Camden’s Great Depression and Today

by Ben P.

               The city of Camden in southern New Jersey used to be a place of prosperity. Shining with opportunity for the surrounding area, people were drawn towards it. Camden was a place for business and work. “By 1920, Camden had a population exceeding 100,000 ranking the city fifty-eighth in the nation.” (Camden After the Fall, 19) Everything was looking bright for the upcoming city. Today it is suffering. We are experiencing a depression-like economy in the city now. Many people are asking if we can save it from its current state or how we could accomplish it. However, some look back to the Great Depression and compare the times then to now and see how they are different. Some might attempt to find some similarities, as well. With the knowledge of the past, it is possible that the similarities and differences can help us better understand Camden’s micro-economy and possibly stumble onto some overlooked solutions.

                The Great Depression was a troubling time for the whole country, not just Camden. That is the major difference between then and now. However, examining the Great Depression within the city’s surroundings could help us understand Camden. During the Great Depression, Camden’s businesses took very hard hits, but somehow made a prevalent recovery. The city was a place where people would travel to open their business in hopes of wealth, but when the depression hit, businesses and the livelihood of Camden plummeted and the city was no longer the business hub it once was. The big industry was also a thriving part of Camden that was essential to its overall status, be it good or bad. They offered a great deal to the city as far as jobs and benefits go. Many people looked to the industries for hope during these times. How they suffered and how they helped the city during the depression is large portion of the Camden’s well-being and quite possibly the most important factor. The city’s leaders need to be examined, as well. Their actions and decision making managed the city’s status and situation. The political leaders are not the only ones who helped. Civic measures were taken to revive the city. These ranged from federal to churches to charities. There were leaders among all of these, especially throughout each ethnic group inhabiting Camden. All of these things played a part in the city’s suffering and restoration during the Great Depression and need to be closely analyzed. These are some of the many variables and factors that existed during the Great Depression in Camden and during Camden’s present depression-like economy. After examining these variables of the Great Depression within Camden’s city boundaries, I ask what lessons could we possibly learn from the city’s endeavors during the 1930s?

                When a depression hits, the first thing that people think about are all the businesses failing and all the job loss. This was true in Camden. However, many of the businesses remained both generous, and resilient. In the sixteen years which spanned around the depression and the Second World War, half of the properties remained under the original owner. Also, any businesses that were sold remained in the same trait or specialty. We can observe the generosity that the businesses offered in the case of one butcher during the depression. A woman, Edna, recalls on times when her mother would send her to store to retrieve a bone for their dog and to leave some meat on the bone. The butcher had looked at her suspiciously, and knowingly told her that she didn’t have a dog. He still gave her the bone with what little meat on it he could spare. In times of such hardship, business owners could still put their own needs a side to help those who could not acquire the essentials to healthy livelihood. She claimed, “God bless that man—he kept many people from starving to death. Those were lean years.” (Camden After The Fall, 33) Without, the selflessness of Camden’s community, the city may not have made it out of the depression. There would have been more casualties and more struggles and suffering. The businesses did their best to hire as much as they could without over burdening, and informed those who needed help of opportunities that could not miss.

                This kind of generosity and sense of community brings up the key factor of charity. There were many ethnicities in Camden during the 20s and 30s. These communities stuck together through the depression and supported each other the best they could. Citizens amongst them emerged to take up leadership roles to establish organizations. The ethnic communities would naturally cluster together. They would settle down near the churches or synagogues of their respected faiths. This provided everyone with a sense of belonging in times where it was most needed. For example, Catholicism was the city’s most populated religion at the time and there was always a local parish to help provide for its followers. This did not just include the practicing of faith, but they also provided schooling for children. There would be mutual aid associations to provide insurance and similar needs of that type. There were building associations that allowed home ownership to be practical and possible. A highly important part of the community would be its connections to the community and its abilities to keep in touch with employers. There was a network of associates that could point people in directions of businesses or industries looking to hire someone. This kind of society among the ethnic groups of Camden kept hopes high in dire times. Without it, people would feel less connected and unable to help each other. Such distance from society can lead to the depression of one’s mind, much less connected to the depression of the economy. People would be unable to own their own homes without their community’s central help. This would leave many houses empty and the market less than thriving which ultimately hurts the economy even more.

