A struggle to make an honest living
Disappearance of industry leaves a wake of discouraged’ workers
One in an occasional series
Bryant Calloway calls himself an "underground man."
He's no longer officially in the workforce and not counted on the jobless rolls, but he's out in the neighborhoods each day, fighting to survive.
"I try to make my living honestly," said Calloway, 48, of Frankford, a one-time top-40s guitarist-turned construction worker who now does odd jobs and hopes he gets paid. "They lay you off, so then you have to see what you can do for yourself in the streets. It's a hard, hard way to go."
The grinding recession is taking its toll in neighborhoods across America as a record number of people plunge into poverty. A national poll reveals that Philadelphia’s First Congressional District is the second-hungriest in the country.
In an occasional series, The Inquirer goes behind the scenes in the district to chronicle the struggles, hopes and challenges of the people who live hidden in plain sight in the heart of the country’s sixth-largest city.
Find the entire series here.
A cold morning last week found him balanced on rickety scaffolding in front of a listing North Philadelphia house, re-building a porch roof.
"I'm John Doe out here," he said in the icy air, as a teared fell from the corner of his eye. "There's nobody to help me."
Calloway's job site is in the heart of the First Congressional District, one of the poorest in America. Between 1950 and 1980, an area of the city that's east of Broad Street, north of Northern Liberties, and south of Northeast Philadelphia lost 300,000 manufacturing jobs, a brutal hollowing out of a once-vibrant place.
"Loss of jobs had more to do with the blighting of North Philadelphia and nearby neighborhoods than anything else," said Jim Hilty, a Temple University historian.
Since the 1980s, the area has pancaked further, some micro-neighborhoods registering as much as 50 percent unemployment today, according to Eric Nelson, chief executive officer of the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board, a nonprofit labor advocacy group.
Without jobs or the hope of finding any, the legions of underground men and women like Calloway - officially known as "the discouraged" - scramble to make money any legal way they can.
On the scuffle and under the radar, the discouraged eschew the risk and criminality of the ubiquitous drug trade, choosing instead to clean apartments, care for the elderly, baby-sit, sell dinner platters, create nightclubs in garages, braid hair. Or fix houses.
Along with the discouraged, the district is filled with another class of similarly invisible, nonworking people who receive federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments because they are physically or mentally disabled, or simply too old to work. The maximum SSI payment is $674.
Much of the outside world does not realize that significantly more money is being distributed nationally for SSI - $41 billion in 2009 - than for welfare cash payments - $9.3 billion, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington nonprofit that analyzes programs for low-income Americans.
Taken together, the district's population without jobs - discouraged workers, SSI recipients and unemployed people still actively searching for work - is the teeming legacy of the collapse of manufacturing.
Unemployment in the city is currently 11.2 percent, as compared to the nation's rate of 9.8 percent and the state's rate of 8.6 percent. Add the discouraged, and the city's jobless rate swells to as much as 25 percent, according to David Bartelt, who teaches urban studies at Temple.
Meanwhile, nearly 10 percent of households in the district received SSI payments between 2005 and 2009, the third-highest rate among the nation's 435 congressional districts, behind only the Bronx and Eastern Kentucky, U.S. Census figures show.
In some areas of the district, the proportion of households receiving SSI payments in that same time period was 40 percent or more.
To survive in the First Congressional District, those living lives without work often band together on their battered and disintegrating blocks, bartering food or favors, coming to each other's aid in crisis, and telling each other about work whenever they can.
"Half our block is connected in that fashion," said Marcus Turner, 35, a married Frankford man who was laid off by his moving company in February 2009. He makes money for his wife and three children doing chores for eldery people and family members.
His wife, Tianna Gaines-Turner, 31, is one of the Witnesses to Hunger, part of an advocacy program of women in poverty started at the Drexel University School of Public Health. She works part time as a researcher for the program.
"I've had to do neighborhood jobs, too," she said. "I don't like cleaning toilets, or washing old people's behinds. But you do what you have to do"
So many say their lives are day-in, day-out struggles. They feel out of touch with the rest of the city.
"Philadelphia is a city of towns, and we are in the wrong town - North Philly town," said the Rev. Luis Cortes, president of Esperanza, a national faith-based, Hispanic organization headquartered on North Fifth Street.
"We're an island, disconnected from the rest of the city. That's because the city has abandoned us."
Out on his own
Calloway tuned his radio to WDAS-FM, the mellifluous R&B and classic soul music, seeming to warm the 20-degree wind - at least for a moment - as he worked.
Playing in a band on Long Island when he was 18, Calloway returned to Frankford to get a "serious" job in construction seven years later when the first of his two sons, now 26, was born. Within a year, he was laid off.
Calloway tried looking for work for a while but was unsuccessful, so he decided to strike out on his own.
In 1990, with the last money he had, he bought a GMC Sierra truck, which he still drives. For two decades, he has been out prowling for jobs - drywall, bricklaying, carpentry, whatever.
"I never took welfare or food stamps," he said. "I just ride the streets and see if people need me."
Calloway lives alone. The relationship with his elder son's mother fell apart, and Calloway doesn't know where the young man is.
Calloway is close to his "wonderful" 18-year-old son from another relationship. He was a high school honor student and is ready to start Philadelphia Community College soon. He wants to become a psychologist.
The biggest worry Calloway has is finding work, scarce as good luck. The next problem is getting compensated.
"Some people don't pay me out here," Calloway said. "That's the sad part."
It's a common enough occurence among the discouraged working in the informal economy in poor neighborhoods, said Elijah Anderson, a Yale University professor who has written numerous books about the poor of Philadelphia.
