Rutgers Prof Calls Rolling Stone Camden Article “Poverty Porn”

He’s angry.

rolling-stone-camden-article

Stephen Danley is Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Administration at Rutgers University in Camden, and he has some serious issues with the Rolling Stone Camden article that came out on Wednesday.

stephen danleyBelow, a response that Danley (pictured) published on a Rutgers blog, republished here with his permission.


Poverty Porn In Rolling Stone
Exploitation in Camden.

One of the joys of my life is teaching about Camden while living and working in Camden. Students send me articles on the city, info on parades, or even invitations to local fashion shows.

But last night was not fun.

Last night, a student walked into my class with a printed out version of Rolling Stone's article: "Apocalypse New Jersey." Why couldn't they tell any of the good? she asked. They talked to all the wrong people, she asserted. They only talked to the bottom, not to the rest of us, she told me.

Around the class, my students buried their heads in laptops to read yet another article about how Camden had more in common with a war zone than the country it resides in. What they were seeing was what we had studied all semester, a real-time manifestation of the deep historical pattern of outsiders using Camden to the detriment of the city.

A few weeks ago, I flew a guest from New Orleans up to class. Jennifer Turner, known to my class and much of New Orleans as Mama J, told my class to heed the words of Richard Wright: not to despair.

Looking in the eyes of my students as they read Rolling Stone, I saw what she was talking about. The article, with its claims that "if Camden was overseas, we would have sent troops and foreign aid," or "there's no lesson in any of it, just a giant mess that still isn't cleaned up," doesn't try to portray the city as it is, but revels in its darkest corners. This isn't the tale of a city, it is poverty porn, and is abusive and exploitive like the real thing.

Rolling Stone's article is just the latest example of the national media obsession with using Camden this way. Sooner or later, every national publication comes to Camden to do their story on poverty and violence. Brian Williams did his special. The Nation titled its expose "City of Ruins." And now the Rolling Stone.

The constant stream of pictures of addicts shooting up is almost impossible to look away from. It drives voyeuristic clicks, while feeding local despair. Imagine trying to explain where you live to someone who only knows Camden from these articles.

The Rolling Stone article could have been different. It could have been a story about how, as a former Camden beat reporter put it for my class, Camden residents are "resilient." How they've lived with injustice but found sanctuaries in local groups such as the Sophisticated Sisters, the Settlement Music School or the Concerned Citizens of North Camden's baseball league. But voyeurism drives magazine sales, not hope, and dope fiends make for better pictures than local community members trying to get by.

The pattern of exploiting Camden's misfortune doesn't start or end with the media's "shocking" stories. It is deeply woven into Camden's history. The surrounding region dumps its waste into a plant in the Waterfront South neighborhood and a horde of predatory businesses have left the neighborhood facing an epidemic of asthma and blight.

When not literally dumping waste, the suburbs have metaphorically dumbed their poor into the city by signing agreements that paid Camden to meet their affordable housing requirements, thus outsourcing their responsibilities to the poor (a now-illegal work-around to the famous Mt. Laurel case which prevented discriminatory zoning to make sure low-income families had access to the suburbs).

Rolling Stone could have written this story, a story of injustice. It's right there in the text, how power takes advantage of poverty. Taibbi shows how Gov. Chris Christie used Camden for state and national purposes, violently slashing municipal funding, leading to the release of hundreds of police officers, to manufacture a crisis. Now that Christie has gotten his way with the "regionalization" of the police force, he can both claim to have "helped" the city recover (from a crisis that resulted from his policy choice) and also claim nationally that he broke the union and is fiscally disciplined. Everyone wins, except those in Camden who saw the violent results of having their police force slashed to win political points, only to be restored when the city agreed to give up control.

And this is what is so angering about the Rolling Stone article; this messianic myth of the Metro Police, this insistence that outsiders will save the city, it ignores the city's history. It ignores each time a predator has taken advantage of Camden's poverty. Now, these same predators want credit for trying to help the city, and expect local residents to happily cede community power so they can do it. Because it's "good policy." Because the city is poor. Because Rolling Stone said so.

Follow @SteveDanley on Twitter.

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  • Miguel Sanchez

    are you kidding me this guy doesn’t know a thing about camden

    • Natasha Hatcher

      Sorry, i live in Camden and Mr. Danley has the best understanding of Camden!

      • adam lopez

        Don’t make me laugh. Mr rodgers danley needs
        To stick to what he knows bwst. Has he ever lived poor in camden.

        • Natasha Hatcher

          Working in the city, interacting with the residents is a good way to start understanding the dynamics of Camden. He definitely has a better understanding tgan some of the media zombies who believe the propaganda constantly spewed about Camden and have only a superficial perception of Camden from their commute through.

  • Fred Farquar

    There used to be parts of Camden that were nice.

    • Canaan1

      There still are. I live on such a street.

    • Natasha Hatcher

      There are still parts.

    • Just B

      So do I. Parkside has some very nice streets, neighbors and parks. This area is NEVER seen on the news or reports.

