Reporting Julian Routh
Video Andrew Rush & Steve Mellon
Once a week, the basement of Ford Memorial United Methodist Church in Ford City turns into a boisterous dining room for the community’s struggling and hopeful.
Between group prayers, bouts of contagious laughter and a warm meal of cheddar broccoli soup and tuna melts, the same difficult topic permeates the collective chatter across the room.
It takes its shape in stories — tales of the day-to-day challenges of living in a small town in Armstrong County that’s in limbo. Stories of jobs once had, of friends battling drug addiction, of holding onto hope during tough times.
In one corner of the room, Loretta Hosack talks about a fall on a broken-up sidewalk that no one has fixed. Taking a break from cooking, Terry McDaniel gives an impassioned speech about chasing his dreams and staying optimistic, but trails off into a rant about how hard it is to pay bills. Mary Alice Ware Bryant describes how homes in the community are falling apart and that people are dying, prophesying that Ford City won’t even be a town in 50 years.
The attendees say despite their difficulties they are thankful for the get-together that Pastor Allie Berkey organizes every Thursday night, not only for the delicious food but for the feeling of community.
And regardless of their political leanings or whom they voted for in November, they’re hopeful that one real estate businessman can rescue their communities.
Because after all, it was that same conversation — of the economic stagnancy, drugs and feelings of hopelessness — that drew people to Donald Trump in the first place, and after his administration takes office tomorrow, these are the people who will be watching closely.
The owner of a small donut shop in Beaver County has a joke he likes to tell, but it’s not that funny.
“I did the math, I worked it out,” Richard DeAngelis says, a smile forming on his face as he drops off paychecks to employees of DeAngelis Donuts in Rochester. “It looks like I’ll be able to retire five years after I’m dead.”
That’s because Beaver is plagued with many of the same economic characteristics as the other counties surrounding Pittsburgh; its unemployment rate is higher than the average Pennsylvania county, its median household income rate is smaller and it’s having trouble attracting young families who will spend money.
“It looks like I’ll be able to retire five years after I’m dead.”
With a high cost of living and a lack of high paying jobs, it is a region with a lot of poverty and not much hope for growth. The areas that are better off benefit from having older families with good pensions and more disposable income, but county residents say they are worried because those families won’t be around forever.
As in most of Rust Belt America, it wasn’t always this way. The 1960s and most of the 1970s elicit memories of prosperity, industry and employment among the donut shop locals, who fondly recall images of steel mills and bustling streets. But when deindustrialization in the late 1970s and 80s brought mill closings — and widespread layoffs at railroads, mines and factories — it sent the economy into decline and the population to the cities and suburbs, the effects of which are still being felt today.
Tom Johnson, a 66-year-old former state transportation department worker who now owns a small honey business, says it was easy to get a well-paying job anywhere in the county during the 70s. But now, the area is “hurting” and is desperate for jobs.
“For years, I thought this county would never come back. The sad part is, if you go into Cranberry or Robinson, it’s a different world. It’s bustling. There’s a lot of growth. They’re building everywhere,” Mr. Johnson says. “You come into Beaver County and you don’t see that…you come into Beaver County and it’s like you’re depressed.”
Mr. DeAngelis says he wishes he had moved his business to a more prosperous region when he had the chance. Instead, he bought his partner out and stayed in Beaver, where his donut shop is a favorite to locals but faces struggles that come with a shelled-out population and a struggling economy.
About 30 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, a few open businesses punctuate rows of empty storefronts along a main drag in Greensburg. It’s a stark contrast from the lively cultural and business center depicted in the Westmoreland County Historical Society’s books.
Residents can still find a pick-me-up at DV8 Espresso Bar and Gallery, a small community-oriented coffee shop with an adjoining art gallery on South Pennsylvania Avenue. Owner Terri Barill, who has kept the business alive for 15 years, understands the importance of small businesses in a town like Greensburg, but acknowledges the challenges, too.
“We did really well for the first half of the 15 years. Then it got slow,” Ms. Barill says. “But people are starting to realize that if they don’t come to the small places in town, they’re going to be gone.”
Like Mr. Johnson at the Rochester donut shop, Ms. Barill has a bleak view of the economy, offering it from a table in her gallery between several pieces of colorful artwork.
The same economic anxiety seeps through the cracks of Ms. Berkey’s church basement gathering in Ford City, a town that was once a manufacturing stronghold before the industry folded. Ms. Ware Bryant says she noticed the economy starting to decline during the Reagan years, and warmly recalled when milk was only 50 cents per gallon.
