IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Recession hits Rust Belt’s steel towns hard

In Ohio's fading steel towns, the recession was a final cruelty piled on top of three decades of disappearing jobs.
"Going Out of Business" letters reflect from the window of a lighting store that recently closed in Niles, Ohio.
"Going Out of Business" letters reflect from the window of a lighting store that recently closed in Niles, Ohio.Michael Williamson / The Washington Post
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

All day long the front door buzzes at Uptown Gems & Jewels. The people come in with their trinkets wrapped in tissue or velvet boxes. They say their hours have been cut or they've been laid off. Some have their first names stitched in cursive on their uniforms, others wear safety-toe boots.

At campaign time, they are celebrated as the people who built America. Now they just want to know how much they can get for a wedding band.

"Let me show you something," says Dallas Root, standing behind the counter with a jeweler's loupe strung around his neck. He holds up a gallon-size Ziploc bag that's two-thirds full of gold — engagement rings, class rings, promise rings, serpentine chains, St. Christopher medals, bracelets, anklets and earrings.

"This is just this week," Root says.

Uptown Gems & Jewels doesn't offer the refined science of Wall Street or Washington. But when Root puts the loupe to his eye, he peers into the lives of the working class and sees how badly the recession has knocked them to the ground.

The same week he holds up the sack of gold is the same week that Ford Motor Co. posts third-quarter profits of $1 billion, news that sparks optimism that a national recovery is underway. But a good week for some is still a terrible week for others.

In this corner of northeast Ohio, from Warren to Youngstown, where the old steel mills along the Mahoning River stand like rusted-out mastodons in the weeds, the recession was a final cruelty piled on top of three decades of disappearing jobs.

The recession here wasn't a black hole at the end of a sustained boom, or downgrading from Target to Wal-Mart or cutting out $3 drinks at Starbucks. It was a confrontation with survival.

As other areas of the country start to revive, the recession's full force is still on display here. Winter has descended. Unemployment benefits are running out. New jobs have not appeared. And the door keeps swinging open at Uptown Gems & Jewels.

'There's a lot of pride'
Dallas Root tries to describe the moment when a person parts with his last glint of prosperity.

"They don't want to look desperate," he says. "They say, 'I've had this stuff lying around and I was thinking about getting rid of it.' There's a lot of pride in Warren."

But the pride is mixed with 15 percent unemployment and a sickening worry that the recovery might never touch this place.

The road from Warren and Youngstown is a graveyard of silent machines behind chain-link fences. Near the Pennsylvania border, this 25-mile stretch along the Mahoning River was the world's fifth-largest producer of steel until the late 1970s, when more than 50,000 jobs vanished in a decade. The General Motors plant in Lordstown, which employed 14,000 in the 1970s, is down to about 2,500 workers.

The ladies at Holy Trinity Ukrainian Catholic Church still sell pierogies every Friday, and Youngstown's classic rock station still bows its shaggy head before playing "Crystal Ball" by Styx, but the grit and grime of industrialization has mostly gone overseas.

Since January 2008, another 10,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost, according to recent Ohio employment figures.

Ghostly presence
In Warren, the once-mighty Delphi Packard Electric is a ghostly presence after the auto-parts maker cut 260 more employees. The $2 million in income tax revenue the city received from Delphi in 2003 has dropped to $70,000. Smaller casualties abound: Ohio Lamp laid off 80, Mahoning Glass announced the closure of its 100-worker plant and the list goes on.

"It's a final erasure," says John Russo, a labor studies professor at Youngstown State University, describing the lethality of job losses and plant closures.

Here is what the recovery looks like in the land of the working class:

Grown women in hairnets are working alongside teenagers at drive-through windows, and college graduates are loading bread trucks.

"A 48-year-old Youngstown man was charged, accused of stealing $14 worth of food from Rite Aid Pharmacy," reads an entry in the weekly police report published in the Vindicator. "A Youngstown woman, 21, was charged with filling a shopping cart with $154 worth of groceries and leaving an Aldi food store without paying."

In a place defined by work, there is little to be had.

One gray morning, a man named George Tomlin is grateful to be driving to his job.

Tomlin, 41, has worked in an aluminum foundry, a meatpacking house and a vinyl fabricator, each job paying a little less than the one before. Two years ago, he found temp work in a factory that made flowerpots. He received $7.50 an hour and jolts to his belt buckle from static electricity coming off the assembly line.

