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Business

Faces of the recession

A photographer documents the downturn from Florida to Detroit

Photos: Andy Cook
Blake Sims
Brad Kittel
Chanda Williams
Clairbol Ramos
Jessica Williams
John Colbert Bakers
John Hawkins
Martin Mittner
Sangeeta Joshi
Victor Pytko
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WDET interviews Andy Cook about this story (MP3)
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Published 6/3/2009

Earlier this year, 26-year-old photographer Andy Cook drove away from his home in suburban Baltimore on a quest to match faces to the big story of the day: our economic meltdown. Having lost his own job at a media company the previous fall, he'd begun close to home, taking pictures of metropolitan Baltimore residents in similar straits.

Reading the newspapers daily, he said, "I was hearing about unemployment numbers, so many thousands of people losing their jobs, so many thousands of people on unemployment. … My goal was to try to find personal stories about it — to put a face on the numbers we're hearing."

He drew up a list of cities to hit and developed a strategy of putting notices on Craigslist and Facebook several days before arriving, setting up shop with friends or at an Internet café; he'd typically get a half-dozen responses and winnow down to three or four people to shoot.

Leaving in February in his 1991 Toyota Camry, he came to see the crisis taking on a different character in each place along his 6,000 mile route. In Florida, the story was the collapse of real estate; it was "sort of the epicenter of the housing crash." New Orleans, with post-Katrina federal money coming in, was nowhere as dire as he expected. In Texas, service industries were the problem. Madison, Wis., with its still-booming health care sector, was relatively unscathed.

His couple of March days in Detroit, he said, "probably left the deepest impression on me of any place I visited on my trip."

"Everyone I met had an intense devotion to the city that bordered on obsession. … Politics doubled as entertainment. I witnessed two drag races just driving around the city streets. Decay was everywhere, and it was regarded as an architectural style in and of itself. Someone described living in Detroit as like living in the city and the country at the same time because of how nature was rapidly reclaiming entire blocks. I saw fox and pheasant in some of those blocks. And to top it all off, I was introduced to some hometown bands like the Detroit Cobras, the Gories, the Dirtbombs, all of whom I loved."

And in many ways, the city seemed familiar to a Baltimorean.

"Both have a postindustrial-cum-new frontier town feel to them that is exciting, though stressful on a day-to-day basis. What I mean by that is there seems like so much opportunity to do your own thing there, but you always have to have your guard up or you might fall victim to someone else doing their own thing. They're both underdog towns with lots of problems, but nevertheless inspire a pride that seems more genuine and hard-won than what you might find in your New York Citys or L.A.s."

The outlook for Cook and his project are no more certain than the economy. After painting sets for Annapolis Opera to fund his trip, he's looking for grant support to continue while he gets by with freelance photo work, a little teaching and odd jobs. He initially hoped the project would lead to a book, but he's also pondering shooting video for a documentary or an online series, and possibly shifting to an emphasis on young workers in the emerging economy.

"I have no idea," he answered, when asked when he'll know the project is finished. "Hopefully when the economy gets better?"

In the meantime, he shares the pictures and the stories at facesoftherecession.blogspot.com. The following capsules draw from his accounts.

 

"I have a bachelor's degree and I can't even get secretarial work," said Chanda Williams (far left)."My fall-back has always been waiting tables, but I have a friend who is a manager at a restaurant, and he told me they put an ad on Craigslist for servers. They got 200 responses in the first day and half of [the applicants] had master's degrees." She had been an office manager and event coordinator at an Atlanta restaurant, which was bought by a larger company. After that, her position was eliminated. She, her husband, an Emory University maintenance worker, and their 3-year-old son, Che, luckily were living in a house owned by Chanda's mother, which allowed them to stay afloat. She and other young mothers in similar straits had joined together to provide day care for one another to facilitate their job searches.

 

Martin Mittner (center left), 25, found himself part of a disheartening trend, as a recent college grad without work. After getting his diploma in December 2007 — with an emphasis on Web design and programming — Mittner (middle left) applied for more than 200 jobs for naught. "I have to come up with at least $1,250 a month to pay the bills and eat rice and beans," said Mittner, of Rochester, giving thanks to his folks for helping. That includes hiring him to work around their house, where he's pictured. "I'm depressed all the time," he told Cook in March. But the other day he said he'd cobbled together part-time jobs as a landscaper, pet-sitter and Jimmy John's delivery person while starting independent design firm with friends: groking.net.

 

Blake Sims (near left) worked for seven months as a technician at an offset lithography company in Austin, Texas. Then came the cut. "Everybody else I worked with is married with kids, so here's me, a single dude," Sims said. And his boss was so distraught over having to cut Sims' position that Sims wound up consoling him: "Here I am patting him on the back saying ‘Hey man, it's all right,' while I'm losing my job." But luckily, after five weeks, Sims managed to find a job at a sign-making business.