  • DTurner

    I felt like the article probably could have at least devoted a page to some of the successful movements in Camden, but I think Professor Danley is a little delusional if he believes that Camden’s “municipal budget” was anything less than a stream of subsidies from the state. While subsidies are a necessity for a poorer city like Camden, they do little to improve the city if they are just offered as blank checks to subsidize city operations. A better idea would be to focus subsidies on projects, such as the Sophisticated Sisters, which have already proven their considerable value to the city. Camden will never improve, however, if money is simply used to prolong the status quo. Whatever you think about Christie, his actions have at least made it clear that Camden needs to think a bit more about how it wants to develop.

    • Natasha Hatcher

      Camden needs to think a bit more about how to respond to politicians who continue to promote its failing. The budget is the responsibility of the mayor and the powers that be need to be held responsible for their mismanagement and irresponsibility.

    • Just B

      There are other organizations who add true value to the city beyond Camden’s Sophisticated Sisters who primary are getting charity donations for being poor black kids stomping in a drill team who themselves highlight the worst of the city to gain outside attention. They tend to exaggerate who they are with a difference of what they mean to be and do and what they actually do as leaders for youth in this city. Then the donations they receive seems to have not gone to what they were meant making them no better than the problems the city already has. There are other groups and organization that have actually brought positive value to the city on a consistent basis such as the Creative Arts Band who has traveled all over even to other countries winning awards representing the city. Camden HS Marching Band and Dancers not only completed and won awards attending President Obama’s inauguration in Washington but their dancers consistently win first place representing Camden. Camden Promise has been doing positive things with the youth in this city for years and none of these groups make it a part of their bio to continuously describe the worst making people feel sorry for them to give money in order to clear their conscience. They show their gifts and talent in a positive way and just keep winning. They are proud of Camden. Community churches weekly (not Sunday) show their love for the people of this city through giving and serving which is never spoken of. Yes, more than money is needed. What is needed more is control over the resources the city have and stopping them from driving out of the city every day. Stop showing commercials on TV saying a medical facility is located in Camden County rather than saying it is in CAMDEN. Perhaps if more people posted the positive parts of the city more they could overshadow those things used to sell papers and cause the residence to remain angry.

  • Nina

    Love this article! Finally someone discusses the political and economic injustice Camden faces as opposed to blaming its residents for its impact on them.

  • unknown

    Personally, I grew up in Pennsauken, blocks from Camden, and I have no idea what this guy is talking about. Even driving thru ten years ago I would lock my door. They are trying to build up certain parts, but really only those parts closer to the college and the water front. If Rutgers ever left, closed their doors forever down there, Camden would probably be even more screwed. He needs to go and take a real walk in Camden, not just down Market or right outside the college, but go into North Camden and see how he feels afterwards.

    • Eric

      Actually Steve has walked all through Camden and knows it pretty well. The fact is that Camden has for many years led the nation in homicide rates because of the dominance of the underground economy, AND this story has to be told in the context of capital flight–RCA going to Mexico–corrupt deals between many governors and local political leaders, white abandonment of the city in the face of black and Puerto Rican inmigration, and the struggles of community groups to make better lives for their neighbors. All of these stories are true and intertwined.

      • http://www.facebook.com/jibreelx JKR

        yea but its Camden, how does this compare to Paris?

    • Ed

      He’s a DWL (Disingenuous White Liberal) hopefully reality won’t intrude upon his life violently.

  • Jenna

    It’s complicated. Camden’s single largest problem has always been institutionalized poverty. As with many cities in NJ, after the more affluent people fled the city for the expanding suburbs they took with it the money that goes into running a city. In fear of the poor moving into their towns, they’ve created a lot of institutional barriers. In this blog post the author mentions just one- the (now illegal practice) of selling off your low-income housing to Camden in order to avoid it including it in your town. South Jersey famously also boasts a woefully inadequate public transit system that keeps poor people out of richer towns by not offering any bus or rail lines to/from many affluent towns. Some places would need to travel more than 30 minutes by car to reach any form of mass transit. Now, we can point our fingers at the woefully corrupt policing practices that were rampant in Camden and the political corruption among both city and state appointed officials- but that is only part of the myriad of ways our institutions have ruined the city. Camden residents, through many generations, have been taught to expect less, that their voices didn’t matter, that people don’t want/like/need them and that they aren’t worthy of an honest future or wage. We did this through racial policies for the bulk of modern history and that, coupled, with wealth has led to the cities of our state being abandoned. Before acting like Camden is Baghdad, maybe think about all the ways our racist institutions have sought to keep it that way. Like a throw away zone for the rich towns to cast-off their worries. There are wonderful, generous, driven, smart, capable, and, yes, resilient people living and working in Camden. There is hope for this generation of youth to be afforded the chance to grow up, education themselves without fear of hunger or homelessness and become the sort of civic leaders their city needs. Glorifying a bunch of cops from “nice areas” that move down to get a job in a recession- is hardly even reporting. A close friend of mine is a green officer from a wealthy suburban town in the north of the state. He got a a tiny bit of Camden specific training and his lack of maturity is astounding. He, like many of his coworkers, are there because there weren’t easy jobs else where and he feels like it is exciting. They aren’t heroes on the front-lines.. just more ill-trained boys with guns and ideas of grandeur. Most of the don’t even live in the city itself, they live in the wealthy nearby towns of the same county with the rest of the “real people” as he and other officers often call them.

