Talk to Strangers

Lake Milton, OH – Braceville, OH, 14.8 miles
*came to Lake Milton from Warren by car and spoke to students at Jackson-Milton Elementary School

When we are young we are told not to talk to strangers. We are told to fear those who are different, to judge people by their appearance.

Last night I met Scott Catania and his young son just south of Warren. Though I was a complete stranger, the Catania family took me into their home and convinced me to speak to students at Jackson-Milton Elementary School about my walk.

I had no idea what I could possibly tell students. But I realized that the primary purpose of my trip, to encourage communities to help each other and look within to find solutions, begins by teaching children to be respectful of others and open to new experiences. Children who are taught to be nonjudgmental, and appreciate all there is to learn from those with different backgrounds from our own, grow to be adults who are good citizens. (At least that is my theory.)

I asked the students whether they thought it was fair that some children don’t have a home because their mom and dad can’t afford to pay rent. Many said they had participated in food drives, helped a student who didn’t have any friends or generally lent a helping hand. I told them that while it is important to help their family, friends and neighbors–people they know–it is also important to help strangers.

Lest anyone thinks I was encouraging children to go out into the world and talk to every stranger they met, I reminded them that it is best to trust the judgment of their parents before interacting with someone they do not know. But I also told them I would not have gotten very far on my trip if I didn’t talk to strangers. Every person I have met on this trip began as a stranger.

Though the students were most interested in trying on my 30-pound backpack, I hope they will think about how it would feel if they did not have a home to return to at the end of the school day; did not have any toys; or could afford only one pair of shoes. Perhaps some of them understand how this feels all too well. But I hope they will grow to understand that building a strong community means talking to strangers and lending a helping hand to all in need.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper

Steel is gone, and it’s not coming back

Youngstown, OH – Warren, OH, 8.8 miles

A generation has passed since steel manufacturing jobs left the region. Many living in western Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana can remember family members working in the steel mills or perhaps worked there themselves. At it’s peak in the 1940s more than half a million people worked in the industry. That number was cut nearly in half in the 1970s. And, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2006 the steel industry provided just 154,000 wage and salary jobs in the United States.

It is sad to see a once thriving region living in an extended state of decay and disrepair. Unemployment rates are high; morale and hope are low. In August 2009 the unemployment rates were at 9.9 percent in Indiana, 10.8 percent for Ohio, and 8.6 percent for Pennsylvania according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

If cities like Youngstown, and others once dominated by steel manufacturing, want to thrive again, they must turn to smaller businesses and focus on remaking their economies with creativity, community, and the hard work and ingenuity that are hallmarks of the Rust Belt. Similarly, they should focus on the successes found in worker-owned cooperatives.

As I walked through Youngstown I noticed plenty of small businesses thriving. But equally I noticed many long abandoned buildings. The time for mourning lost jobs and lost industry is over. Some four decades have passed since steel reigned supreme. The Rust Belt needs to accept reality: jobs in the steel industry are gone and are not coming back. It is time to adapt and rebuild.

–Jennifer E. Cooper

Another way

Sept. 29, 2009  (Youngstown, OH –  Warren, OH, 8.8 miles)

It has been a generation since steel manufacturing jobs left the region. Many living in western Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana can remember family members working in the steel mills or perhaps worked there themselves. At it’s peak in the 1940s more than half a million people worked in the industry. That number was cut nearly in half in the 1970s. And, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2006 the steel industry had declined to just 154,000 wage and salary jobs in the United States.

It is disturbing to see a once thriving region in a state of decay and disrepair. As I walked through Youngstown I noticed plenty of small businesses thriving. But there were also many buildings that had been abandoned.

Unemployment rates are high. In August 2009 the unemployment rate was 10.8 percent for Ohio according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Youngstown the unemployment rate is nearly 15 percent. And that number does not include those forced to accept part-time employment or who have given up looking.

