Thursday, April 17, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Two towns, linked by tough times

Marlton is wealthier, the Clementon area worn; they share the strain of job loss.

Gallery: Two towns, linked by tough times

Fourth in an occasional series

Joe Profaci can tell things are tougher than usual at his Sparkle Clean Laundermat in hard-time Clementon because of all the wet laundry coming through the door.

Unemployed people are saving precious dollars by washing clothes in their bathtubs, then lugging in dripping loads to use Sparkle Clean's dryers, Profaci said. "I never saw that before," he added. "Everybody is struggling."

Meanwhile, in middle-class Marlton, all is not as sound as it seems, as growing numbers of residents find themselves jobless. Restaurant business is down, and Whole Foods Market has loaded up on bulk foods for the uptick in customers who eat at home.

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  • "Marlton is hurting, and I didn't recognize it until six months ago," said Deacon Barry Tarzy of St. Joan of Arc Roman Catholic Church, who recently started a ministry to help the unemployed in town. "I was shocked there were so many who lost jobs in IT, finance, and construction."

    Marlton and the Clementon area could not be mistaken for one another; while the former looks prosperous, the latter is worn and weary.

    Yet together, Marlton and the Clementon area (which includes Lindenwold and other towns in zip code 08021 in Camden County) show some of the highest increases in joblessness in South Jersey over the last two years.

    At their core, they share the growing strain of unemployment that continues to vex the Philadelphia region, where about 200,000 people continue to be out of work.

    In Marlton (zip code 08053), unemployment claims spiked 119 percent in April, from 433 to 948 between 2007 and 2009, state data show.

    Meanwhile, the Clementon area now has the highest number of unemployed of any zip code in South Jersey - 1,705 out of an estimated workforce of 30,000.

    Despite Marlton's sharply rising joblessness, unemployment isn't widely noticed there yet, masked by a population of more than 40,000 and a robust median household income of around $70,000 annually.

    But like a coyote that's creeped into camp, unemployment may soon be more widely felt.

    "Unemployment is nearly invisible in Marlton," said David Elesh, a sociologist at Temple University. "But these things can worsen."

    The proof is seen around the nation, now suffering a 25-year-high unemployment rate that stood at 9.4 percent in May. There's an expectation of even more job loss before the year ends, pushing the rate into double digits.

    The Clementon area has a large working class - many in construction - with a median income around $40,000, U.S. Census figures show. Growing unemployment there means increased crime and home foreclosures, local officials say.

    Many of the people in the Clementon area view better-off places like Marlton as a kind of promised land, where stores and restaurants offered jobs in the past, according to Martha Chavis, chief executive officer of WELCOME New Jersey, which runs STRIVE, a job-readiness agency in Camden.

    Now, though, with business souring, many people in both Marlton and Clementon are seeing the dismal effects of a failing economy together.

    "The American dream - you can't do it anymore," said Clementon bartender Debbie Love, many of whose friends and customers from Johnny Walker's bar are out of work. "Losing your job is like being a battered woman: You're thrown out in the world and don't know how to fix tomorrow. It's hard to believe, with the intelligence we have, that this happens in America."

     

    Tidy-lawned utopias

    There is a framed photograph hanging in Joe Bisicchia's house that shows a rainbow ending, seemingly, in Bisicchia's backyard.

    For a while, the family appeared to be living with just that kind of luck, until Bisicchia, 45, was laid off in January from Comcast, where he worked as a newscaster and TV producer.

    Born in Camden and raised in South Philadelphia, Bisicchia always thought of middle-class places like Marlton as tidy-lawned utopias.

    His bricklayer father, who lived for a while in a cave in Sicily to escape Benito Mussolini, preached social mobility and forbade his boy from even picking up a brick.

    "I want my son to be somebody," Carmen Bisicchia announced.

    Joe Bisicchia, a fit, dark-haired man with kind eyes, majored in communications at La Salle University. After graduation, he married, visited Marlton, and was instantly drawn to it. "It didn't have a blue-collar feel," he said. "It had a sense of Americana. Here was a chance to let your kids be part of soccer Saturdays.

    "It was people making something of their college educations, following their dreams."

    Recently, Bisicchia took a break from his job search to play with his four sons, ages 14, 12, 10, and 5. They rolled around on a lush lawn in a neighborhood where nothing outwardly looks amiss.

    But then Dad ended the frolic. It was a workday without work, after all, and Bisicchia had to get back to the phone and computer in the dining room and generate a miracle.

    "Unemployment has been a roller coaster," he said. "There are times you feel you find your core, say it's good to be alive, and you can get down to basics.

    "Then you hit the nadir - get rejected for a job. Those moments are devastating."

    Bisicchia cried when he explained that he didn't get a high-school job teaching English that he'd applied for after passing a state teacher's exam.

    So far, Bisicchia hasn't missed a mortgage payment, though, he said, "it's property taxes that scare you."

    Still, the severance he was paid and his savings are evaporating. And the $600 weekly unemployment check, which is standard, is a fraction of what he used to make.

    College savings are nonexistent, and the "fix engine" light has been on for a while in the family's 1997 Buick LeSabre with 113,000 miles. Meanwhile, his wife, Cosima, just ended her temporary, part-time day-care job.

    It's rough, but Bisicchia tries to stay positive, drawing hope from his religious faith. The family might have to move, but he wants to stay.

