The City Ablaze

By Somers-Willett, Susan B. A. | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

The City Ablaze


Somers-Willett, Susan B. A., The Virginia Quarterly Review


To celebrate Ford Motor Company's fiftieth anniversary, Norman Rockwell painted The Street Was Never the Same Again, in which a 1903 Model A Ford belches smoke through a bustling small town, its many residents wearing expressions of surprise and awe at the might of American industry at the turn of the century. The street Rockwell selected as the backdrop for his iconic depiction was Fourth Avenue in Troy, New York - a city whose architectural character was forged by the boom of the meatpacking, textile, and steel industries during the Industrial Revolution.

When I first visited Troy, I ogled the rows of Victorian brownstones as I imagine Rockwell did, charmed by their sturdy brick exteriors and carved window ledges. But their pristine exteriors belie the emptiness and neglect of many of these houses. Troy is an industrial city in a postindustrial world, and just as Rockwell's Model A drove down Fourth Avenue, industry itself drove straight out of Troy, leaving behind a class of laborers to slip into poverty.

Though America may have forgotten Troy, Troy certainly hasn't forgotten America. An image of Uncle Sam or the American flag greets a visitor on every corner, and Troy is home to the largest annual Flag Day parade in the country. A Civil War monument rises high above the heart of its historic downtown. Atop the soaring pillar, a determined-looking woman cast in bronze towers over the city at four times life-size. Sturdylegged and ready for a fight, she looks skyward, clutching a sword in one hand and a trumpet in the other. She is Columbia, the female personification of America, posed as a literal call to arms. And she's right to blow her horn, for the women of Troy are perpetually under siege.

Those women who might have worked in mills sewing collars in an earlier era now clean toilets and hotel rooms and fry up supersized meals. They belong to the growing class of Americans we know as the working poor: minimum-wage service workers whose schedules fall just short of full time for a reason. Not eligible for company health insurance and often the primary income earners for their families, they fill in the financial gaps with food stamps, housing vouchers, Medicaid, and welfare. As important as they are to the American economy, politicians still reductively refer to them as "welfare mothers" and "burdens to the state," as if they are somehow an affront to the American way of life and not a cornerstone of it.

The working-class women I met in Troy became mothers at young ages, and, like their mothers before them, they frown on abortion, can be stubborn about using birth control, and consider motherhood a badge of honor. The bonds between them are tight-knit and fierce. Men are an endangered species in Troy and nuclear families are rare, so these women rely on an extended network of female family members and friends to help with domestic responsibilities when their "baby daddies" go to prison or just "away." They groom and hug each other, fix each other's hair, broadcast gossip on their stoops and prepaid cell phones. Most of the women I met are white but many of them date across color lines. Their kids represent the entire racial spectrum. "Cousin" is a term used loosely; they all seem to be part of each other's family. Some women take this intimacy into the bedroom even as they may disavow lesbian lifestyles. Their intimacy is also a means of self-preservation: they invest their attention in one another because the rest of America regards them as either a problem or wholly invisible.

I entered this culture of women in the summer of 2009, with the intention of reporting on the economic crisis in verse, alongside radio journalist Lu Olkowski and documentary photographer B renda Ann Kenneally. For many years, Brenda has been photographing the women who live on or near the same block of Sixth Avenue in Troy as part of her project "Upstate Girls." She has seen many of them ensnared in the same traps she either narrowly escaped or outlived: teenage pregnancy, poverty, drugs, state custody, prison. …

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