In Manchester, flinty tradition meets real poverty

January 8, 2012

It persists still, this myth of the small, flinty state with the politically earnest folks who insist you walk through several dozen of their white-pillared town halls before you can walk into the White House.

And yes, those folks were waiting patiently to do their part the other night — an all-white town hall crowd of about 100, some in their snowflake sweaters and duck boots, sitting on folding chairs in an overheated room at a nursing home in nearby Brentwood. Rick Santorum’s state co-chair, Claira Monier, about to introduce the candidate, looked over the audience members and told them approvingly: “I see of lot of good New Hampshire people here.”

Good New Hampshire people live in a good, homogenous state of low unemployment, no sales and income tax, and high SAT scores, and this is their biggest city.

But Manchester is not like the rest of New Hampshire.

Tough times have come, and hard, in a rush that seems to have taken the city’s residents and business leaders by surprise — just as the national magazines were declaring it a great place to live and the number of yoga studios looked as if it might catch up to the number of laundromats. A big Lowes by the new spiffy airport opened, then abruptly closed about 18 months later; maybe Wal-Mart can move in there, hopes an alderman, because everybody needs to shop at Wal-Mart now.

Manchester, with a population of nearly 110,000, has had to cut firemen, cops and highway workers. Crime is up, along with evictions. But most shocking, and unmentioned in stump speeches as the Republican presidential candidates race around: One in four children here lives in poverty. Nearly half of the children in the city’s public schools can get free lunch.

“We are becoming more of a true little urban center,” struggling like cities across the country, says Anna Thomas, Manchester’s deputy public health director. This state of affairs, she adds, “is not at all usual for New Hampshire.”

Those with the fewest personal resources — white and minority working poor and jobless, and resettled refugees from war-torn countries — need the greatest public resources, according to demographers and social-service providers.

And that has prompted some blunt and often uncomfortable talk in Manchester about who makes for good New Hampshire people.

“A lot of people are a little edgy” about the new people moving into the old tenements, is how the alderman, Ed Osborne, puts it, “because we don’t have enough for ourselves, and we’ve been here all our lives.”

Soldano Bilal, her hair wrapped in colorful fabric and her youngest child wrapped to her back, walks up to one of Manchester’s tenements Wednesday and disappears inside.

They still call them tenements here, like it’s the Lower East Side in 1870. The poor don’t live in housing projects, or in swaths of distressed neighborhoods. Instead, the center of the city is full of freestanding, white-clapboard Victorians with curlicue wood trim, built by the grandees of the Amoskeag cotton mills on the Merrimack River that flows through Manchester.

Bilal’s is the last apartment, up three flights of dark stairs, identified by its cinnamon scent. There are no names by the doorbells, and two of them are broken anyway. There’s a jumble of small sneakers on a mat outside her door. Inside her home are five little boys tumbling around a mostly empty room or doing their workbooks, and the baby and a young girl. Four belong to Bilal, 25, and three belong to her sister, Rukia, 21. Bilal has been watching the children while her sister works. She has two jobs as a nurse’s aide and is in college.

Their brother, Jamal Adan, 17, is at the apartment, helping to watch the kids. He just got home from Manchester Central High School, where Mayor Ted Gatsas introduced Mitt Romney at a rally.

It will be great when Romney is president, Gatsas said, because he has been fighting the Obama administration over testing requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act.

“We shouldn’t be testing those children when they haven’t had a chance to learn in their own language, let alone in English,” the mayor said.

Adan, who is a junior, didn’t hear that. Only the seniors were permitted to attend the rally. He’ll take any test they give him, and yes, in English. He spoke only a Mai dialect when he came from Kenya at 10; his family lived in two refu­gee camps after fleeing Somalia, and the State Department resettled them in Manchester.

He graduated from an English Language Learners program a while ago, although he still attends after-school sessions on Monday “just because it’s very interesting what they teach. You learn about important people who made change — Gandhi and Martin Luther King. And you learn how to do PowerPoint, because it is very important to make good presentations.”

He does know that Gatsas asked the State Department a few months ago to stop sending refu­gees here — “he doesn’t want more people” — because the mayor argues that the city can’t provide for the 2,100 who arrived in the past decade.

But this family is part of what once was celebrated, although never by everyone, as the striving immigrant class. And the fathers of the Bilal children are not in the picture, a missing piece of the family structure that has generated much dialogue in the presidential race.

Adan says “it’s been great” to grow up in Manchester, where he made friends at the park playing soccer and picked up English easily. He gets As and Bs, is on the state championship soccer team, takes an AP art class and hopes to become a graphic artist after college.

