Someplace Like America

Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression

DALE MAHARIDGE
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL S. WILLIAMSON
WITH A FOREWORD BY BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 256
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pnmdk
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  • Book Info
    Someplace Like America
    Book Description:

    InSomeplace Like America, writer Dale Maharidge and photographer Michael S. Williamson take us to the working-class heart of America, bringing to life-through shoe leather reporting, memoir, vivid stories, stunning photographs, and thoughtful analysis-the deepening crises of poverty and homelessness. The story begins in 1980, when the authors joined forces to cover the America being ignored by the mainstream media-people living on the margins and losing their jobs as a result of deindustrialization. Since then, Maharidge and Williamson have traveled more than half a million miles to investigate the state of the working class (winning a Pulitzer Prize in the process). InSomeplace Like America, they follow the lives of several families over the thirty-year span to present an intimate and devastating portrait of workers going jobless. This brilliant and essential study-begun in the trickle-down Reagan years and culminating with the recent banking catastrophe-puts a human face on today's grim economic numbers. It also illuminates the courage and resolve with which the next generation faces the future.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94879-2
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-v)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vi-vii)
  3. FOREWORD
    (pp. ix-x)
    BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN

    This was the introduction I wrote in 1995 forJourney to Nowhere,Dale and Michael’s book telling the story of the losses suffered by American labor in the second half of the twentieth century.Someplace Like Americatakes the measure of the tidal wave thirty years and more in coming, a wave that Journey first saw rolling, dark and angry, on the horizon line. It is the story of the deconstruction of the American dream, piece by piece, literally steel beam by steel beam, broken up and shipped out south, east, and to points unknown, told in the voices of...

  4. SOMEPLACE LIKE AMERICA: AN INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-10)

    My America is one of iconic landscapes, places of lost dreams and hard-lived lives. The Deep South: abandoned cotton gins and vine-covered shacks of tenant farmers. The Great Lakes region: rusting stacks of ghost steel mills on forested riverbars; the ruins of a Detroit hotel with a rotting piano collapsed on the floor of its ballroom, where one imagines giddy couples dancing away the nights after the men came home from World War II to an industrial America that promised a limitless tomorrow. All through the Midwest and the West: century-old grain silos; telegraph lines that now transmit only the...

  5. SNAPSHOTS FROM THE ROAD, 2009
    (pp. 11-29)

    The country is reeling. Housing prices, the market, and confidence are tumbling. Awhile back, you’d been called an idiot because you remembered the 1987 crash and kept your 401(k) in a 4 percent money market account; any fool could make a 10 percent return or more on the big board, people said. Now you don’t look so stupid, as stock market 401(k)s have lost half their value. Optimism comes in this form: in the most recent month, the nation lost 660,000 jobs, and a business commentator on the radio says it’s a good number because a month earlier 740,000 jobs...

  6. PART 1 AMERICA BEGINS A THIRTY-YEAR JOURNEY TO NOWHERE:: THE 1980s
    • [PART 1 Introduction]
      (pp. 30-32)

      1979 Wal-Mart employed 21,000 workers in the United States.

      1979 General Motors employed 618,000 workers in the United States, an all-time high.

      1982 In its September issue,Forbesmagazine debuted its Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans. It took $91 million to make the list.

      1978 The average CEO in the United States was paid 35.2 times what an average worker was paid, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

      1981 President Reagan fired all striking air traffic controllers. Their union was crushed. This set the stage for a wave of strike breaking and violations of workers’ rights to organize...

    • 1 ON BECOMING A HOBO
      (pp. 33-42)

      The Burlington Northern freight train was going some 70 miles an hour. It was just after 2:00 A.M., April 27, 1982. We were north of Mount Shasta, at the top of California. The snow pack was deep. The temperature was in the high 20s. The wind chill factor was stunning: I’d been in actual air temperature of minus 20 degrees, and that’s what it felt like. The other notable sensory torment was the clatter. This was no cushioned Amtrak ride. An empty boxcar pulled by a speeding train makes a lot of noise, as it violently rocks not just up...

    • 2 NECROPOLIS
      (pp. 42-46)

      On April 28, 1982, a contractor hired by the U.S. Steel Corporation dynamited four blast furnaces at the Ohio Works in Youngstown. Each furnace fell in clouds of dust. This clip was often played on television news to illustrate America’s declining heavy industry. We could import cheap steel rather than making it here, we were told. Free trade would boom. Everyone would be better off in the world that was evolving: wealth would trickle down. New jobs were coming, and the old simply had to be allowed to die.

      Eleven months later, Joe Marshall Sr. stood at the edge of...

