Good Read on Camden, NJ

Matt Taibbi’s recent piece in Rolling Stone on Camden is worth checking out. It’s a piece of immersion journalism, and not a deep work of historical analysis (for that, check out Howard Gillette, whom Taibbi name-checks). But it’s compellingly written, with far fewer swear words than Taibbi usually uses (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and does present an interesting twist at the end about our society’s collective imaginary of how race and social problems are located in metropolitan space:

This is another potential hole in the policing plan: The fact that broken suburbs – full of increasingly un- or underemployed young people – send a seemingly limitless supply of customers for Camden’s drug trade…. This city, incidentally, has a reputation for having the best dope on the East Coast, which partly explains the daily influx of white junkies (“Dope,” jokes Morton, “is a Caucasian drug”).

It’s also a provocative exploration of the consequences of state interference with local and municipal power, something that’s been on my mind lately.

Another Urban Secession Movement

This time in Baton Rouge, where the south side of town would like to become “Saint George.”

I’m sure that there will be a host of well-articulated arguments about how splitting the affluent and white side of town from the poorer and blacker side is Not About Race. I’m also sure that the fiscal devastation wreaked on Baton Rouge by secession would be merely an unfortunate side effect and not the whole point.

I can’t comment much on this movement at the present, but I notice three things that are pretty significant and resonate with what I’m studying in Atlanta and what I’ve written about in Los Angeles.

For one, the battle evidently began as an effort to create a new school district. The color-blind rhetoric from proponents of the new district holds that creating a smaller and more affluent district will keep wealthy people from leaving Baton Rouge Parish. The movement to create “Saint George” was a response to the state legislature’s refusal to establish, then to fund, the new district. I’m actually kind of surprised that the Louisiana state legislature wouldn’t support this wholeheartedly, but I suppose that’s another research question.

Second, this territorial battle is also closely linked to the effort to destabilize a wider scale of government (the consolidated city-parish government of Baton Rouge) by creating a competing municipality. Much like the 2000s effort to municipalize Fulton County by incorporating cities in affluent north Fulton, incorporating Saint George would fit a devolutionary strategy of disempowering the parish-scale government in order to create competitive (and possibly zero-sum) relations between the municipalities and reduce redistribution.

Lastly, incorporating Saint George is a decision with parish-wide (and metropolitan) implications that will likely be made with input only from the residents of Saint George, whose interests are opposed to the rest of the parish, a fact acknowledged by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber in a study of the issue:

The study urges St. George supporters to listen to input from those outside the proposed city limits: “Perhaps the most important point to be made is that the institution of this proposal will not affect the residents of the proposed geography alone. This is a decision that will impact the entire parish.”

There may be few options for those outside the proposed city limits who want to prevent the St. George incorporation from moving forward.

If enough signatures are gathered, only those who live within the proposed boundaries will be able to vote in the special election on incorporation.

This is what George Lipsitz describes as the institutionalization of defensive localism: basic institutions of government are set up to allow the wealthy and privileged (who in Louisiana tend overwhelmingly to be white) to assert their will over the interests of the wider, interconnected metropolitan community, while justifying this defense of special interests in terms of the general interest of local community control.

This local news video is a pretty rich example of this discursive frame:

WBRZ Baton Rouge