    "We're blessed in Marlton," he said. "There's a sense of God, family, and work here. It's where you want your kids to be." To remain, Bisicchia said, he must reinvent himself: "I'm trying to figure out who next to be. I really want to be a teacher because I think I can make a difference. And all I've been going through would make me a better teacher, I believe."

    What makes it harder for the unemployed in Marlton is their inconspicuousness.

    Deacon Tarzy of St. Joan of Arc said many people in a middle-class community like Marlton weren't used to asking for help. "The unemployed were still coming to church," he said. "But you don't see what a person is praying for - asking the Lord to help them find a job." Now, he counsels nearly 50 people in biweekly meetings.

    The Marlton area (which makes up quite a bit - but not all - of Evesham) is as diverse as it is large, making it hard to gauge. It encompasses what Temple urban-studies professor David Bartelt calls a "crazy mix" of McMansions on golf courses, a quaint downtown, suburban sprawl, and a large forested area.

    Nevertheless, Tarzy said, unemployment is having a slow, rippling effect.

    At the Marlton Tavern, a town institution on Main Street, with a menu that stretches from nachos to lobster tail, the average guest check is down 25 percent, while dinner business is off 30 percent, according to owner George Lavdas.

    And longtime customers just laid off from white-collar jobs at places like Lockheed Martin Corp. in South Jersey are asking Lavdas for work as waiters and bartenders.

    Meanwhile, Marlton laid off 14 municipal workers out of 225 in the last 18 months, what Elesh calls the typical result of a community losing jobs. As the recession bores in and people cut back, governments collect less in tax revenue, pushing even more cuts in services.

    Over at Whole Foods Market in a strip mall on Route 73, "the domino effect from unemployment is really starting to hit," according to manager Ken Letherer.

    "You can feel it with the customers. They look downtrodden, a little beaten-up."

    As a result, Letherer has doubled the store's bulk-foods section, noticing that people are buying fewer prepared foods. "They're shopping us hard, looking for values, and cooking at home," he said.

    Older people who planned to retire and live out their days in Marlton are rethinking, said Andrew Kavulich, an unemployed management consultant who helps Tarzy.

    "These folks who lose jobs move out, unable to afford Marlton anymore," said Kavulich, 66, citing high mortgages and property taxes. "It's dramatic."

     

    Grinding worry

    Robert Buffaloe cries alone in his basement.

    "Stress makes me feel like I'm less than a man," said Buffaloe, a 48-year-old unemployed plumber's helper from Clementon. "There's been problems in my marriage because of lack of work."

    It's been a year since a Camden plumbing outfit laid off Buffaloe.

    "What can I do?" asked Buffaloe, wired and tense in the STRIVE office in Camden, taking classes on how to look for work. His wife, Nadine, is a Verizon lab technician. But the couple has six children. "When I don't have money," he said, "it's a strain on her."

    Living with that sort of worry grinds a person down, said Renee Ransom, a 43-year-old widow from Lindenwold, who lost her clerical/sales job in advertising nearly a year ago.

    She lives in a townhouse with her father and two kids, ages 10 and 12.

    Ransom, a STRIVE client with lovely interview clothes but no interview to wear them to, isn't sure what to do with herself.

    "I do a lot of housework. There's nothing left to clean," she said. "It's depressing. There are no jobs here."

    There really never were big employers in the mostly working-class bedroom communities of the Clementon area.

    Lindenwold has a transient feel, thanks in part to the High-Speed Line stop and an unusually high 5,000 rental apartments in a community of about 20,000 people, said Mayor Frank DeLucca.

    Beyond that, he added, "there are no lines anymore to eat dinner at the Applebee's, and you don't see many people who want to fix up their houses at Home Depot on Saturday mornings."

    Hard times will cancel July Fourth fireworks because the town can't afford it, he said.

    In nearby Clementon, the story is much the same. With construction hit hard - unemployment in that sector rose 36 percent in Camden County in the last two years - many of the electrical workers and pipefitters who populate the town are out of work, said Mayor Mark Armbruster.

    An Asian market that opened in January closed in a month, in part because so many customers were unemployed, Armbruster said.

    Meanwhile, at Clementon Lake Grocery, which sells Indian specialties among the usual staples, business is down 50 percent in the last three months, said owner Sam Pandya: Customers who once spent $40 to $100 per trip now spend $20 to $50.

    Unemployment helped push up the rate of shoplifting, burglaries, and strong-arm robberies in Clementon Borough more than 50 percent between September 2007 and September 2008 - from 205 to 310 out of a population of around 5,000, said Police Chief David Kunkel.

    If there's some good that comes out of the growing misery in Marlton and the Clementon area, it's the grace that bartender Debbie Love sees, at least in her world.

    "I think many people are nicer because of hard times," she said. "It's like a death in the family. Everyone stops and takes a step back to get perspective. It's a good thing."

    Then Love added, "But it doesn't last."


    More information on job loss in the region at go.philly.com/jobbing:

    Interactive map: By zip code, of the change in jobless claims in Pa. and N.J. from 2007 to 2009.

    Video: Joe Bisicchia on his struggle with unemployment.

    Blog: The latest on Jane Von Bergen's "Jobbing."

    Alfred Lubrano Inquirer Staff Writer
    Also on Philly.com
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