"There were other places that were dirtier, but you didn't get shocked every 15 minutes," Tomlin says with resignation. "This is what people around here without union jobs have to do to survive."

Tomlin found his own version of economic recovery last year when he landed a $10-an-hour job that seems like it might last.

Just before 8 a.m., he pulls into the company parking lot where hundreds of cars are already parked and more are arriving. Carrying his lunchbox and Thermos, he walks toward the bright lights of the 82,000-square-foot facility.

Behold the new factory: a mega-call-center that employs 1,280 workers who field incoming customer-service calls for a wireless phone company and a satellite television provider. The center is operated by the Omaha-based West Corp., lured to the area by tax credits and an abundance of low-skilled workers.

Tomlin is soft-spoken and tries to use the human touch. He's supposed to limit customer calls to five minutes but often goes longer.

"You got a 65-year-old woman whose husband is just out of the hospital with a stroke," he says. "The only thing he's got is a TV and hospice. She's having trouble paying her bills. I say, 'I'm gonna give you a $15 credit and we are going to get through this.' "

Another company violation. Tomlin loves this job and wants to keep it, so he reminds himself to stick to the rules.

At 4:30 p.m., he takes off his headset and walks out to the parking lot. When Tomlin was a kid, the air glittered with black from the blast furnaces at the steel mills. Now the skies are spooky clean, and all that moves in the wind is the call center's recruiting banner that says, "We Don't Hire Robots."

Bleak prospects
Two miles from the call center that doesn't hire robots, Sgt. Carmen Sagnimeni is sitting in a county office building wondering if anyone is hiring soldiers.

A poster in the Trumbull County Veterans Service Commission announces that November is "Hire a Vet Month," but prospects are bleak for those returning from Iraq or Afghanistan. In wars being disproportionately fought by the working class, the reward for coming home to this part of Ohio is "The Deer Hunter" with an Olive Garden.

Sagnimeni is just back from his second tour in Iraq with the Pennsylvania National Guard. He is 30, with a weary smile and a jiggling leg. He already has orders to go to Afghanistan in 2012. Until then, he has a mortgage and three kids to feed. His only lead so far is a $9-an-hour security guard job he found while surfing in Iraq.

He goes in to see Herman Breuer, a veterans affairs officer and fellow Iraq vet whose spotless desk is appointed with a mini-tombstone paperweight chiseled with the words "headstone marker and burial benefits desk." Sagnimeni listens as Breuer patiently explains his options, urging him to consider using the Post-9/11 GI Bill to go to college until the economy gets better. As far as decent jobs, Breuer is unusually blunt. "My best advice is to look into moving," he tells the young sergeant.

Things were different for the last generation that came home from war to this valley. In 1969, a soldier back from Vietnam was greeted by a landscape roaring with manufacturing jobs that provided blue-collar ascendancy to the middle class.

The proof is right down the street at VFW Post 1090, where two dozen Vietnam veterans are eating the $4.95 lunch special of cabbage rolls. One by one, the men name the companies where they spent their lives: GM, Delphi, General Electric, Halsey Taylor, Rockwell International.

'There's nothing for them'
John Stefan recently retired after 32 years at GE, earning $35 an hour at the end.

"I see the young ones, there's nothing for them," says Stefan, who draws a monthly pension. "Why go to a vet center for a job you know doesn't exist? They are all probably just hiding in their basements."

One of the vets here recently brought in a young female Iraq vet who'd been living under a bridge in Warren. Cmdr. Jack Hilles fed her hot meals for two weeks, and another vet helped her find work at an injection molding plant.

"We even found her some clothes," says Hilles, anger in his voice. "She didn't have any goddamn civilian clothes."

They are everywhere in this Ohio — under bridges, in basements, at the vast Eastwood Mall complex that sprawls between Warren and Youngstown with a dented vitality.

There is a gym attached to the mall, and one night a 25-year-old Marine named Rob Townsend comes out and tosses his gear in his car. He pops his trunk and, measuring powder and water, mixes a high-protein shake called Monster Milk. Eleven months back from Afghanistan, and Townsend can feel himself diminishing in size and strength. In the glow of the Save-A-Lot sign, he drinks the muscle juice.

