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Fallout: The Unrecovered

Recession hitting Ohio's former steel towns hard

Since the once-booming Rust Belt began hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs thirty years ago, Northeast Ohio towns like Warren and Youngstown have struggled to keep apace. Now in the midst of a national recession, this stretch of America along the Mahoning River is left to wonder what happened and what's next.

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By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 17, 2009

WARREN, OHIO -- All day long the front door buzzes at Uptown Gems & Jewels. The people come in with their trinkets wrapped in tissue or velvet boxes. They say their hours have been cut or they've been laid off. Some have their first names stitched in cursive on their uniforms, others wear safety-toe boots.

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At campaign time, they are celebrated as the people who built America. Now they just want to know how much they can get for a wedding band.

"Let me show you something," says Dallas Root, standing behind the counter with a jeweler's loupe strung around his neck. He holds up a gallon-size Ziploc bag that's two-thirds full of gold -- engagement rings, class rings, promise rings, serpentine chains, St. Christopher medals, bracelets, anklets and earrings.

"This is just this week," Root says.

Uptown Gems & Jewels doesn't offer the refined science of Wall Street or Washington. But when Root puts the loupe to his eye, he peers into the lives of the working class and sees how badly the recession has knocked them to the ground.

The same week he holds up the sack of gold is the same week that Ford Motor Co. posts third-quarter profits of $1 billion, news that sparks optimism that a national recovery is underway. But a good week for some is still a terrible week for others.

In this corner of northeast Ohio, from Warren to Youngstown, where the old steel mills along the Mahoning River stand like rusted-out mastodons in the weeds, the recession was a final cruelty piled on top of three decades of disappearing jobs.

The recession here wasn't a black hole at the end of a sustained boom, or downgrading from Target to Wal-Mart or cutting out $3 drinks at Starbucks. It was a confrontation with survival.

As other areas of the country start to revive, the recession's full force is still on display here. Winter has descended. Unemployment benefits are running out. New jobs have not appeared. And the door keeps swinging open at Uptown Gems & Jewels.

Dallas Root tries to describe the moment when a person parts with his last glint of prosperity.

"They don't want to look desperate," he says. "They say, 'I've had this stuff lying around and I was thinking about getting rid of it.' There's a lot of pride in Warren."

But the pride is mixed with 15 percent unemployment and a sickening worry that the recovery might never touch this place.


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