 

When Cook arrived in Detroit in March, he got to Baker's Keyboard Lounge just before word got out that America's oldest jazz spot was teetering. Owner John Colbert (lower left) confided, "The business has dropped considerably ... by about 35 to 40 percent four nights out of the week. …Our cash reserve is down to keeping us open about two and a half months at most." On top of the downturn hitting everyone, Colbert's woes include a change to the traffic configuration at Eight Mile and Livernois, making it harder to get to the club and harder to park. The club (also seen on this week's cover) kept its doors open for a 75th anniversary weekend in May. Concern about the loss of a jazz landmark has goosed attention — though not to last year's levels; and there's been talk of fundraisers and maybe a sale.

 

John Hawkins (above), 55, was laid off from his job as a heavy equipment operator clearing and grading land in Cape Coral, Fla., last Thanksgiving. He's pictured above in front of one of the many unfinished, vacant buildings he helped grade the earth for. He moved his wife and three children to Florida from Long Island four years earlier. He told Cook that with his wife working only part-time, the family situation was becoming dire.

 

In the past, Brad Kittel's businesses have included brokering real estate and salvaging home furnishing. The 53-year-old Austin entrepreneur hopes his 2006 startup, Tiny Texas Houses, is timed right for a time of tight budget, lowered expectations and the widespread concern about reducing our carbon footprints. Built largely from salvaged materials, these could be called the anti-McMansions, although at a starting price of $38,000, they're not exactly cheap. But Kittel sees himself as more than a entrepreneur: "My goal is not to build a million tiny houses, it's to teach people to build a million tiny houses." He hopes to establish an internship program at his facility so people can come learn how to salvage materials and build these houses themselves.

 

Claribol Ramos (lower left) started his own home remodeling company last July and had hired four people onto his crew. After only six months, he had to let them go due to a lack of contracts. Ramos himself is Salvadoran, as were some of his employees, and he regularly sends money home to his parents in El Salvador. When contracting work essentially came to a halt, Ramos quickly realized he would have to find another source of income and began working part time at a restaurant. He and his wife had recently bought a house in suburban Baltimore, and Ramos is using his time to tackle a laundry list of home improvement projects.

 

After 20 years as a photo archivist and digital imaging technician at the Walters Art Gallery, a 70-year-old public museum in Baltimore, Jenny Campbell (left) had her heart broken by a layoff. She called the art she worked with "my baby." "I can't say ‘collection' any more without tearing up," she said. To make matters worse, she bought a house three weeks before she was dumped from her job; she said she wondered whether she'd be able to keep it. She'd been spending time making costumes for an annual Coney Island, N.Y., parade and working on a line of painted-screen dresses. She was trying to keep her spirits up. "I make it a specific point to jump out of bed every day, make the bed, and open the blinds immediately," she said. "I know I'll land on my feet, I just don't know where.

 

In his Pioneer Building studio on East Grand Boulevard downtown, Victor Pytko (left) flipped through stacks of paintings. A space heater hummed in an uphill battle against the drafts of the one-time paper factory that's now a haven for artists. After 15 years working for PR agencies, Pytko struck out on his own in 2001 as a freelancer, making " a decent living … until recently when the market went bad." So Pytko turned his hobby into a full-time job, giving 30 to 40 hours a week to painting, applying for grants and promoting his work to museums and galleries. He also tried to tap into Michigan's growing film industry, seeking to leverage skills from PR to photography, but, at least, he picked up a few extra roles. When he's depressed he said, "I come down here and paint knowing that most artists are broke anyway.

 

Last August, when Jessica Williams (lower left) took a job at a home for troubled young women — pregnant or new mothers — she had no idea of the center's precarious financial situation. Somewhat later she found out, and within three months she was out of a job. "Originally, before all this happened, I was supposed to be famous," she told Cook with a smile. She'd trained in theater but vowed never to be a starving artist. Now, since she was starving already, she decided to move to Atlanta and try to make it in theater. When she spoke for and posed with Cook, she'd been staying with friends for three weeks and had found part-time work in an after-school program

 

Sangeeta Joshi (left) had been a paralegal at a Washington, D.C., law firm until it began downsizing its staff in October 2008. One of her firm's biggest clients had been AIG. A first-generation Indian-American, Joshi fears for her retired parents, who rely on their daughter for financial support. Joshi had had little luck in her job hunt, and had begun selling her belongings to make ends meet. She recently picked up a part-time contract job, but taking the job meant making the same amount she did on unemployment.

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