    • 3 NEW TIMER
      (pp. 46-54)

      The night we left Youngstown, we traveled through Kentucky in a sheeting rain. We could barely see to drive. Tired, we simply pulled over to the edge of the road at 3:00 A.M. Michael bedded down in the back seat beneath a purple sleeping bag purchased withLifemagazine expense money. It was our first overnight in Das Boot. A leak in the right corner of the passenger window dripped on my shoulder.

      Maybe an hour after we more or less fell asleep, a cop shined a light on us.

      We presented quite a sight to the officer. We’d been...

    • 4 HOME SWEET TENT
      (pp. 54-61)

      For six blocks, the cop car was on my tail. I’d turn and he’d follow. “He’s going to tag us,” I said.

      “We haven’t done anything,” Michael pointed out.

      The cop flashed his rooftop lights. I hit record on my tape machine and slid it beneath the seat as the cop walked toward us. He paused at our rear bumper, eyed the Ohio plates, Mr. Frazier’s hardhat on the rear window ledge, the Youngstown State sticker. The bait worked. The cop came forward with a hand on his sidearm.

      “How long you been here?”

      “Two days.”

      “We know. We saw...

    • 5 TRUE BOTTOM
      (pp. 61-69)

      Our first day in Houston, before we met the Alexanders, we had gone to skid row.

      At the Star Hope Rescue Mission on La Branch Street, we saw hundreds of men sitting on street curbs. A police cruiser approached, and the cops glared at us. We breathed a sigh of relief when they moved on. Down the street, they stopped and questioned two men. Suddenly, the cops began beating them bloody with nightsticks and threw them in the back of the cruiser. No one but us seemed to notice.

      The mission opened its doors, and men mobbed the entrance. Two...

  7. PART 2 THE JOURNEY CONTINUES:: THE 1990s
    • [PART 2 Introduction]
      (pp. 70-72)

      1992 Wal-Mart employed 380,000 workers in the United States.

      1992 General Motors employed 362,000 workers in the United States.

      1990 It took $260 million to make the Forbes 400 list of the richest americans; in 1995, it took $340 million.

      1989 The average CEO in the United States was paid 70.5 times what the average worker earned, according to the Economic Policy institute....

    • 6 INSPIRATION: THE TWO-WAY HIGHWAY
      (pp. 73-76)

      Michael and I entered the onetime Western Pacific rail yard in Sacramento. It was October 20, 1995, thirteen years after we had first jumped on a train here. We walked the tracks, climbed atop railcars, sat in the shadow of the icehouse. It was a reunion: we had not seen each other or talked by phone very much for a few years. We’d grown a bit estranged because our 1980s had been so fierce—each of us was a reminder to the other of troubled times. In the 1980s, we’d covered the war in El Salvador, where we’d had some...

    • 7 WAITING FOR AN EXPLOSION
      (pp. 76-81)

      Here are a few scenes of the America that we found in late 1995, on that eleven-day, one-way road trip between Youngstown, Ohio, and California. For many, the shock of the 1982 recession had now become a permanent state of being. Millions lived in the shadows. The working homeless had become common: we found them everywhere.

      The Chicago school of economic theory dominated political and economic discourse. This libertarian ideology, which rejects many of the lessons learned from dealing with the fiscal crisis that followed the 1929 crash, was shaped by Professor Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago. Friedman...

    • 8 WHEN BRUCE MET JENNY
      (pp. 81-85)

      As the reissue ofJourney to Nowhereneared, Michael talked with Bruce Springsteen by phone and asked if theGhost of Tom Joadtour would include Youngstown. Soon after, we heard that Bruce was booked there for a performance on January 12, 1996.

      At the same time, aCBS Morning Newsproducer had phoned me about doing a story on the book and had suggested that we meet in Youngstown. Bruce’s publicity people had turned her down for an interview, yet she wanted us in Youngstown anyway. I was teaching the day of the concert, but I caught a red-eye...

  8. PART 3 A NATION GROWS HUNGRIER:: 2000
    • [PART 3 Introduction]
      (pp. 86-88)

      For years, it was considered shameful to take out a second mortgage: it meant you were in financial trouble. In the 1980s, Charles Humm, a marketing guru at Merrill Lynch Credit Corporation, set out to encourage these loans after the government changed the banking regulations to make it easier for big banks to engage in such lending. By 1999, the idea had gone viral. Fallon Worldwide, an advertising agency, sold Citicorp (Citigroup) executives on an ad campaign titled “Live richly,” on which the bank spent $1 billion between 2001 and 2006. TheNew York Timesquoted a former Citi executive...