“What’s so great about my school is that it is so representative” of America, he says. “It is very diverse.”

Adan did go to see President Obama when he came to Manchester Central right before Thanksgiving. “It’s a Republican thing” that the president hasn’t done a good job, Adan says. “He brought the troops back. He’s gonna need more time to turn this all around. He’s only been president for two years.”

Rick Santorum shows up after Monier’s remarks at Brentwood Town Hall and inveighs against “the narcotic of government dependency.” Obama uses his remarks “to scare you,” Santorum says.

Some audience members nod vigorously, and many listen with skepticism, their arms folded across their chests.

“He wants you to be dependent” on his power, Santorum continues, because “you can’t be trusted with freedom.” He talks about how immigrants like his grandfather worked hard to seize the opportunity of America and how he watched good jobs slip out of the reach of hardworking, blue-collar Americans as manufacturing moved overseas. Restoring the country requires a new commitment to family values, he says.

The slogans fly about on television commercials, either dark and gloomy in the Ron Paul ads, or can-do and confident in Romney’s. Manchester’s declaration of impatience with all of it is right there on the huge sign someone plastered on a mill wall near a crosstown bridge: “As the next possible Communicator-in-Chief communicate ‘Why You?’ in 20 words or less.”

Behind the counter of her bakery on the east side of the city, in a neighborhood the old-timers call “The Hollow,” Kay Skilogianis wipes her hands on her apron and waves them in the air in aggravation. Her customers are worried about only one thing: “How are you going to get your family through everything?”

Christmas was good, with the Greek Americans coming in for the traditional avgolemono soup and pork pies and sweets, but “we’re barely making it some weeks,” she says. When she’s done at night, she’s too tired to go to any town hall and hear from politicians.

“They’re all hoggish there in Washington,” she says. “They’re working for their pockets, not our pockets, because they are in our pockets.”

Not one of the primary candidates has set foot in her store. When she needs something, she calls Osborne, her alderman. The way she sees it, Manchester got too excited over attracting affluent professionals and lost sight of developing work in honest trades — roofing, shoe repair, electrical wiring. Behind her in the kitchen, her nephew, Jamie, asks her when to put the eggs in the cake batter; she’s training him as her apprentice and hoping that he’ll take over the business someday.

Her husband, Regis Chagnon, goes upstairs to evict the latest tenant who couldn’t make the rent. “I gave the guy some food and 25 bucks and wished him luck. What are you going to do?” he asks. “People are having a tough time around here.”

These primary states are stages. You see a bit of them, but only what the campaign’s advance teams choose and network anchors want to broadcast. Then the political roadshow moves on. That’s politics, of course, and it’s also a way of not actually dwelling in the place. Whatever the complicated solutions are for Manchester and struggling places across America, they’re not going to come out of a week in January.

Brandon Chaderton comes into Mill Town Market, on the city’s main street, where Jane Beaulieu sells fiddlehead cheese and sourdough bread, organic milk and fresh produce, and to-go lunch plates. He’s an AmeriCorps member who recently came to the city who’s still training his eye to see what he needs to see.

“In Philadelphia,” where he went to college, “the poverty was blatant,” Chaderton says. Here, with the poor in tenements instead of housing projects, “it’s almost hidden,” he says.

Beaulieu lives in an old farmhouse on the edge of the city, and she mentions she’s taken in two women who would have been homeless. The old Franco American neighborhood where she was raised now is isolated and pocked with violence, its new population of Latinos ignored. “It’s depressing there,” she says, a place of ramshackle housing and absentee landlords. “Nobody is paying attention to them, the economic development office ignores them, and the Chamber of Commerce doesn’t get it. They’re only about big business.”

“You’ll see a green biodiesel bus that is awesome, and it circulates downtown. But it cut [bus] service for the rest of the city,” Beaulieu says, criticizing the city for turning away more federal money for bridge repair, transportation and police. At the same time, she’s seen Democratic state legislators cling to duplicate programs that were ineffective, “programs that were funded because there’s a need, and now there’s a need because the program is funded.”

And, she adds, “The society that grew up here is so spoiled. We don’t know tough times. If you compare us to the refugees, we are not in tough times.”

“Live Free or Die” is still the slogan on the state’s license plate, and good New Hampshire people are fiercely proud of their culture, their staunch independence and their antipathy to taxes. But every now and then, a car drives down the street with a plate that’s been edited.

Live Free and Die, it reads.

Post photographer Michael S. Williamson contributed to this report.

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