaches city’s various destinations. Pedestrian traffic in downtown Camden beyond the impoverished local population is virtually unseen.

 

The result is what you see here at Arlington Street: a neighborhood that has achieved complete extinction. It is undoubtedly a harbinger of other Camden neighborhood’s futures, and most of the remaining housing stock is in such a state of disrepair that it is unlikely to lure urban pioneers for its vintage aesthetic. Camden represents one of the nation’s biggest urban revitalization challenges: so few neighborhoods remain intact that it is virtually impossible to sell the place. Anyone capable of leaving for a more prosperous community in the area (which is EVERY community) will most likely do so. Revitalization of some of the old RCA Victor factories into luxury condominiums is a nascent and potentially successful endeavor, but it remains to be seen if it will spill over beyond the well-monitored brick fortresses along the waterfront that comprise these unusual pockets of affluence in a sea of poverty. The best that can be done in many Camden neighborhoods is a complete reinvention, which apparently is what happened to the area in this picture, taken in 2003; mercifully, since this time, all the homes on this block have been demolished. However, this leaves Camden with its other monumental problem: acres of vacant land (often so contaminated from old factory pollutants that they have been designated Superfund sites) with no real demand for anything new. No doubt the fields along Arlington Street in Camden will lie fallow for many years before anything as radical as a home or a store will ever be built there.

33 thoughts on “The exodus is complete.

  1. stephen

    I looked on Google maps and these rowhouses have been demolished. Your post was only 3 months ago and Google maps aren’t updated that often so I was wondering when you took the pictures.

    Good article. reminds me of Cairo Illinois.

    Reply
  2. William Kennard

    I LIVED ON ARLINGTON ST. FROM 1958 TO 1973 .JOINED THE NAVY CAME BACK TO CAMDEN IN 1978 LOOKED LIKE A WAR ZONE MOVED TO FLORIDA MY UNCLE STILL LIVES IN THE FAIRVIEW SECTION OF CAMDEN THAT IS ALSO GOING DOWN HILL

    Reply
  3. Troy Knight

    I grew up in CAMDEN in fairview, Lakeshore dr. It hurts my heart to see my city the way it is. Growing up there it looked nothing like the pictures you show in your post. I hope they get it together.

    Reply
    1. Kathle Brendlinger

      Troy, I lived on Fairview Street. My mother was the crossing guard in front of our house from about 1963 through almost 1980. If you went to HB Wilson School I am sure you knew her. I cannot ride by our old house without crying. How sad to see your childhood destroyed.

      Reply
  4. Kimberly Breidenback

    My Great Grandparents, Helen and Vincent Bresan (a machinist at New York Shipbuilding), purchased the grocery store located at 2000 Arlington Street in the 1920s and ran the store until the 1940s.
    My Grandfather and Grandmother, John and Catherine (Vincent/Helen Bresan’s daughter) Breidenback, lived on 2002 Arlington Street with their 2 children, John and Barbara in the 1940s-50s. Catherine lived on 2002 Arlington Street until the 1960s.

    Reply
  5. AmericanDirt

    Thanks for the observations, Kimberly. I’d imagine that the neighborhood was already starting to decline in the 1960s. From the looks of it when I took that photo in 2003, it had already been abandoned for probably at least a decade.

    Reply
  6. AmericanDirt

    Interesting. From a Google Streetview, it becomes clear that not only did the authorities demolish all the homes on Arlington Street, they also vacated the right of way completely. The north side of Arlington where it intersects with Chelton Avenue is no longer showing up as a road at all. Here’s what it looks like now: https://www.google.com/maps/place/Chelton+Ave,+Camden,+NJ+08104/@39.9181603,-75.1131304,17z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m2!3m1!1s0x89c6c8d6b22f2ea9:0xfc9faa6d94e9628f

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    1. Dam

      Yes that’s what it looks like . But I bet any drug looking to be purchased can be bought on a corner within two blocks. Ask the county police

      Reply
  7. Mistah Vega

    Just stumbled across this article.

