Making a living

I’m glad the Philadelphia Inquirer is doing this series of stories on poverty in the city, but I’m sorry that the same bunch of racist clowns are filling the comments section:

On a windy sidewalk in Kensington one day, Walter Licht, a University of Pennsylvania historian, stood near the site of the factory at Lehigh Avenue and Fourth Street to explain how this part of Philadelphia was once a fertile incubator of jobs.

“Imagine it’s 7 a.m. in the 1920s,” said the distinguished-looking professor with a gray beard and smiling eyes. “There are 10,000 people or more walking these streets, streaming into factories to go to work. And generations of young people saw their fathers go to work each day, knowing that they would get jobs, too, when their time came.”

Beginning in 1820, North Philadelphia was the premiere manufacturing site in America, Licht said. What made the area great was its ability to churn out specialty, niche products. North Philadelphia made the world’s best dental instruments, rugs, locomotives, textiles, book bindings, saws, cigars, hats, leather shoes and silk hosiery. It drew a disproportionately high number of English and German workers with well-developed skills in various trades.

Not so much a city with huge industries – like Pittsburgh’s steel and Detroit’s automobiles – Philadelphia thrived as an amalgam of humming, small to medium-size workshops.

That made the city special. Ultimately, it helped cast Philadelphia as the poorest big city in America.

By the 1920s, problems already started to develop, Licht said. That’s when consumers began craving the cheaper, standardized products being sold by Sears, the Wal-Mart of the age. Mass-marketed goods cost one-tenth the price of North Philadelphia’s artisan-made, quality merchandise.

“The shift turns to buying schlock, instead of a more expensive saw, rug or coat that could last three generations,” Licht said.

One by one, North Philadelphia firms started to lose their markets, and the disintegration of industry here was well under way.

The manufacturing demanded by World War II staved off the decline for a while. But afterward, “we go into a massive slide,” Licht said.

Meanwhile, African Americans continued the great migration from the South, moving into the area at the precise time the industrial district in and around North Philadelphia was collapsing.

Riots in 1964 helped hasten white flight toward Northeast Philadelphia, and Latino people started moving in.

There was a brief hope that industry could resurge in the 1950s and 1960s, as Philco TVs were being manufactured in the district. But the Japanese ended that dream with the first Panasonics and Sonys. By 1970, not a single TV was being made in the city.

Other places in the country managed to hang on to industry longer than Philadelphia because they had bigger corporations employing thousands, Licht said. But this city had no U.S. Steel or General Motors.

“It explains why this congressional district is worse off than others,” Licht said. “This collapse of fragile small and medium firms was much more enduring than any place else.”

As jobs exited, a minority population without work began to grow. The ghettoization of North Philadelphia and its environs – high crime and unemployment, poor schools and crumbling infrastructure – was under way.

Within the last 30 years, things have steadily deteriorated in the North Philadelphia area, said Temple’s Bartelt. “Go back a recession or two to the 1980s and 1990s,” he said. “We noticed then a lack of attachment to the labor force” that has persisted till today. People who lost jobs in the 1980s are the discouraged, simply off the grid, and completely untrackable, Bartelt added.

The switch to the service industry did not help the area because “people don’t hire black and Hispanic kids from here,” Licht said. “The distance from here to the working world for a kid is more enormous than ever.”

That long road is a challenge for Jahlil Thorn, a 20-year-old African American man from Hunting Park. A few years ago, he said, he was a junior on the honor roll at Roxborough High School but got expelled after a cousin hid a gun in his backpack. After a short time, he completed a GED but he said he could not find the blue-collar work that used to be so much a part his city.

“I look in restaurants for work, or security, or maintenance,” said Thorn, the only child of a mother who manages a Pathmark. He has no contact with his father.

“I’ve been applying myself very hard, but lots of guys are looking for the same jobs.”

In the First Congressional District, people ages 20 through 24 have a nearly 25 percent unemployment rate, workforce investment board calculations show. For teenagers, it’s almost 42 percent.

Thorn said he sees the old factories in his neighborhood and has heard about the work, distant as the moon to him.

“My hunger is to get money the right way and not to do foolish things, like sell drugs,” he said.

Thorn is contemplating community college and maybe a career in music producing. He hopes he’ll be able to find work in the meantime.

“At times I get discouraged, but I’m determined,” Thorn said. “Still, I don’t know why it’s so hard.”

Cortes of Esperanza worries that few young people from his neighborhood have the tools to excel and follow their dreams.

“How do I create kids to work at Comcast?” asked Cortes, who also runs a charter high school in Kensington. “I can’t take graduates from North Philadelphia and Kensington schools whose reading and writing are poor and send them up for jobs in Comcast management.

“The schools up here are bad. Really, really bad. And if the kids can’t speak and read and don’t have the right cultural look, they’re in trouble.”

Cortes and his high school principal, David Rossi, both told about a student they knew who was valedictorian of Roberto Clemente Middle School and entered Nueva Esperanza Academy Charter High School several years ago with a particular handicap:

“She was illiterate,” Cortes said. “On what basis was she a valedictorian?”

Rossi said his teachers taught the girl to read and she graduated high school.

The girl was not alone. Only 42 percent of the city’s 11th graders can read at grade level. Among adults, two-thirds are considered low literate and lack basic reading and math skills needed to get and keep a job, according to a report from the workforce investment board. New programs are springing up to help people battle illiteracy.

Along with the school system, Cortes is blaming people in his neighborhood for not creating good students.

“The teachers in the schools face a lot of problems from our parents,” he said. “Our parents will dress their kids like Barbie dolls but won’t buy them a pencil. They’re not forcing kids to do homework.

“You have to tell them to get off the street, get upstairs and do homework.

“Do it, or we will lose them. We will lose them all.”

2 thoughts on “Making a living

  1. I keep thinking about this factor in our economic evolution: we did a lot of it to ourselves as “consumers”. The American people in the mass chose to buy cheaper goods that were cheaper because they were made more cheaply by people being exploited and paid less or made using machines that put people out of work. If we had been willing to pay more (and maybe have fewer things) our society would have been healthier.

    Apparently, according to this article, we did it in the early 20th century by buying Sears junk, and still do it by buying Wal-Mart junk. My sister worked at Wal-Mart and KNOWS that people there are underpaid, mistreated and exploited, but she still shops there to get cheaper stuff so she can live better as an individual.

    Her daughter (my niece) lives in West Virginia, attends a state university, has a husband who works for the state, drives on West Virginia roads and bridges over to Ohio to buy groceries at Sam’s Club so that she can avoid paying WV sales taxes. She thinks she is being smart and striking out at an injustice.

    How are we going to change something we are willingly doing to ourselves? The corporations that make and sell this stuff are only exploiting our own preferences and decisions, so how can we blame them or expect them to protect us from ourselves?

  2. There have been several books about this, stating the same conclusion. I agree — that’s why, given my druthers, I buy quality used stuff that will be around for a while. But I can’t blame the people who are just trying to get by, either. The fact is, government policies have weighed heavily in the massive growth of these retail giants, and we’ve gotten very little for the rest of society in return.

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