    • 9 HUNGER IN THE HOMES
      (pp. 89-92)

      It was a boom time. Dot-com start-ups were the darlings of Wall Street. The federal budget was balanced. The illusion of wealth was pervasive. Early in 2000, the bubble in high tech was going strong, and many people were living beyond their means off second mortgages and credit cards. When I was a kid, my mother and father had a term for people who spent money they didn’t have: “fifty-cent millionaires.”

      It was a curious time to get a call from Frank Lalli, who had taken over as editor ofGeorgemagazine after the death of John Kennedy Jr. Michael...

    • 10 THE WORKING POOR: MAGGIE AND OTHERS IN AUSTIN
      (pp. 92-97)

      Maggie Segura was struggling. Her two-year-old daughter, Mary Frances, had been born with congenital problems—a bladder inside her bladder, malformed kidneys, and other conditions.

      “I almost lost her twice, at a month and again at six months,” Maggie said of the operations to repair her girl’s organs. The child was still at risk because of ongoing treatment. Maggie had to leave work without pay for over a month during her daughter’s last hospital stay.

      “I’m paying for it now,” she said as she put tomatoes in her box that day at the food bank line. “This month, my daughter...

    • 11 MR. MURRAY ON MAGGIE
      (pp. 97-99)

      Back in the 1980s, I’d readLosing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980,by Charles Murray, who was later dubbed America’s “most dangerous conservative” by theNew York Times Magazine.His 1984 book argued that the government social service network, which he deemed a failure, had to be abolished in order to save the poor. The book was embraced by the Reagan administration and congressional Republicans. And when President Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law in 1996, co-opting the issue, he was in fact embracing Murray’s argument. On Murray’s web page at the American Enterprise Institute,Losing Groundis...

  9. PART 4 UPDATING PEOPLE AND PLACES:: THE LATE 2000S
    • [PART 4 Introduction]
      (pp. 100-102)

      In 2008, Sanford Weill, former CEO and chairman of Citigroup, barely made the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans. His net worth was listed as $1.3 billion.

      In the fall of 2008, the U.S. government guaranteed $306 billion in potentially toxic loans that had been made by the bank.

      During the 2008 presidential campaign, labor leaders pinned their hopes on the Employee Free Choice act. The act as proposed would have made it easier to unionize, in part by eliminating the need for an election if a majority of employees signed union cards. The bill was intended to extend...

    • 12 REINDUCTION
      (pp. 103-107)

      Twenty-seven years and one month after our first hobo trip, I walked into what had been the Western Pacific rail yard in Sacramento. The previous day, I’d watched my mother die after a prolonged illness in the suburban Sacramento home that my parents had bought after they retired. That final night, I dripped one-tenth of a milliliter of morphine sulfate into my unconscious mother’s mouth every fifteen minutes in the hope that she’d absorb enough of it to numb an unfathomable pain. In between, I escaped from the horror of the situation by flatbed scanning old family photos, losing myself...

    • 13 NECROPOLIS: AFTER THE APOCALYPSE
      (pp. 107-112)

      On a chilly March afternoon in 2009, we drove into Youngstown and felt the desolation of this lost city. There were miles of burned-out and abandoned homes amid meadows that once were neighborhoods. In my mind’s eye, the empty floor of the Mahoning Valley, almost all field and forest, looked naked in the absence of over 20 miles of steel mills. The blast furnace area of the Brier Hill Works, the “Jenny” in Bruce Springsteen’s song, had long since been demolished, as had the Campbell Works. No blimp factory was ever built. The biggest job creator had been the construction...

    • 14 NEW TIMER: FINDING MR. HEISENBERG INSTEAD
      (pp. 112-117)

      In late 2008, I found a telephone number of someone with Sam’s surname in the small midwestern town where he’d grown up. In thirty years of reporting, seldom had I been so tentative about making a call.

      I dialed.

      The phone picked up. It was Sam’s elderly father. Sam, the father said, lived in a nearby state, was “doing real well.” We had a pleasant conversation. The father said he’d pass along my phone number.

      Sam never called.

      Maybe I was a reminder of a time that he wanted to forget. Or—

      Who knows? I certainly had demons from that...

    • 15 HOME SWEET TENT HOME
      (pp. 117-128)

      I’d kept in touch with the Alexander family after 1983. In one letter, Bonnie wrote some hopeful words.

      But when I sent the family a copy ofJourney to Nowhere,which contained their story, the book was returned by the post office—the address was no longer valid.

      When I set out to find them for this book, I had more Internet search tools than I did during that second brief attempt back in the 1990s. Sadly, I came across an obituary for Bonnie, who had died from a brain tumor a few months earlier. She was fifty-eight. This article...