Jobs in the steel industry are largely gone and not coming back. If cities like Youngstown, and others once dominated by steel manufacturing, want to thrive again, they must try a new approach such as supporting smaller businesses or worker-owned corporations. It was attempted once after “Black Monday”–the day in 1977 when 5,000 workers at the Youngstown Sheet and Tube plant were told the mill was going to close. But that was more than a quarter century ago.

In his book, “America Beyond Capitalism,” Gar Alperovitz, details many ways in which workers and communities can regain control of their economic future. Alperovitz was part of the group that attempted to create an employee-owned steel mill in Youngstown in the wake of “Black Monday.” Though the attempt ultimately failed, that does not mean it cannot be done. And it does not mean similar solutions should not be pursued. Residents must demand something better.

Plans are now in the works to expand V&M Star Steel, which will likely mean jobs. Though this is good news, more must be done to ensure the city can weather the rise and fall of large industries. The city’s Office of Economic Development, which has numerous programs designed to encourage small businesses and target urban decay, is a start. But residents and city leaders must be proactive. Jobs will not magically appear from the sky. If you want something better, to try another way, you must stand up and be a part of the solution.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Affordable housing?

Sept. 28 (New Castle, PA – Youngstown, OH, 17.3 miles)

Absent from many discussions of affordable housing are a few realities. First, much of “affordable” housing is substandard, owned by slum lords who charge too high a rent payment for poor quality housing. Second, many people who can afford rent payments in an affordable unit cannot manage to scrape together the standard one-month security deposit.

While I was staying at the Covenant House shelter in New Castle, Pa., I talked with one resident “Kelly” who was there because she was battling cancer. She could not work while she was receiving treatments, and, since her job as a dishwasher in a restaurant was part-time she had no health benefits. So she was forced to apply for welfare, which pays her $195 a month, and live with one relative or another until she found space in the shelter.

She is now on a waiting list to move into subsidized housing. Kelly said she has been criticized for being “too picky” in where she will accept to live, ruling out housing in areas that have frequent gun violence or are substandard.

Even before she got sick, Kelly told me, she was struggling to pay an ever-increasing rent payment. She said the house had several different owners and each new one would charge a slightly higher rent. I asked her why she didn’t simply move. Kelly said she would have moved but she could barely afford rent on her dishwasher’s wages let alone a new security deposit.

I do not know the solution to cleaning up substandard, slum housing. We cannot force someone to provide good housing–we can only prevent them from renting unacceptable housing. Perhaps local governments should be empowered to seize housing when landlords refuse to make the necessary renovations and offer existing tenants the opportunity to improve the homes through the “sweat equity” format used by Habitat for Humanity. Communities must hold slum lords accountable and ensure that a lack of a security deposit does not stand in the way of a safe and affordable place to call home.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

What you can do for your community

Day 86–Sept. 27 (rest in New Castle, PA, 0.0 miles)

I will admit right now: I am not a fan of Wal-Mart. I disagree with many of its business practices from discrimination against women and the low wages it pays employees to its union-busting activities and editing of books, CDs and DVDs for content it deems objectionable.

But I was willing to give the store the benefit of the doubt. I wanted to ask those running the Wal-Mart in New Castle, Pa.: what do you do for your community?

So with that in mind I entered the store on Route 224 in New Castle. I asked to speak to a manager to find out how this Wal-Mart was being a good neighbor. But I was told there was no manager on duty and instead could only talk to an employee in customer service named Rebecca. She said they did a number of things to benefit the community but could not give me specific details. Most of the community service seemed to be focused on the environment. Among the things she mentioned were planting trees, roadside cleanups and a composting bin to be located in the store. She also mentioned that any bags of dry pet food that were opened were donated to a local animal shelter. A start I suppose.

I was a bit disappointed that the store was not doing more–perhaps it is and I did not get the right person to tell me the details. And I admit that I am targeting Wal-Mart as one of the largest, most visible businesses in town. But I am glad the store is doing something, no matter how small, to benefit the city. It is my hope that residents will look around town and realize that if they want a thriving community they cannot wait for someone else to come in and wave a magic wand. Everyone has a role to play. So ask yourself: What can I do for my community?