    • Iceneedle

      You make a number of good points. I have been in the South Jersey area for decades. An excellent article about Camden City was in the Philaldephia Inquirer in 2009. It went through the money Camden City was given. In fact, at that time, there were supposed to be 400 Camden City officers, sounds like a number being bandied about today with the Camden County Metro Police. Many things are wrong with Camden that a billion dollars in fused into the city did not happen. Rather, it went to the pretty parts of Camden City. The infrastructure of Camden is being ignored. Why hasn’t the money given to Camden City gone to improve the city? Because outside interests and entrenched politicians and political mechanics siphon off the money for other works and projects.

    • Natasha Hatcher

      Disgree Camden’s biggest problem has been CORRUPTION followed by poverty. The poor are the easiest to bully, manipulate and steal from.

  • Dorothy Ray McClave

    Excellent piece!! This professor clearly has his finger on the pulse of Camden!

    This too is a great piece on the failure of the $180+ Billion state takeover of the city. Outlines who really benefited. Look for the same names you read about today….

    http://articles.philly.com/2009-11-08/news/24987941_1_state-takeover-sewer-sewage

    • John E Miller

      Uh…. I’m pretty sure you mean $180 million takeover.

  • Alex

    There are people who are working very hard to make something positive in Camden. A former native has recruited actors and filmed parts of a scripted television show in and around Camden. “Brotherhood of Silver” aired on WMCN Cherry Hill earlier this year, and another season is in production. Where are the stories about that, and the other art/music/film/cultural success stories that originate in Camden, or do they only count if they are made across the river in Philly?

  • For the Love of Camden

    Check us out at http://www.fortheloveofcamden.com and see what we are doing to bring the revolutionary capacity of poetry to Camden, the city Walt Whitman called “a city invincible.” Help us change the way we think and speak and write about the city as a means to transform the prospects of the city. Five decades of urban renewal policy have done nothing to improve the outlook of Camden’s poorest citizens. Poetry and language-craft have always been revolutionary forces. Think of Nelson Mandela. A poem, (Invictus,) informed not only his survival, but his enduring humanity through 27 years of imprisonment at the hands of his oppressors. Think what we might accomplish if we empowered youth to imagine, then speak themselves beyond their circumstances into a better day.

  • Giovanni Gino Caffarella

    And the other equation is Collingswood. A lot of folks in this town do a lot for Camden and I go there for metal shows. We have to combat the negative and bring up the positive…

  • Pee Bee

    you don’t talk about your lovely curtains and your lovely furniture and your lovely kitchen when the roof is on fire, that’s why!

  • Angel Alamo
  • Bob Dobolino

    So the total corruption of the Camden City government had nothing to do with its failure, and instead the state should just keep handing them a blank check?

  • MYReAgan

    I grew up in Camden back in the early seventies, I and many other tax
    paying residents left the city, when those like the professor promoted the
    welfare state, now forty years later the only people left in Camden are those on
    welfare and section eight. They had a chance to better themselves and make their
    situation better yet they chose to ride the free gravy train. People like
    Stephen Danley blame injustice and Christie for Camden’s demise. Camden has
    being on a down spiral decades before Christie became governor–this professor
    is clueless or on denial, Camden is the worst ghetto in the western hemisphere.
    The only shoppers that go there are the drug addicts.

  • John Everett Miller III

    All of these responses entirely miss the point of Taibbis article,which is that Camden is a testing and proving ground for both neoliberalism and the creeping police state.. the problem is obvious: the welfare state is too weak, not too strong, and the government is all too willing to spend money policing Camden that could easily create enough jobs to solve Camden’s problems if it were spent directly creating jobs instead.

  • pnjy

    Here’s a positive story about a doctor who’s trying to improve Camden’s healthcare system. Inspiring: http://www.macfound.org/fellows/886/

  • M

    What this article and the Rolling Stone article neglect to blame is the actual people living in camden. Why is it EVERYONE ELSE’S fault that the city is in shambles? Politicans are at fault for 30% of the citizens being under 18? The government is at fault because 70% of the population drop out of high school? Camden has more charter schools than any other city in new jersey. Why are the children not taking advantage of them? Because of the parents, because of the people that live in camden, because they take no pride and make no attempt to rise up above it. Ive been fortunate enough to coach young men from camden – they all find a way to rise up and make a lives for themselves. Know why? Because they dont sit around and blame other people for their problems, they take accountability for themselves and their own situations. This article like every other one mentioned within it spreads blame without taking any accountability. Without accountability there will be no progress.