More specifically analyzing the success of these many ethnic communities, we can observe the great upcoming of the Polish community during the Great Depression. Their community thrived during the depression to the end of the Second World War. The years from 1934 to 1946 are addressed as the “Forward Years,” beginning with the arrival of Monsignor Arthur Strenski. The success was endowed with a twelve thousand members. Ninety percent of whom were homeowners. It also ran its own parochial school and cemetery for its community. The school also had strict rules for community where the children had to report to their classrooms on Sundays and march to church as a group, further extending the importance of unity among the public.

                Specifying on the Jewish community, we can discern a community that mostly went into their own businesses. They also dedicated themselves to them by living above their business. They also began to move out of one centrally located neighborhood into scattered neighborhoods. However, the sense of community was very strong in Camden during these times and the Jewish community stayed united. There had already been four synagogues built in Camden which were attended by the Jews and kept them interconnected. The organizations started within the community included a religious school for Hebrews that provided for the children. It also included a Hebrew Free Loan Society that took in needy cases and provided lodging and board for strangers. Regardless of how separated the Jewish community was geographically, they seemed to always answer to any call for help or support within their ethnic community.


                Although, the separation of ethnic groups could be seen as a hostile segregation that could prove more harmful that profitable, the communities kept culture alive, and it kept the small communities alive and well. A huge part in this success was the aforementioned citizens who stepped up to be leaders. They served as role models more than leaders. They were people whom the community would flock to in times of need. They would always help, whether it be translating to English, or help looking for a job, or even providing a service for those who don’t have the funds for it. A specific case of this is found in the Italian community’s Tony Mecca. He ran a funeral home that was located across the road from the area’s parish. This served as a local communing ground. He was an experienced businessman who spent his early years in Hammonton picking berries and creating his reputation before making the move into business in the city. Once there, he found himself to be central role in his Italian friends’ lives. He served as a navigator and translator for the immigrants who knew no English. He would help his friends and neighbors obtain citizenship papers. He would also waive fees who could not afford the funeral. The man was an organizer and role model to the Italians of Camden.

                In comparison of today’s society, Camden in the 90s had a major help from CCOP or Camden Churches Organized for People. To start their inquisition of what is wrong with Camden, the leaders of CCOP would hold many interviews with people. This allowed them to make many connections among the inhabitants of Camden, as well as piece together a common problem, or the problems. This was a strong and effective way for the organization to create networks among the city and identify the problems to strike down as quickly as possible to help restore the city. These leaders were very key to the organization’s success as they had to be people who “(1) have sizable networks of personal contacts; (2) are open to expanding their networks and building relationships with others; (3) put forth the effort to listen to the concerns of members of their networks, congregations and communities.” (The Intentional Exercise of Power) After the interviews and to not much surprise, the common factor was crime and drug dealing running rampant. They brought up to the mayor at the time the fact that these people were informing them about the drug activity and violence. Not only did they know of the locations, but all the locations were vacant homes. However, the mayor did not listen to them. “Leaders in CCOP analysed what they learned from their research meetings and drew two key conclusions: (1) no person or organization within the city had knowledge of the extent of vacant housing (estimates ranged from 800 vacant houses to 5,000) and (2) officials saw no link between vacant housing and drug crime. Leaders of CCOP decided to act. They met with the Mayor of Camden (the head of the executive branch of local government in the US), presented their research and urged the Mayor to develop policies to address vacant housing as a method of addressing drug and violent crime. The Mayor was unconvinced—stating that while Camden indeed had many pressing problems, vacant housing was not one of them.” This information being brought to attention and completely neglected makes it seem as a very large difference between Camden today and Camden during the Great Depression was the extent of the impact organizations could actually make. Their jurisdiction within the city limits were quite limited as seen in the example mentioned. This also brings to light how the city had many incidents of corrupt officials in power. Despite the evidence of vacant homes and drug activity, no one seemed to want to act upon their recent findings.