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Never forget

Day 85–Sept. 26 (Beaver Falls, PA-New Castle, PA 18 miles)

In the bad times, when we struggle and make our way through hardship or tragedy, we vow we will never forget. But we do forget.

When I was first married I can remember struggling to pay the bills and staying up nights wondering how we were going to keep ahead of our debts. On more than one occasion we accidentally closed out our checking account because we balanced it to $0.00. My husband did not have a job. He had been offered a wonderful position with Newsweek covering the 2000 elections but could not take it because he was a British citizen and lacked a work permit. And so we struggled on my lowly reporter’s salary. Yes we had a roof over our head and food to eat, but we did not have any extra money. We didn’t even have enough for him to buy a newspaper while he was stuck at home all day.

Now, I am not proud to say, we have wasted more money in one year than I was earning a decade ago. I can’t imagine having a bank balance of $0. And I cannot understand why he felt we could not afford a newspaper. That is not to say we are wealthy or do not struggle. But certainly I pay less attention to where each dollar goes and need to remind myself just how lucky I am.

Of course I don’t think I am the only one who has forgotten what it is like to truly struggle. I recently had a conversation with a friend who told me that when he was in college he was so poor that he took a second job at a restaurant so he could get a free meal there. Now he earns a very comfortable living as does his partner. He said he has to remind himself that many of his friends do not earn as much and that while he is wondering how they are going to pay for new steel countertops his friends are wondering how they are going to pay for groceries.

So I will not say we should never forget, because we will forget. Instead I will say to look around and lend your neighbors a hand.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Aliquippa

Sept. 25, 2009 (Baden, PA-Beaver Falls, PA, 10.8 miles)

Twenty miles to the north of Pittsburgh the town of Aliquippa is perhaps the most run-down town I have seen in my life. Many of its buildings are abandoned and drug dealers and prostitutes run rampant. I was warned against visiting the town. I was told it was a dangerous and terrible place to go.

Then I met Mitchell Unis, one of the owners of Ba’Runi Hotel & Grill in Baden where I had spent the night. Unis agreed that Aliquippa was a town in crisis. But, he said, it was a town with residents and business owners dedicated to turning things around in Aliquippa and elsewhere in Beaver County. He added that on more than one occasion he has offered the hotel as a place to stay for people who would otherwise be homeless.

Early today he called me and said he was giving my number to Norah Miller, who works with the homeless population in Beaver County. In a breach of my normal rules against accepting rides I decided to accept a tour of the area with Miller. And she and Lisa Kelleher, who organizes transitional housing in Beaver County, talked with me about the challenges they face in helping people rise out of homelessness and poverty.

Kelleher herself was once a recipient of public services and managed to graduate from college and now is in a position to help others. She said one of the things she finds most frustrating is how difficult it can be to navigate the system. But she is dedicated to helping people get the services they need to get them on their feet.

Locally the reasons people find themselves homeless can vary. Some have just left jail and are left to fend for themselves with no home or job upon their exit from incarceration. Others are victims of the high rates of unemployment (8.5 percent in July 2009 according to the U.S. Department of Labor) have substance abuse problems or are the product of what Kelleher referred to as generational poverty.

“Some people don’t even know what to do at a job interview,” Kelleher said.

At one time residents were able to graduate from high school and go directly to a good job in the steel mills. But then in the 1980s the mills left as jobs were lost to outsourcing. And the region never recovered. Aliquippa was one of the hardest hit towns.

But it is not all bad news. At Uncommon Grounds Cafe in Aliquippa John and Alison Stanley are working hard to lift residents out of poverty and strengthen the downtown. The Stanleys came from Australia to the US as a part of the Church Army organization and spent four years creating Uncommon Grounds Cafe. Alison Stanley said there was a need for a space downtown for a community gathering place. The cafe is staffed by volunteers and anyone can come and wash windows, clean or otherwise contribute in exchange for a meal. And there are plans underway to install a shower and a washer and dryer.