    • 16 MAGGIE: “AM I DOING THE RIGHT THING?”
      (pp. 128-132)

      Irene, age four, wearing a purple t-shirt with the word “Princess” on the front, watched television with her older sister, Mary Frances. Without prompting, Irene jumped up and, with a smile on her face, ran to Maggie, who was seated at the kitchen table talking with us.

      “I love you,” the little girl said.

      Maggie hugged her daughter.

      “She always does that,” Maggie told us.

      Maggie had been talking about the past nine years since we’d last seen her, for theGeorgemagazine assignment in 2000. It had been a rough time for her, both emotionally and financially. Maggie was...

    • 17 MAGGIE ON MR. MURRAY
      (pp. 133-133)

      I had interviewed Charles Murray, the author ofLosing Ground,in 2000 for ourGeorgemagazine assignment. But the interview material didn’t make the cut after the magazine piece was scaled back. So, at the time, I didn’t call Maggie to get her reaction to his terming the children of single mothers “illegitimate” or to his dismissal of her specifically when I began explaining to him how she was working and losing ground.

      Now, nine years later, on a warm summer afternoon in Austin, I told Maggie what Murray had said.

      “You know,” she began, then stopped. She thought a...

  10. PART 5 AMERICA WITH THE LID RIPPED OFF:: THE LATE 2000S
    • [PART 5 Introduction]
      (pp. 134-136)

      Eight out of ten jobs created between 2009 and 2016 will be low paying, according to the U.S. Department of Labor; five of the ten will pay less than $22,000 annually; three of the ten will pay between $22,000 and $31,000.

      Wall Street bonuses at the big investment banks averaged more than $340,000 per trader in 2009, according to Johnson Associates, a pay consultant; for senior traders, the pay average was estimated to be $930,000. In 2009, David Tepper, a former Goldman Sachs worker who is now head of the hedge fund Appaloosa Management, was paid $4 billion, an all-time...

    • 18 SEARCH AND RESCUE
      (pp. 137-143)

      You might believe that the authorities in post-Katrina New Orleans, where there are some seventy thousand rotting and abandoned buildings, would make a concerted effort to help the thousands of squatters who are now living in these buildings. You might expect that there would be concern about the fate of so many left homeless in a major American city.

      You would be wrong.

      Help for the displaced comes down to two men, Shamus Rohn, twenty-eight, and Mike Miller, twenty-nine. They are outreach social workers for UNITY of Greater New Orleans, described as “a collaborative of sixty agencies working to end...

    • 19 NEW ORLEANS JAZZ
      (pp. 143-152)

      We were driving to the beat of Jivin’ Gene’s and Neil Pellegrin’s show “’50s R&B” on WWOZ, 90.7 on the dial—

      Annie is back, back, back,

      in a brand new Cadillac . . .

      Little Richard was singing John Anderson’s “Annie Is Back,” blasting from the speakers of the UNITY van. Mike was kicking it in the shotgun seat, right foot on the dash. Shamus gunned us up the sky-reaching steel truss arc of the U.S. 90 bridge over the Mississippi River. A dizzying panorama of the Crescent City: for a moment it felt as if we were about to...

    • 20 SCAPEGOATS IN THE SUN
      (pp. 152-164)

      May 12, 2009, began typically for Leopoldo Arteaga, owner of Mesa Groundskeeper, a landscaping company in a suburb of Phoenix. At 6 A.M., Leo, in his mid-sixties, and a worker began trimming 400 linear feet of oleander, a bush that grows aggressively in the Arizona heat. By eleven o’clock, the men had filled an 8-by-20-foot trailer with oleander clippings. Leo began towing the trailer to the landfill in nearby Pima County.

      He was driving east on Apache Trail Road and was about to leave the city of Mesa when he stopped at a red light. On the green, he started...

    • 21 THE DARK EXPERIMENT
      (pp. 164-167)

      Martha Kegel could have been referring not just to New Orleans, but to the United States of America.

      It’s as if someone decided to run a dark experiment to see what would occur if the government did everything in its power to ensure that high-paying, middle-class jobs would be destroyed and replaced with low-wage, service-sector jobs. If the rules were changed so that the rich could amass more wealth, including trillions of dollars of welfare in the form of bailouts and tax cuts. If wages for most workers stagnated as they did between 1980 and 2005, and 80 percent of...

    • 22 THE BIG BOYS
      (pp. 168-176)

      Rahm Emanuel, chief of staff to President Barack Obama, stood in the hallway a few feet away, guarded by what appeared to be Secret Service agents. Or perhaps they were Capitol cops. He was backstage, as I was, waiting for Bruce Springsteen to come out of his dressing room at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.