    Former resident of 630 North 6th Street, the houses that were demolished had been burnt out since the early 70’s not sure when those were demolished. Lot on the the corner of 6th & York was always empty as long as I was in Camden. I know there is talk of the factors that caused the downfall of Camden, especially North Camden but at some point those resident need to take accountability of their life. All of my family moved out and the unlucky ones never made it out alive.

    https://www.google.com/maps/@39.9533419,-75.1168772,3a,75y,179.52h,88.06t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1sGNE1K5xXom2AgNTUP5Zh1Q!2e0!6s%2F%2Fgeo3.ggpht.com%2Fcbk%3Fpanoid%3DGNE1K5xXom2AgNTUP5Zh1Q%26output%3Dthumbnail%26cb_client%3Dmaps_sv.tactile.gps%26thumb%3D2%26w%3D100%26h%3D80%26yaw%3D83.289764%26pitch%3D0!7i13312!8i6656

    Reply
  8. AmericanDirt Post author

    Thanks for the reply, Mistah Vega. While the homes in that block are now gone, I could never determine how long they looked that way. If you’re correct and they sat vacant since the 1970s, that means they went untended for 30 years.

    While Camden appears to be one of those places where the last person out should close the door, the fact remains that the city is actually relatively stable in population, given its devastation. It grew in population in the 1980s, and in the last decade only declined by only 2.5%–far less than most other collapsed cities like East Saint Louis, Gary, or the aforementioned Cairo Illinois.

    Reply
  9. Grew up in Fairview

    You are mistaken about Fairview being isolated from the rest of the City of Camden, unless you are speaking figuratively. Since its development around 1918 to provide housing for the influx of workers of the New York Shipbuilding Corporation during World War I, Fairview, originally named Yorkship Village, always had a bridge across Newton Creek which connected it to the city’s Morgan Village section, where the shipyard was located. This bridge linked Fairview’s Yorkship Road and Morgan Village’s Morgan Boulevard. The other side of Fairview was bordered by Mt. Ephraim Avenue, which is a major thoroughfare that runs through South Camden and ends at Camden’s Haddon Avenue just outside of the city’s downtown district. However, despite these long standing connections to the rest of the city, Fairview did remain racially isolated as a white community by that natural boundary as the rest of Camden’s population became increasingly Black and Hispanic. Segregation of the schools starting in the late 1960’s resulted in many parents sending their children to parochial schools. The white population’s flight from Fairview to the suburbs probably began in earnest in the mid 1980’s with a virtually complete demographic turnover by the mid 2000’s if not somewhat earlier.

    I would also like to point out that the earlier post by Troy Knight refers to the Fairview Manor section, and not Fairview Village. Fairview Manor, which was developed post World War II if I’m not mistaken, is located across Newton Creek from Fairview Village and adjacent to Morgan Village.

    Reply
    1. Barry

      The downfall of Camden was “social engineering” designed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Out-of town investors found that the Camden Housing Authority would pay top dollar for Fairview row homes under Section 8 housing. Started out near Dallas and Fenwick area just behind the 676 ramp at Collings Road. Also, the apartment complex on Hull Road behind the old Pathmark. Many Congress and Constitution residents suffered burglaries and stolen autos. Many tired of the nonsense and sold to investors….and the downward cycle began. Nowadays, drug dealing and crime is rampant in the old alley ways. Such a shame, they said it was once considered the best designed community ever developed. It was a beautiful community of neighbors when I was a kid. I served Camden City as a uniformed police officer for 25 years, so I know what I am talking about. Still love Camden, such a shame what the Democratic Machine did to a once wonderful place to live.