Townsend was a cook with the Third Marine Division at a forward operating base in Helmand province, working in 150-degree heat surrounded by blast walls to protect him from mortars. After getting out last year, he moved back into his parents' house in Hubbard. He drank too much. At a party, the cops showed up with sirens, and he found himself in a low crouch, crawling through the neighborhood. He went to the VA clinic in Liberty to talk to someone.

"I wasn't the way I was," Townsend says.

Neither was Ohio. His two younger brothers had work — one painting cars and the other at a grinding mill — but Townsend's old construction job vanished. He decided to enroll at Youngstown State on the GI Bill, where he's taking 15 hours this semester next to kids in red "Go, Penguins!" hoodies. The classes are hard, but he is trying.

Outside the mall, Townsend shuts his trunk. With his desert camouflage Marine cap in the rear windshield, he rolls out, no longer in an armored vehicle but a dented Chevy Cavalier, moving past the retail outcroppings of the Hobby Lobby and Burlington Coat Factory.

The last of the leaves have fallen on Trumbull Avenue, a street of square lawns and American cars where neighbors are dutifully raking. If steel is dead and manufacturing is going overseas and new-wave economists say brain hubs such as Portland and Raleigh are the future, what becomes of Trumbull Avenue?

Before there was a so-called creative class, there were people who made light bulbs, water fountains, aluminum siding and electrical harnesses for cars. This is what held Trumbull Avenue together.

Tom Szykulski finishes raking and comes inside. Dinner is in the crockpot and the furniture smells faintly of lemony wax. Debbie Szykulski must clean as maniacally as her husband rakes. But the order is deceptive. The Szykulskis have lost their jobs and are down to Tom's unemployment benefits check. He is 53 and she is 55. They have just joined the ranks of Americans without health insurance.

"I feel like we've been thrown away," Debbie says, sitting at the kitchen table. Tom is quiet. He adjusts his cap. The company where he worked for 24 years, Indalex Aluminum Solutions, shut down last year, and he lost his $40,000-a-year union job. He was lucky to pick up work as a laborer at Wheatland Tube Co. for $12 an hour, but when business slowed, he was laid off from there, too.

"He's a hard worker," Debbie says, looking at her husband. "He worked 12-hour days. In 11 months, he never missed a day of work."

Tom corrects her. "Now, I did leave early that one day."

"That's all we know," she says. "He's not a school person. He's not a book person."

Job applications
Debbie became unemployed when the roofing company she worked for went out of business. She has gone all over Warren filling out job applications. "I've tried the drugstore, the mall, the pet store," she says. "I applied for a nursing home job, in the kitchen. They paid $7.95 an hour."


"I have a shining work record," she says. "I'm not computer-savvy. I'm smart. I can learn quick."

Tom stands up. He is a big man. He wears a Cleveland Cavs T-shirt. His son will soon ship out to Afghanistan. He pushes the kitchen chair in. He doesn't know what to do with himself. He drives downtown to pay the water bill. Debbie watches him go. The small house is a still life of what a union job and hard work once afforded. No second mortgage here or big vacations on the credit card. Their weekly splurge was driving 10 miles outside Warren on Friday nights to their favorite diner.

"I get angry," Debbie says. "Not out of jealousy, but that I can't find a job. I don't want a big fancy house. I want to be able to go out to dinner on a Friday night. I'd like to be able to send my grandson a little something in the mail. I would be happy with a minimum-wage-paying job, 40 hours a week, come home, spend time with my husband. And know that the next day, I can go into my job."

She pauses. "I just want the simple pleasures."

Both her grandfathers worked at Republic Steel, and her father retired from Packard Electric. Her house has been in the family since 1936, when Trumbull Avenue was more pasture than street. Her parents still live a block away. If outsiders wonder why she has stayed in a Rust Belt city on the endangered list, the answers are all around her.

But she doesn't know how they will survive if Tom doesn't find work soon.

She has already done the unthinkable.

One afternoon, Debbie — nice, responsible Debbie, Book-of-the-Month Club member and fan of "Masterpiece Classics" — gathered up her gold jewelry and put it in the red vinyl lunch bag she used to carry to work when she had a job. She drove to Uptown Gems & Jewels and unloaded everything she had for $876. The money is long gone.

Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.