"If no one pays you, some believe you may have to get in their face," Anderson said. "Violence is a way to operate in a community in which civil law doesn't seem to exist. People acquire personas with a street-toughened edge."
Calloway, who long ago understood he was not a drug dealer or a thug, isn't like that.
"I obey the rules," he said. "I'm not gonna hit anybody. But now people owe me thousands. I don't even know how we're gonna settle up on this job.
"I trust this guy. But-"
Calloway knows there are other men like him in the streets, struggling to find work. The competition is fierce.
"So that means I have no choice," he said. "I got to go up on the unsafe scaffold. Then hope I get paid."
Osualdo Robles smoked crack and watched the storied 150-year-old Quaker Lace factory burn down in an eight-alarm conflagration outside his window one night in 1994.
The self-professed "scariest guy on earth" and once drug kingpin of Kensington, Robles was convicted in 1995 of ordering the fire and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Prosecutors said Robles had learned that police were spying on his operation from the old factory, really an eight-building complex that was officially shuttered in 1993 but had been barely functioning for years.
Quaker Lace made heirloom-quality curtains, tablecloths and doilies. Some products were used in the White House during the 1950s. Founded in 1894, it employed legions of English, Irish and French artisans.
The factory was a symbol of the prosperity and employment that had been a part of the North Philadelphia area's history for 150 years. Its torching meant something else.
"For it to be burned down by drug dealers was a direct shot aimed at civilized society, showing that drug sellers are now in control of the neighborhoods," said Paul Laughlin, one of the prosecutors in the case, now a lawyer in Bethlehem.
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 role 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."
Ceramic angels watch over the Ramos-Bermudez family, hovering on hooks in a clean but tiny Kensington living room.
Whether the celestial beings are doing any good for the family is up for debate.
Six-month-old Jariel has a hole in his heart.
His father, Ariel Bermudez, 27, can't keep a job because he's prone to epileptic seizures.
His mother, Joyce Ramos, 24, doesn't have enough money to feed the family of six.
The parents, who are not married, receive food stamps and other aid - part of the safety net meant to help the poor.
But neither the angels nor the net can give the family everything it needs, and the family struggles with hunger.
Francisco, 6, gets SSI payments of $674 a month because he has been found to have ADHD. Bermudez gets $568 from SSI for his seizures.
Without SSI, said Ramos, who used to work at Burger King until she had her youngest child, things would be much more dire. This year, the family took in $21,816 in aid, which still leaves it nearly $8,000 below the federal poverty line of $29,530 for a family of six.
"Thank goodness for the SSI," Ramos said. "As it is, sometimes there's nothing to eat. The food is gone halfway through the month and I have to send them to my mom's to have meals. She works at a window company. Sometimes she tells me, 'Oh, they come here so hungry,' and it makes me feel bad to hear it. But we can't do more than we can."
Bermudez, a handsome, muscular man who sports tattoos of his children's names, has had seizures since he was 11 growing up in Puerto Rico. "I can have four at the same time," he said.
They have inserted themselves into his work life for years. Working as a roofer in Puerto Rico, he fell off roofs three times because of the seizures.
In Massachusetts, where he used to live, he had a major seizure at a medical-supply manufacturing plant where he worked and collapsed on top of a conveyor belt of EKG patches.
"I think I have a brain-function problem," he said. "I will drive and not know where I'm going."
To try to make money, Bermudez repairs cars in the neighborhood. But there isn't much work coming his way.
"It's hard to do a job," he said. "I can't go on the computer because it gives me seizures. And I have memory problems. I could talk to you today, but six months from now, I won't remember you."
Bermudez isn't alone. In the top three of districts with people on SSI, the First Congressional District looks like a repository of the wounded, according to Philippe Bourgois, a Penn anthropologist who lives part time in the area, studying drug dealers.
"I get the sense of tremendous disability," he said. "You literally see people limping around. A lot of it is from getting hurt on the job - from being on the lowest rungs of a quite brutal labor force, and having injuries like being run over by a forklift."
The only significant transfer of funds in the district - besides drug dealing - is people getting SSI checks from the government, Bourgois said.
That might inspire people to cheat. But it's hard to defraud the federal government, said John Whitelaw, a lawyer at Community Legal Services and an SSI expert.
SSI is distributed to people living in poverty by the Social Security Administration, but only after a person is examined by a doctor contracted with by the state, Whitelaw said.
In Pennsylvania, just 30 percent of those who apply for SSI receive it, he added. People who get SSI must prove significant impairment of one of 14 body systems (immune, respiratory, musculoskelatal, etc.) or show mental impairment. The bulk of SSI cases deal with mental illness, experts say. Age counts: A person who is 65 and poor nearly always qualifies for SSI, Whitelaw said.
Though cheating is difficult, it's not as though people in the district don't try.
Barbie Isquirdo, a 23-year-old employee of a hunger-advocacy group in the area, said that 15 years ago, her mother was turned down for SSI. She became so desperate to get money for the family that she purposely slashed three of her fingers, nearly cutting them off, Isquirdo said.
"I called the police, and they took it as a suicide attempt and institutionalized her," Isquirdo said. "She was out in two-and-a-half months, and started getting SSI." Isquirdo won't reveal her mother's name or say where she lives.
Edwin Desamour, executive director of Men in Motion in the Community, a nonprofit in West Kensington that mentors at-risk youths, says he knows a handful of mothers who tell their non-mentally disabled children that they have a mental illness from a young age.
That way they don't appear to be faking when they're examined by doctors who recommend that they get SSI, Desamour said.
That people do this should show the outside world how hard life is in the area, Desamour said.
"The factories are closed down. But we are here," he added. "What do we do? Hopes of the American dream got lost somewhere down the line."
Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or firstname.lastname@example.org.