Aside from the ethnic communities and the businesses they developed, industry helped save the city. There was no greater employment source within the city than its big industry. The big three manufacturers of Camden hired over twenty-four thousand workers at time in 1937. RCA Victor being the top manufacturer and hiring about thirteen thousand workers. Campbell Soup and New York Ship followed by hiring 5,600 and 5,522 respectively. There were also many other smaller manufacturers that helped keep jobs within the city alive, as well. (Camden After The Fall, 21) The war times helped bump many industries out of the depression into full time work, Camden Forge being one of them because they were responsible for constructing parts to the ships that were currently being built nearby at the New York Ship. Campbell Soup was also an industry that boomed in war time. Its tomato juice was very valuable to the troops. So much, in fact, that For Dix commandeered extra workers in 1943 when it was seemingly improbable to process with summer’s crop with the little manpower they had at the time. These jobs didn’t go away with the war. They remained plentiful into the early 1950s, well after the war had ended. The federal government had also regulated the work place during the Great Depression with its NRA. The National Recovery Act sought to regulate the work place by illegalizing child labor. It also encouraged unionization among workers. It also set up max amounts of work hours and minimum wages. Sometimes there were even max amounts of wages that could be earned. This made it so that industries across the country could compete fairly with each other and that more jobs could be made that would provide all the necessities a worker would need.

Industry in Camden today is nothing what it was like during the peak of Camden’s success or even during the Great Depression. Many of them had to close to save money overall throughout the company nationwide. Campbell’s was a major industry that left the city that left people suffering and struggling to find jobs. The company closed the plant in the city but left the headquarters there. This saved some jobs, but unfortunately, these jobs required skills that many people did not possess to function efficiently in the office environment. RCA Victor was also among the largest industries to leave the city inevitably causing turmoil among people within the city and leaving thousands jobless and with not many skills to obtain new jobs. The major problem was that industries provided opportunities for those with minimal skill sets to acquire jobs, and without these industries present in Camden, the job markets require schooling and other requisites to be hired. The poor within Camden cannot afford school for themselves and sometimes, even their children. This leads to widespread poverty with little education.

                In the observing of Camden’s past, or as Gillette put it, old Camden, I can see many similarities, but far too many differences that need to be corrected. Many can say that we need a stronger industrial presence in our city that will fix our economy and lack of jobs. However, that isn’t nearly as important to fixing the city as our community is. Camden needs industry, but Camden needs stronger community. There is too much crime spreading through the streets. Civil leaders used to be those who would point his neighbors in the direction of possible jobs or organizations that could provide shelter and insurance. Camden’s community leaders have turned into gangs that fuel the hatred for other communities. Ethnic groups lived as a whole, but were still a part of Camden. Citizens of Camden now resort to crime when they cannot sustain life’s necessities. Drugs are sold. Murders are committed. These are the results of a community that is lost. The lack of belonging can leave people prone to depression and a loss of hope. This can result in drug use and in recent months we have seen the use of a new and dangerous drugs called wet. One user took the life of her own child by severing its head before taking her own life. This is what Camden has become: a city that has been lost and cannot regain its roots in generosity. In order for Camden to recover, it needs to restore itself. In reverting itself to where businesses support each other and it fellow customers, we’ll see a loss in desperation. A recovery in big industry will lower unemployment and the need for certain crimes committed for unattainable wealth. Finally, a restoration in churches, charities, and civil leaders will result in less gang crime. This will provide the city with a way of attaining a better life through the help of other while simultaneously giving people something to adhere to. More organizations are needed to help the citizens become homeowners once again. A sense of belonging to a group of people will replace the needs for gangs.

                Ultimately, Camden’s past needs to be resurrected. This requires us to bring people back into the city to repopulate the housing situation. With more people within the city, less vacant homes will be present, leaving the drug market with fewer places to meet. It will also provide industries with a large population of people to bring in and hire. Many of these people will also be able to start up businesses. This will decrease the unemployment in Camden and the need to sell drugs to make a living and sustain decent wages to support families. To add to these large factors, we would need strong organizations that could sway the political forces that control the city. The ability for an organization to do enough research and find a large factor of the drug scene and violence is meaningless if they are powerless to change it without the mayor’s approval. They can take care of the public and support them in times of need, but the political leaders of Camden need to cooperate with the public opinion just as much as their own expertise. Through the strong business, leadership, and community expressed during the Great Depression, I believe today’s Camden can revive Gillette’s old Camden he claims to be dead.



“Camden After the Fall” by Howard Gillette, Jr. 2006


“The intentional exercise of power: community organizing in Camden, New Jersey.”


“BUSINESSES & BUSINESSMEN who signed on to the N.R.A.National Recovery Act blanket code August 1933”


“City on the Brink Economic and Community Development in Camden, NJ” by Michele Farquharson

Gallery | This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s