      Reply
  10. Grew up in Fairview

    I just read your other article, “Dressing the Wounds with Paint”, that also talks about Fairview and it, too, has many inaccuracies. Fairview’s children never attended school in Gloucester City unless illegally through relatives living in that nearby community. As a ward of Camden, Fairview has always been part of the Camden public school system. Yorkship School has always been Fairview’s elementary school. When Morgan Village Middle School opened in the late ’60s it is where Fairview sent its middle schoolers. Previously they went to Hatch in Camden’s Parkside section. The public high school for Fairview is, and always has been, Camden High. It’s ludicrous to think that another municipality would accept children into its schools without collecting taxes from those outsiders, just as it is ludicrous to think that it would take 70 years for a city to build a bridge to connect one of its wards to the rest of the city. As mentioned in my other comment, Fairview was always connected to Camden via the Morgan Village Bridge and Mt. Ephraim Ave.

    Reply
  11. AmericanDirt Post author

    Grew up in Fairview, I based my observations on the Fairview neighborhood (Yorkship Village) from a tour I received over a decade ago by either a board member or the executive director of the Fairview Neighborhood Association (I forget her exact position). She explained that up until the 1980s, Fairview was “like Mayberry”, compared to the rest of Camden. And she attributed the sudden economic decline of Fairview to both school redistricting and increased access by the construction/improvement of a bridge, which caused the rapid middle-class flight out of Fairview at that point in time. So, if my statements here are inaccurate, they are really her word against yours.

    I tend to think you might be right about the bridge across Newton Creek. It doesn’t make sense for there to have been no access to the rest of the city. Even so, however, Fairview was always comparatively isolated, since no other Camden neighborhood has so few points of entry. And even though Newton Creek is hardly a major body of water, it still creates a physical and psychological impediment that is certainly more powerful than a railroad track (one of the other common instigators of neighborhood divide). But yes, Fairview has probably long had some basic access to the rest of Camden. From what I can tell, Fairview used to have a lot in common with Miller Beach, the one stable neighborhood in Gary, Indiana–which, to this day, is somewhat isolated from the rest of Gary and remains middle class and mixed race (while the rest of Gary is over 95% African-American).

    I’m not as sure about your statement that Fairview’s children “never attended school in Gloucester City”. It is clear that, even in the 1970s, when the rest of Camden was in shambles, Fairview was stable, and it would be hard to imagine too many middle class people were sending their children to Camden High. Parochial school was probably the primary option, but for those who couldn’t afford it (or who didn’t want religious teaching for their children) it is completely realistic to think they would send their kids to a school in another district. Obviously the Gloucester City couldn’t just start accepting Camden kids with no strings attached. Either families in Fairview could lie and claim another address outside Camden for their children, or they could pay a small “fee” to a neighboring school district like Gloucester City to gain admittance. Both of these two alternatives take place all across the country, and the paying of a “fee” to a neighboring district may not be ethical, but it isn’t ludicrous. When people with some wherewithal live in a school district they distrust, they will find any means to get out of it, including bribing public officials or taking a false profession of faith to gain their children admittance to a religious school. Or they sell fast before the value of their home plunges and leaves them with no equity.

    That said, if either of your criticisms are correct, you have not provided an explanation for why, in the mid-1980s, things changed in Fairview, suddenly and dramatically. Clearly something in the environment spawned a rapid white flight at that point it time, no doubt concomitant with a plunge in home values. If it wasn’t about school access or the physical shift of crime, what was it? Why did Fairview remain “Mayberry” for sixty years after the rest of Camden declined.

    Reply
    1. Barry

      The downfall of Fairview was “social engineering” designed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Out-of town investors found that the Camden Housing Authority would pay top dollar for Fairview row homes under Section 8 housing. Started out near Dallas and Fenwick area just behind the 676 ramp at Collings Road. Also, the apartment complex on Hull Road behind the old Pathmark. Many Congress and Constitution residents suffered burglaries and stolen autos. Many tired of the nonsense and sold to investors….and the downward cycle began. Nowadays, drug dealing and crime is rampant in the old alley ways. Such a shame, they said it was once considered the best designed community ever developed. It was a beautiful community of neighbors when I was a kid. I served Camden City as a uniformed police officer for 25 years, so I know what I am talking about. Still love Camden, such a shame what the Democratic Machine did to a once wonderful place to live.