      All the previous week, Emanuel had worked hard to lobby Congress to weaken the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, nicknamed “Sarbox” in business circles. This act had been passed in 2002, after the WorldCom and Enron scandals, to protect investors against fraud by ensuring proper auditing. It...

    • 23 ANGER IN SUBURBAN NEW JERSEY
      (pp. 177-181)

      Lisa Martucci, her husband, and their ten-year-old daughter, Emily, live in a New Jersey town that is a forty-five-minute train ride from Manhattan. The couple bought their suburban house in 1996. Unlike many blue-collar people who have spent their working lives dodging layoffs, this white-collar couple seemed bulletproof against hard times. Lisa, who works for Catholic Charities, has a master’s degree; and her husband was director of global affairs for a large corporation, making over $75 an hour.

      On June 13, 2008, their world changed. Lisa’s husband was laid off. That meant a 70 percent drop in income. He got...

  11. PART 6 REBUILDING OURSELVES, THEN TAKING AMERICA ON A JOURNEY TO SOMEWHERE NEW
    • [PART 6 Introduction]
      (pp. 182-184)

      Robert Reich, former secretary of labor, wrote in July 2009: “On one side are the V-shapers who look back at prior recessions and conclude that the faster an economy drops, the faster it gets back on track. And because this economy fell off a cliff late last fall, they expect it to roar to life early next year. Hence the V shape. Unfortunately, V-shapers are looking back at the wrong recessions. Focus on those that started with the bursting of a giant speculative bubble and you see slow recoveries . . . investor confidence returns only gradually. That’s where the...

    • 24 ZEN IN A CRIPPLED NEW HAMPSHIRE MILL TOWN
      (pp. 185-190)

      You journey to Berlin, New Hampshire, by dropping over “The Notch,” as Franconia Notch in the White Mountains is called by locals. The Notch separates the two worlds of this state, the wild North Country from the populated south. Berlin, pronounced as one syllable and said rapidly, isn’t technically at the end of the road. But in a de facto manner it is: two-lane blacktop ribbons, bisecting a wilderness of birch and fir infested with moose, deer, and not much else, go to the sparsely settled Canadian frontier and the unpeopled forests of Maine. Few travelers have any reason to...

    • 25 A WOMAN OF THE SOIL IN KANSAS CITY
      (pp. 190-195)

      Sherri Harvel was hoeing around her purple-hulled peas in a community garden in Kansas City. Her teenage children were at home. Sherri sometimes sang gospel songs as she worked. Suddenly, a voice rose above the corn in a nearby patch.

      “It’s the devil!” a woman shouted. Sherri looked up and saw the woman was holding a weed aloft. “Weeds, they’re the devil!” the woman explained. Sherri laughed.

      It was the early 1990s, and Sherri had just joined the garden. An African American resident of the inner city, she worked hard as a single mom, and she was stressed by her...

    • 26 THE PHOENIX?
      (pp. 195-199)

      Youngstown is a difficult place to find hope. Like many cities in the Steel Belt, it’s never been the kind of town where most residents drink their morning coffee bright with optimism for the new day, even in the best economic times. If defeat is a possibility in any endeavor of life, it tends to be embraced as the inevitable result. Growing up in Cleveland, I called this the “can’t do” mentality. Mill towns are just that way.

      Of course, in the days of my youth, there were, relatively speaking, few real problems. So when a true crisis occurred, with...

    • 27 LOOKING FORWARD—AND BACK
      (pp. 200-215)

      “We are all caught up in the middle of insanity,” Velma Hart toldWashington Postwriter Michelle Singletary not long after Hart had expressed her economic worries to President Barack Obama at a town hall meeting on the eve of the 2010 midterm elections. “My husband and I joked for years that we thought we were well beyond the hot-dogs-and-beans era of our lives,” Hart told Obama. “But quite frankly, it’s starting to knock on our door and ring true that that might be where we’re headed again. . . . Mr. President, I need you to answer this honestly:...

  12. CODA
    (pp. 216-229)
    Dale Maharidge

    Sacramento may be the capital of California, but the city has a long history of a hardscrabble underbelly. Beginning with the 1849 Gold Rush and continuing after the last spike had been driven for the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the city has been one end of the road for migrants, especially those who are living on the margins. To the present day, when they can’t make a go of it, some end up homeless.

    Among the attractions are the waterways that run through the city—the clear American and the muddy Sacramento rivers join near downtown. The draw isn’t the...

  13. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS AND CREDITS
    (pp. 230-233)
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 234-244)