You probably already knew that times were rough in Camden, New Jersey, but this photo essay really drives home the sad reality. In a part of the nation chock full of towns that have seen much better days, the former home of RCA Victor has become the poster child for all that can go wrong when an industrial base evaporates.
Yet the ordinary ebb and flow of economic activity isn’t wholly to blame for Camden’s demise. Local politicians deserve a share of the blame, as this story makes clear:
The state invested $175 million in Camden, but most of the money went to a few big projects — like expanding a hospital and an aquarium, and building a law school — that were backed by leaders of the Democratic political machine that runs South Jersey. Much less went into neighborhood improvements like removing abandoned houses that shelter drug users and rats.
The aquarium project is a particularly sore point in Camden, as it was botched in truly ludicrous fashion. The original managers, under pressure from politicians to show Garden State pride in exchange for public funding, elected to have the aquarium highlight species that are native to New Jersey—a rather ugly lot, to be sure. (Over 90 percent of the tank space was reserved for native fish.) That decision spelled doom for hopes that the New Jersey State Aquarium might revive the troubled city:
For years the accepted wisdom about the mad public love for fish under glass meant that anybody could build an aquarium, and people would turn out in the millions. Then the New Jersey State Aquarium tampered with the formula by specializing in local fish.
There are a lot of brown fish in New Jersey waters. Brown flounder. Brown cod. Even much of the water is dun. The aquarium almost single-handedly brought down the national statistics for aquarium attendance and worse, it failed to prove the engine of redevelopment envisioned for this impoverished city across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.
“I mean, fish in New Jersey are not very interesting, they are kind of drab looking,” Wanda M. Bullion, a librarian in the Camden schools, said. “The Nintendo generation wants color, excitement — you have to get their attention.”
The aquarium did shift gears, but it never fulfilled its early promise. No longer a state property, it is now on its second private-sector owner, the same Georgia-based company that operates Dollywood. That means the state never came close to enjoying a decent return on its $52 million initial investment, not to mention the tens of millions more it dumped into renovations upon realizing that visitors didn’t want to see flukes and flounders. And, of course, the aquarium never did become the anchor for a planned $500 million waterfront improvement project that the optimists in Trenton once envisioned.
There’s no telling whether that $52 million-plus outlay might have helped reverse Camden’s fortunes if it had been spent more wisely. But I’m sure the city’s citizens wish they could find out.