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Postcard from the End of America: Woodbury, NJ

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Woodbury, NJ in 2015
Woodbury, NJ in 2015
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The first recorded race riot in Camden occurred on September 12th, 1864. The Philadelphia Inquirer:

A riot, which threatened serious consequences, took place on Friday night in South Camden ["] In an ale house on Spruce-street, a party of men were drinking in the early part of the evening, when some colored men came in and called for drinks. The white men raised objection against the negroes being allowed to drink at the same bar with them, and a fight followed.

The colored men were driven to their homes in the immediate neighborhood, where they were followed by the men from the bar-room. The blacks shut themselves in their houses and barricaded the doors. The white men following them up, attacked them in their intrenched position, and in some cases broke open the doors, maltreating the negroes inside. The negroes now took to the roofs of the houses, and, armed with shot guns and stones, fired upon the crowd below.

No one died that day, and of the nine people arrested, seven were black. In mid 19th century America, it was apparently a crime for a black man to be chased out of a bar, down the street, into his own house, up the stairs and onto the roof by a raging white mob frothy with evil intentions.

Two much larger race riots happened in 1969 and 1971, and their consequences can still be seen and felt today. The 1971 one was triggered by the beating death of an unarmed Puerto Rican motorist by two white cops, one an Army vet who had volunteered for Vietnam combat after being assigned to South Korea.

Nearly all the whites have fled Camden. Today, blacks and Hispanics make up 95% of its population. Camden is surrounded by towns that are mostly white, however, and the contrast between decaying Camden and charming Collingswood, for example, borders on the bizarre. Cross a single wide street and you enter an entirely different world. Instead of tattooed strutters, wrecked homes, graffiti, police sirens, unending menace, death shrines and hysterical ambulances carrying the overdosed, shot or stabbed, you're greeted by clothing boutiques, trattorie, bistros, rosy kids in an art class and a cutesy cupcake shop.

In a Camden tent city, an affable black man in his early 50's told me that years earlier, he had been pulled over while driving into Collingswood, "It was purely racial profiling, man. I didn't do anything wrong." Though living in a tent, James Boggs had about 20 books by Koonitz, Grisham, Zukav and Terry McMillan, etc. James had been in various jobs and the Army, but it took me a while to tease out that he had also been a pimp. "I was in the escort business," James finally admitted with an impish grin.

In 2011, I took a random bus going south from Camden and, after about eight miles, got off in Woodbury. There, I saw a curiously named Kiss Club. Is this where all of these mild-looking, white suburbanites go to pile on top of each other while breathing heavily? It's actually a support center for recovering addicts. Nearby, there was a red, white and blue American Legion with its gray artillery piece and a large "WE SUPPORT OUR TROOPS" sign. As I photographed it, a couple greeted me. They were laughing and goofing around. The woman was particularly giddy. I said I had come over from Philly and didn't even know where I was. The man offered, "Hey, why don't you come in and drink with us? I'll sign you in."

"Hey, why not!"

Inside was a lively bar with about 30 people, all white. The beer was cheap. I got a Rolling Rock. We became acquainted. The wife said I had a very interesting face, but she found my name preposterous, "You're kidding me!"

"Hey, no jokes, OK?" I warned her. "I've gotten over it."

She admitted that their last name was Ball, so they weren't entirely free of ridicule. One of her relatives had made the mistake of naming her child Crystal, so now the kid's called Crystal Ball.

"You're not joking?"

"I'm not."

She said she had always wanted to have a daughter named Lucy, but then she met a man named Ball.

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Linh Dinh's Postcards from the End of America has just been published by Seven Stories Press. Tracking our deteriorating socialscape, he maintains a photo blog.

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