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The Nation: Middle Atlantic No Place To Go But Up

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From New York Bureau Chief Laurence Barrett:

On frigid Fulton Street, the dilapidated main drag of Brooklyn’s black Bedford-Stuyvesant ghetto, idle young men were warming their hands at trash-barrel fires and talking about their future. Life is bleak even in the best of times for people on Fulton Street, where hustling and mugging are commonplace. It has been even worse lately because of New York City’s empty coffers and the continued loss of factory jobs to other parts of the country. Nonetheless, Jimmy Carter’s election has brought a measure of wary optimism. Explained Community Worker Eduardo Standard: “They expect him to pay more attention to jobs. Doesn’t matter whether it’s private jobs or public jobs, just so long as it’s work. As we say here, when you’re sitting on a hot furnace, there’s no place to go but up.”

The plight of Bed-Stuy is extreme but easily recognizable to any big-city mayor in the region. After trimming its payroll by 20% over the past two years, New York City must make additional cuts to meet Mayor Abraham Beame’s promise of a balanced budget by June 30, 1978. New York Governor Hugh Carey this week will announce details of a further squeeze in public services to keep the state solvent.

Most parts of the Middle Atlantic region have had to grow accustomed to the hard realities of economic stagnation, which set in before the national recession and is likely to survive it. In Philadelphia, Buffalo, Newark and even the affluent suburbs, talk soon turns to unemployment. There are jobs to be had, as any newspaper’s want ads demonstrate, but only about half as many as were offered ten years ago. One reason that many of the jobs are going begging is that some unemployed people can afford to be choosy about work. For instance, in New York, dishwashing at the minimum wage of $2.30 per hr. pays less than the unemployment compensation ($95 a week) available to a skilled worker who is out of a job. But according to New York State Labor Commissioner Philip Ross, a more important reason is that most advertised jobs require some skills, and high schools “don’t train enough people for work that is available.”

Whatever the answer is to these problems, Easterners have a sense that Washington under Carter will be more interested in finding it. For starters, they applaud his proposals to stimulate the economy by tax cuts and other means.

There are other encouraging signs for the East. Pittsburgh has been buoyed by predictions of a good year for steel, and New York City by the Ford Administration’s approval of $1 billion to replace the crumbling West Side Highway with a six-lane interstate Westway.

Yet few people expect all the solutions to come from Washington. Said Roscoe Brown Jr., director of New York University’s Institute of Afro-American Affairs: “More and more people realize that we have to help ourselves. Local groups are getting together to do things in neighborhoods—fighting crime, getting baseball teams going, raising money for hospitals and libraries. That sort of thing is very encouraging.”

Because of the lack of high expectations from Carter, expressions of enthusiasm—or even keen interest—are rare. Many middle-class people seem more preoccupied with the latest fads:

Chinese cooking, exercise-cum-dance classes and tennis dinner parties at indoor courts. Even many political activists are more interested in other things. Philadelphia’s Mary Hurtig, a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, said that at three different parties over a single weekend “we all found ourselves talking about King Kong, Network and Rocky.” Added Hurtig: “Maybe we’re just being realistic. Maybe we know this time that we are not likely to see huge changes.”

For the time being, at least, even many of Carter’s political enemies are holding their fire. Said Conservative William Rusher, publisher of the National Review: “He is making some sensible appointments. People who would like to hate Carter haven’t been given grounds to do so.”

From this base of modest expectations, Carter, like the man on the furnace, may have nowhere to go but up.

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