      Reply
  12. Edward C Wieland

    A lot of North Camden was destroyed during the riots in the early 70’s I sat on 21st and Harrison ave and watched the houses burn night after night in north Camden set on fire by the black population that lived there.

    Reply
  13. Marc P

    My father was born and raised in camden (he’s 72) and i was born in a hospital in camden. The stories he told me when he was a young child of being able to leave your door unlocked without the worry of crime and how his dad (my grandfather) working at the New York ship yards during WW2 makes me sad for what happened to that once great city.

    Reply
  14. Robert Lane

    Both my parents are from Camden and had there 1st home in Fairview, Merrimac Rd. My father watch first hand the city decline. initially it was people leaving and people moving into homes and not taking care of them which made neighborhoods undesirable then came the loss of jobs with more people to leave but then after that the straw that broke the camel’s back and sent the downward spiral was the seventies the Camden Riots. That devastated business and neighborhoods further. After that all the failed programs from corruption that our elected officials put fourth to line there pockets.

    Reply
  15. Catherine Bergholz

    I was born and raised in Camden NJ , lived on several streets such as Mitchell Street 23rd Street 24th Street Broadway Morgan Village Fairview as a few others.

    I grew up with the David’s, Fox’s, Leach, Aliano the as several others.

    I use to hang out at Shanahan freight company across from Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital as a kid my parents worked with Timmy and Kay Shanahan.

    I love “DONKEYS PLACE STEAKS ” , TO THIS DAY STILL TRAVEL 3 HOURS TO CAMDEN TO GET several to take home for me and friends and family.

    Every time I’ve come to Camden I just want to break down and cry. It sickens me to see how much it has truly decayed. All of my childhood memories are being erased right off the map it’s heart wrenching I always pray that something could be done before it’s too late prayers go out for Camden New Jersey

    Reply
  16. Catherine B

    I was born and raised in Camden NJ , lived on several streets such as Mitchell Street 23rd Street 24th Street Broadway Morgan Village Fairview as a few others.

    I grew up with the David’s, Fox’s, Leach, Aliano the as several others.

    I use to hang out at Shanahan freight company across from Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital as a kid my parents worked with Timmy and Kay Shanahan.

    I love “DONKEYS PLACE STEAKS ” , TO THIS DAY STILL TRAVEL 3 HOURS TO CAMDEN TO GET several to take home for me and friends and family.

    Every time I’ve come to Camden I just want to break down and cry. It sickens me to see how much it has truly decayed. All of my childhood memories are being erased right off the map it’s heart wrenching I always pray that something could be done before it’s too late prayers go out for Camden New Jersey

    Our family doctor was dr. Morganstein
    As a child I remember going to Woolworth running and playing in the streets the playground with the free lunches mr. Softee trucks the old bicycle Water Ice carts it was just so much to do as a child growing up riding the High Speed Line taking buses walking the bridge going to Campbell Soup Broadway was loaded with stores once a week we went to Broadway and walk miles to every store it’s a shame to see this city run down so bad

    Reply
  17. Michael Benjamin

    Just for the record, those pictures bring back real childhood memories! I remember when those houses were filled! Just like a lot of homes in Camden! The owned are the culprits! They either rented them out when moved or just abandon the property all together only lot leave the property to rot rather than sell or keep up the property! And not to mention the fact that they did not pay their taxes , which only left the city in even more finically crises ! But for the record ! I had some wonder friends from that block! The Palmers and Howells to name a few! Also the Johnsons too!!!

    Reply
  18. Myra Palmer Macklin

    Arlington Street was a great place to grow up on, even though it was destroyed I still have my childhood memories and no one can take that away from me even the devastation can’t take those memories away.

    Reply

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