Crumbling bridges can help buttress sagging job hopes

August 02, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

It's beginning to be over again. London Fog will close its doors, and 700 people who once imagined they had job security will join the ranks of the disillusioned. But everybody should have seen it coming. The closing of an American plant no longer has the feel of death about it, only inevitability.

It's cheaper to make raincoats overseas. That's London Fog's reasoning, pure and simple: The true sweatshop mentality still lives in countries where people with real hunger will work for just about anything. The morning paper talks of London Fog workers here with base pay of $7.60 an hour -- that's $15,808 a year, when $20,000 a year is considered "low economy" -- and still the company can manufacture far more cheaply overseas.

After 70 years of business here -- 70 years in which a city and a state and a company held hands, 70 years in which people went to work every day and told themselves it was no garden spot but, what the hell, at least they could feed their families -- the company is now preparing to blow town, barring some last-minute miracle.

It's inevitable. Two decades ago, the then-mayor of Baltimore, William Donald Schaefer, glanced up at the sky one day and saw that it was clear and blue. This was considered bad. It meant the smokestacks at the places like Sparrows Point were shutting down and the jobs that had sustained thousands of families and pumped up an entire municipal economy over many decades were going away. If it happened at a Bethlehem Steel, could a London Fog be far behind?

Gonna make Baltimore a tourist town, Schaefer said, to a chorus of snickers. Everybody knows the rest of the story. Schaefer got Harborplace built, and built up the area all around it, and you can make a case that it saved what's still left of the city, that it restored our sense of hope for a while, that it brought in lots of tourist dollars to prop up the economy.

What it didn't give us, though, were a lot of jobs that pay real money. The jobs in hotels, in restaurants and in retail trade -- the ones that keep Harborplace afloat -- average less than $240 a week.

And, as Marc Levine, director of the Center for Economic Development at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, pointed out in Sunday's Sun, only 20,400 net jobs were created in the city of Baltimore from 1970 to 1990. That's only a thousand jobs a year -- and virtually all of them either pay more than $40,000 or less than $20,000 a year.

Thus, the middle class further evaporates. Thus, we have kids coming out of a city public school system where most of them have dropped out somewhere along the way and great numbers of them (including some graduates) lack skills for jobs that pay decent money -- even if those jobs did exist.

Factory jobs used to fill this kind of role. Generations of men came out of the high schools of East Baltimore and went off to work in the steel mills, knowing the work was rough but the pay was pretty decent. You could raise a family, you could take XTC everybody shopping along the strips like Eastern Avenue and you knew the future was secure.

The factories have gone away now, but nobody's figured out how to replace them as a great job provider. The modern high-tech jobs are fine for those with a little secondary education, but not for those we now call the underclass.

Where will they go now? The other day, the new president of the National Urban League, Hugh B. Price, said words that you don't have to be a Rhodes Scholar to understand.

He asked for government "to create a new labor-intensive public enterprise valued by taxpayers. There's plenty of infrastructure work to do. Schools are crumbling. Public parks are poorly maintained. . . . What's several billion in new public dollars invested in schools, parks and people compared with the billions more now spent much less productively on public assistance for the able-bodied, and on extra police and prisons?"

This is a city that's crumbling bit by bit and chunk by chunk. You put people to work on it, on the bridges and the schools and the highways, and you rebuild not only the city, but people's sense of belonging to the thing they've brought back.

It's a pity that the places such as London Fog are going away, but it's also inevitable. What doesn't have to be inevitable is the death of job possibilities for people with marginal skills. The future is right under everybody's feet.

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