Widowed, out-of-work mother of four holds hope, but 'there are just no jobs'

PHILADELPHIA - They once called Germantown Avenue the Great Road, which seemed like a bad joke as Ethel Cherry rolled past the winding corridor's ramshackle stores and vacant buildings hours before President Obama's State of the Union address.

Like many people in her neighborhood, Cherry, 44, has been out work for more than a year. She is barely getting by with $250 a week in unemployment benefits, food stamps and the generosity of her mother, five siblings and friends.

Her husband died suddenly early last year. They were married just three years, and there was no insurance. Her car was repossessed last summer. She was almost evicted in September. Yet, somehow, she manages to keep two kids in college and two younger ones - including a daughter with special needs - from losing their way.

The former job coach and retail clerk never made more than $25,000 a year when she was working. But, as she prepared to watch Obama lay out his policy agenda for the year, she was hopeful.

"I just want to hear him tell us that we are going to get through this; that he is not going to quit," Cherry said, as a portable electric heater warmed the living room of her rented rowhouse. "He is doing what he said he is going to do. I believe he is trying to do his best to create jobs with decent pay and benefits for average people like me."

Cherry sat in her easy chair, closely watching Obama's speech. Her mother sat on a couch nearby. Her youngest son and three friends also watched quietly.

"He's going to do it. He's going to talk about jobs," Cherry said, smiling as Obama began his speech. "That's what I want to hear."

Cherry was in the crowd both times that Obama trolled for votes in her neighborhood. In 2008, she was among 30,000 people who packed Vernon Park to hear him make a closing argument for the presidency. Last fall, she was there when Obama was back in Germantown, imploring residents to vote for Democrats. Despite his efforts, the Democrats lost both the governorship and a Senate seat in Pennsylvania in the midterm elections.

"I really wanted to see a physical person I could relate to," she said. "I wanted to know that there was somebody who had me in mind."

Cherry said her faith in Obama has not wavered, although she has been out of work for most of the two years he has been in office.

She nodded at the president's calls to make the country more competitive with better job training and education and by stepping up exports.

"That's what we have to do," she said, before adding that she has been through job training programs. "I've learned all kinds of computer software skills," she said. "But they haven't gotten me a job. The problem is that there are just no jobs."

Earlier, as Cherry rode through her neighborhood, she called out a roll of the employers that have gone under through the years. "That was a Rite Aid over there," she said, pointing at a vacant corner building. "I would work there."

Years ago, the YWCA closed, taking jobs with it. The Valu Plus discount chain was the latest casualty, closing in the past few days.

"A lot of people had jobs there," Cherry said. "They just up and closed. They sold good merchandise at a reasonable price. But now they're gone."

She also voiced frustration at the sign announcing the expenditure of stimulus money at the Germantown transit station. The sign was on a fence protecting construction materials. "Where are the workers? " she asked. "I'd take one of those jobs. I'll move some bricks."

These are the latest hits in the historic neighborhood, whose long-ago economic heyday never seemed so distant. It is the kind of community that Obama seemed to invoke when he said: "Many people watching tonight can probably remember a time when finding a good job meant showing up at a nearby factory or a business downtown. You didn't always need a degree, and your competition was pretty much limited to your neighbors."

Generations ago, people worked in Germantown's mills, foundries, coal yards, wood shops, machine shops, and even the carpet mill that was in the area. Later, department stores would attract people from across the region who would go to Germantown and "make a day of it," said David W. Young, a Germantown historian. "What was once a thriving retail corridor is now a line of gated storefronts and vacant buildings."

There have been ideas for trying to build a local economy around Germantown's centuries-long history and create an attraction not unlike Williamsburg. But those ideas have not coalesced into an overarching vision.

In many ways, Germantown's economic decline mirrors the fortunes of Philadelphia. The city was once a manufacturing powerhouse with a bustling shipyard. But a recent list of the region's top 10 private employers included five hospitals and Wal-Mart.

"There are one or two corporations on there that make anything," Young said.

Local officials say Philadelphia's industrial past is likely gone for good. For better or worse, they say, Germantown - and the rest of Philadelphia - is going to have to continue building its future elsewhere.

"This certainly was a vibrant city when all those manufacturing jobs were here," said Donna Reed Miller, a longtime member of the Philadelphia City Council, whose district includes Germantown. "But most of those businesses left us a long time ago, leaving behind nothing but some vacant buildings."

The city's future is as an "education center, service provider and retail center," she said. "We have to create ways for people to reinvent themselves."

It is a point Obama emphasized in his speech. Cherry also is thinking about that - yet again. Several years ago, she excelled in a job-training program that focused on basic skills, graduating as the salutatorian. She ended up working at the job-training center counseling new clients. But the job ended when the agency lost its state contract in late 2009.

Still, she keeps her graduation photo proudly displayed on a mantel in her living room. "I keep it there for inspiration," she said. "I know I have talent, something to contribute. I would do really well in the social work area. I really get down sometimes, but I know I can't give up. I'm still unemployed, but I know there is a light at the end of the tunnel."

fletcherm@washpost.com

Michael A. Fletcher is a national economics correspondent, writing about unemployment, state and municipal debt, the evolving job market and the auto industry.
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