Miller told me there is also an effort underway to bring a grocery store to Aliquippa and she is hopeful that other businesses will come. “But it’s easier to change architecture than people’s perception,” she said noting that many people won’t even come to the library because it is located in downtown Aliquippa.

But as discouraging as Alison Stanley admits it can be to keep their business and nearby home maintained in a sea of buildings in disrepair, she is not giving up hope. In just the few years since she and her husband opened Uncommon Grounds Cafe several other shops have followed.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Two cities

Bellvue, PA-Baden, PA, 14.2 miles

The sidewalks along Route 65 in Emsworth are in such a state of disrepair that in many places grass and weeds have fully reclaimed the concrete. When I was walking, I passed no one.

Just a little north lies the town of Sewickley. The sidewalks are pristine. There are parks and large beautiful houses. There are dozens of nice shops and restaurants. But, if you work at many of these shops and restaurants, you cannot afford to live in town.

Two towns, two different problems.

When I talked to people at the Emsworth Inn about my efforts to draw attention to poverty and homelessness in this country they suggested I need look no further. Certainly many homes in the town are in disrepair and the sidewalks are crumbling. And there is no thriving downtown. But, to those who despair at the state of their town, I suggest they need look only at themselves. It does not take a great deal of money to clean up trash on your yard; plant a few flowers or trees; and trim the weeds on the sidewalk. Poverty is no excuse to abandon your community and leave it to decay and rot. And it is noticed when a town does not make the effort to take care of small things like sidewalks. It suggests to residents that they are not important–they are not worthy of the effort to keep Emsworth looking nice.

Sewickley could not be more different. The town is beautiful and its homes, parks and sidewalks well maintained. But, if there are not affordable places to live in town, there will be no one to work in the stores that provide a tax base and make Sewickley a nice place to live. Similarly, if residents do not want a community with only a few chain stores and a large mall on the outskirsts of town they must support their local businesses. A successfully community is not a theme park. It is not a place to walk by and look but never shop.

So, the next time you despair at the state of your neighborhood, or fail to patronize its businesses, realize that you have the power to ensure your neighborhood thrives or fails. What you do with that power is up to you.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Timshel

Pittsburgh, PA-Bellvue, PA, 7.9 miles

Leaving Pittsburgh today I felt conflicted. I was not interested in being part of a G-20 protest that could become violent. And I didn’t think it was my battle. But, with each step I took, I realized that every protest is my battle–our battle to preserve democracy and free will.

We are slowly losing our voice in this country. Newspapers are folding; elections are bought and sold; global businesses and corporations are not held accountable for wrongdoings. Though I will not be at the protest in person, I am with them in spirit.

Pittsburgh is not a city unknown to protest. It has a long history of labor disputes and strikes including the Homestead Strike of 1892 and the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. And though I cannot confirm this fact, I was told that the reason it can be difficult to traverse from one neighborhood to another in the city stems from attempts to prevent communication between strikers in various parts of Pittsburgh.

So I was disheartened to hear comments from residents wishing the protesters would get arrested or thrown out of town. And it disturbed me to hear people say how glad they were to see all the police because the police were there to protect them. Sadly the police presence appears to be more about the protection of property in Pittsburgh and less about the safety and protection of the residents or the protesters. I worry that it has been set up to be confrontational and potentially violent when it could easily be peaceful.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Editor’s note

Some 80 days after I first began my cross-country journey on July 4th in Washington, D.C., I find myself in Pittsburgh once again. I first reached this diverse and dynamic city more than a month ago. But I was forced to take a an unscheduled break from walking as a result of a stress fracture.

As a result, it is unlikely I will reach California this year. I plan to walk as far as I can before the cold weather sets in. How far I happen to reach by the end of October I cannot yet say. I hope to reach Chicago, but I have long since accepted that this is not a race.

Stay tuned.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper