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Closing Down Main Street

Countless towns and small cities across the U.S. have proven vulnerable to these tough times— and no one knows how to stop the bleeding.

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 1:12 PM EST

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

[Note for TomDispatch readers: Last week, I asked you to consider writing friends, colleagues, relatives—whomever—to urge them to go to the "sign up" window at the upper right of TD's main screen, put in their email addresses, and receive the mailing that offers notification whenever a new post goes up. (Word of mouth is, of course, still the major kind of publicity this site can afford.) A number of you did so and TD got a nice stream of new subscribers. So, many thanks indeed! If some of you meant to do this but didn't quite get around to it, now's as perfect a time as any. Lots of good posts coming up, so please pass the word! By the way, let me offer special thanks to those of you who, unbidden, used the site contribution button ("Resist empire. Support TomDispatch") and sent in contributions. Your generosity allows the site to offer younger writers like Dahr Jamail and Nick Turse a few extra $$$s for all their hard work. It matters. Tom]

As I read an early version of today's third (but by no means last) piece in Nick Turse's Tough Times series, I couldn't help thinking about an old line that, by my childhood in the 1950s, had become a kind of national folk wisdom: "As General Motors goes, so goes the nation." (Indeed, as befit the rise of the U.S. as an imperial power, "nation" was sometimes replaced with "world.") Of course, in those days, if you were the head of General Motors, it wasn't so unreasonable to imagine that you controlled the fate of the nation and the planet. Not only were you atop a global powerhouse of a company, but you might still be going places.

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After all, in 1953, Charles Wilson, GM's president, did become President Dwight D. Eisenhower's secretary of defense. Asked in his Senate confirmation hearings whether he would have a problem making governmental decisions that might not be in the interest of GM, he famously replied that he found it hard to imagine a conflict of interest "because for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa." (Soon, that would be simplified to: "What's good for General Motors is good for the country.")

Only a few years after Wilson stepped down, a new President, John F. Kennedy, asked Ford's president, Robert S. McNamara, to step into the very same post. At that moment, it seemed true indeed that, as Big Auto went, so went the world. Of course, that was before McNamara and his "whiz kids" got us deep into, but not out of, the Vietnam War. Now, that's so much ancient history—though today, you might imagine a new version of the old adage, based on Bush and Obama administration staffing decisions at the Treasury Department: What's good for Goldman Sachs is good for the country.

In any case, if Wilson's statement seems like history, the old GM line doesn't. As General Motors goes, so goes America. How sadly true. We know just how GM is going these days—down the tubes; and, as Nick Turse indicates in his latest post, so go the towns and small cities not only in the vicinity of the Big Three's collapse, but countrywide. Tom

Tough Times in Troubled Towns

America's Municipal Meltdowns
By Nick Turse

When Barack Obama traveled to Elkhart, Indiana, to push his $800 billion economic recovery package two weeks ago, he made the former "RV capital of the world" a poster-child for the current economic crisis. Over the last year, as the British paper The Independent reported, "Practically the entire [recreational vehicle] industry has disappeared," leaving thousands of RV workers in Elkhart and the surrounding area out of work. As Daily Show host Jon Stewart summed the situation up: "Imagine your main industry combines the slowdown of the auto market with the plunging values in the housing sector." Unfortunately, the pain in Elkhart is no joke, and it only grew worse recently when local manufacturers Keystone RV Co. and Jayco Inc. announced more than 500 additional job cuts.

In a speech at Elkhart's town hall, Obama caught the town's plight dramatically: "[This] area has lost jobs faster than anywhere else in the United States of America, with an unemployment rate of over 15 percent when it was 4.7 percent just last year… We're talking about people who have lost their livelihood and don't know what will take its place… That's what those numbers and statistics mean. That is the true measure of this economic crisis."

Elkhart, as it happens, is but one of countless towns and small cities across the U.S. that have proven particularly vulnerable to tough times simply because their economies relied on just a few major employers, or a single industry, or even a single company that has gone under or cut back drastically. Places like Elkhart are feeling the pain in ways most of the country isn't—yet; and even worse, from the out-of-work to local officials, no one knows how to stop the bleeding.

Take Dalton, Georgia, and its 33,000 residents. As the self-proclaimed "Carpet Capital of the World," it wasn't exactly well positioned when the foreclosure crisis hit and the construction industry ran off the rails. In fact, with its carpets piling up underfoot rather than heading out the factory doors, the housing crisis has all but wrecked Dalton which, from the 1980s to last year, had never been at a loss for jobs. Now, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics show the Dalton metro area ranking "second among 369 American cities in its rate of job loss, jumping from 6.2 percent to 11.2 percent last year."

Across the country, individuals, foreclosed or suddenly jobless, have been melting down like the economy and so bubbling up into the news in the form of extreme acts ranging from suicide and murder to arson and robbery. The same might now be said for news about whole troubled communities.

A few months ago, stories of economically-troubled towns were strictly local fare. Now, more and more of them are rising to regional or national attention. Take Lehigh Acres, Florida, a community that's home to large numbers of carpenters and pest exterminators who rode the housing boom until it went bust in a county that, between June 2007 and June 2008, lost a higher percentage of jobs (8.8%) than any other in the nation. A New York Times article on the "once-middle-class exurb" detailed the devastation:

"[H]omes are selling at 80 percent off their peak prices. Only two years after there were more jobs than people to work them, fast-food restaurants are laying people off or closing. Crime is up, school enrollment is down, and one in four residents received food stamps in December, nearly a fourfold increase since 2006."

Similarly, the Wall Street Journal profiled the plight of Rockford, Illinois, an industrial city about 90 miles northwest of Chicago with 12.5% unemployment, the highest in the state, a shortfall of $7.6 million in the city's budget, streets filled with "gaping potholes" and a "city center… rife with vacant storefronts."

Most of America's desperate towns and small cities, however, still remain relatively anonymous. Even with their pain quotient on the rise, they lack New York Times profiles or presidential photo ops to draw attention to their woes. But it's important to note that Elkhart, Dalton, and Lehigh Acres aren't American oddities. Other towns and cities in surprising numbers are following fast down the path they have already cleared. Such places are now hurt or possibly, in some cases, even dying—with little in the way of hope or help in sight. Under the circumstances, they should no longer be treated as individual stories, locally or nationally. They represent a pattern, and putting even a small number of their stories together casts a light on a disturbing countrywide trend that may determine the tomorrows of a remarkable number of Americans.

Tough Times in the East

After Governor Deval Patrick slashed aid to municipalities across the state, the "cash-strapped" town of Winthrop, Massachusetts, was left with a $512,000 budget gap. As a first step, the town axed its $117,000-a-year police chief and is now considering shuttering its public library. "The library has gotten a lot of attention, but if it's not the library it's going to be something else," said Winthrop Town Council President Thomas Reilly, a 40-year veteran of local government. "This is the worst I've seen," he told the Boston Herald.

Tough times have even reached tony Greenwich, Connecticut, which, the Greenwich Time reports, is looking to cut $5 million from its proposed 2009-2010 budget, in part through layoffs as well as a wage freeze for public employees. This famed haven for the rich is also experiencing joblessness "near a record high that has not been seen since the withering downturn of the early '90s."

West Warwick, Rhode Island, a textile mill town that, according to its website, gave the world the "Fruit of the Loom" trademark, is another municipality in dire fiscal straights. In early February, West Warwick announced that it could not meet its obligations on a multi-million dollar lawsuit settlement stemming from a nightclub fire and that its school system was $3.5 million over budget. "There is no way that we can tax our way out of this problem," Town Manager James Thomas told local television station WPRI.

Tough Times in the South

The small Appalachian town of West Jefferson, North Carolina, like its northern brethren, has also been hit hard. A recent Associated Press report noted that in a little more than a year, "the town and the neighboring county seat of Jefferson have lost more than 500 factory jobs—a number equal to 20 percent of the town's population." All of this resulted from crucial town businesses like its light-switch plant, which had long benefited from the housing boom, shutting down, sending ripples through its heavily manufacturing-dependent economy. As a result, other local businesses, from Thistlewood, a women's clothing boutique, to a Dodge car dealership, are shutting down as well. It's a symptom of the times that the local food bank is now feeding nearly 50% more families than a year ago.

When the Peanut Corporation of America plant linked to the 2008 salmonella outbreak decided to lay off almost all of its 50 workers in January—the company has since filed for bankruptcy—it was a hard pill for Mayor Ric Hall of Blakely, Georgia, to swallow. After all, it was one of the two main businesses the town of 5,700—and the self-proclaimed "Peanut Capital of the World"—relied on for its economic wellbeing. In a sign of the times (and perhaps of the collapsing newspaper industry), the other, a newspaper production plant, had already announced plans to lay off at least 100 workers. "We're already struggling with high poverty and a struggling agricultural economy, and this will impact not just our community, but this entire region of the state," Hall told the Los Angeles Times. "That's a total of about 150 to 170 people who have lost their jobs," he said. "Being the small agricultural community that we are, the prospect of finding new employment is virtually impossible. People here don't have much, and the layoffs make it even more devastating."

Times are tough in Dillon, South Carolina, too, the town where Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke grew up. Just recently, his childhood home was purchased at a foreclosure sale—an all-too-common occurrence in a town already long battered by the decline of the local tobacco and textile industries. Now, writes the Wall Street Journal, it's "facing a fresh assault of plant closings and layoffs that have pushed its unemployment rate to 14.2%—almost double the national average." As in so many other places, the catastrophic housing and automotive markets have hit Dillon with hurricane force. Mohawk Industries, which made yarn for carpeting and employed 137 people in town, shut down, while Wix Manufacturing, which produces automotive filters, has slashed employee hours and some jobs. In fact, just outside of town, at South of the Border, a faux Mexican-themed "village" of souvenir stops, restaurants, and low-rent attractions where Bernanke once worked, business—which depends on vacationers trekking down the East Coast to Florida—is off 10%, the worst downturn since the 1973 oil crisis, according to Richard Schafer, the patriarch of the family that runs the tourist trap. "People are losing their home and jobs," he says, "and they're not traveling as much."

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