Ms. Berkey and her husband, Wade, a pastor up the road at Kittanning First United Methodist Church, say they have noticed people in their congregations struggling financially. With a tone of disbelief, Ms. Berkey says she’s not sure if children in the area are eating enough food, and that she watches them devour second helpings at a weekly evening program at her Union Avenue church.
“I don’t think we can count on a president to do anything. I think we need to do what we need to do to keep our business going.”
It is this anxiety — and desire for everything from food to community — that leads people to attend church events. Mr. Berkey says this weekly gathering is “to let people know they’re not alone in the world.”
“When you don’t have enough money to pay all your bills, what do you do? When you can’t keep your rent paid, your lights bill, your gas bill paid because the cost of living is so extremely high — it outweighs your income — what do you do? Your hands are tied,” says Mr. McDaniel, 48. “Then here you are, you’re having to reach out here for help and having to reach out there for help.”
Some think economic help could be on the way soon in Washington, believing wholeheartedly in Mr. Trump’s promise to bring back jobs to working class towns. In visits to the Pittsburgh area during campaign season, Mr. Trump said he’d revive the steel industry, also pledging to be directly engaged in keeping companies from moving jobs out of the country. Mr. Johnson, at the Rochester donut shop, says if Democrats don’t obstruct Mr. Trump, the billionaire businessman will help revitalize the economy on a local level.
But Ms. Barill, first making it clear she isn’t a supporter of Mr. Trump, isn’t hopeful.
“I don’t think we can count on a president to do anything,” Ms. Barill says. “I think we need to do what we need to do to keep our business going.”
There’s another problem on the collective conscious in the surrounding counties, but this one is harder to talk about.
That’s because several people have seen the drug epidemic firsthand, including 31-year-old Tori Miller, who says she lost multiple friends to heroin and crack. She recalls seeing some “nasty things” in her community in New Brighton, including shootings, fights and gang activity.
“A few friends, a couple of them, got out of it,” Ms. Miller says of drug addiction. “Some of them, I couldn’t save.”
All five counties directly bordering Allegheny — Beaver, Butler, Washington, Westmoreland and Armstrong — have higher drug-related overdose death rates than the average county in Pennsylvania. At 43.3 deaths per 100,000 people, Armstrong had the second-highest rate in the state in 2015. The national rate was 14.7 deaths in 2014, according to the most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Kittanning, the drug epidemic is simply part of the daily lexicon. Headlines in the local Kittanning Paper read of drug dealers charged in overdose deaths and the expansion of drug awareness groups. At Mr. Berkey’s church there, about 50 to 75 people meet every week in a group setting similar to Narcotics Anonymous, and he says it keeps growing.
At age 77, Ms. Ware Bryant says she has never seen something like it before.
“The main concern is…there is too much violence, too many drugs,” Ms. Ware Bryant says. “I didn’t think I would ever live to see this happening in this little town of a very small amount of people.”
The pervasiveness of the drug epidemic in otherwise quiet communities has forced some to become caretakers, and in some cases, lifesavers. Mr. McDaniel is prepared if that day ever comes.
In Westmoreland over the past few years, drugs went from being a problem on the periphery to a part of daily life; 126 people died of overdoses there in 2015, up 70 percent from the year before. Several people in Pleasant Unity — a small community just southeast of Greensburg — spoke almost identically about the epidemic.
“I’ve had this conversation, say, to people much younger than I, ‘do you know someone who has died of a drug overdose?’ Most people you talk to will say ‘yes,’” says Tim Welty, a 77-year-old who has lived in the area all his life. “My generation, we never heard anything like that.”
Facing a surging opioid overdose rate nationwide, Mr. Trump has pledged to end the crisis, offering a plan to strictly prosecute drug traffickers, broaden access to lifesaving antidotes and close shipping loopholes to stop drugs from coming into the country.
Whether there’s a political solution to the epidemic remains to be seen, but for Mr. Welty and others who have seen it ravage the communities they’ve lived in all their lives, the search for a remedy is imperative.
“I think this is something that parents and educators and everybody has to come together on to find the solution,” Mr. Welty says.
With every new president comes hope for a new America, but many in Western Pennsylvania are counting on Mr. Trump himself to bring change to their struggling communities.
“So young people have a hard time finding jobs. I think it’s just that loss of hope and loss of potential.”
Mr. Trump’s image of being a pragmatic businessman who tells it like it is has resonated with those who feel like Washington has left them behind in the past few decades. His pledge to not be beholden to Beltway elites — even in his own party — has made many Americans believe he cares about them. And his focus on jobs has given renewed hope to the unemployed and the underpaid.
At Country Café and Video in Pleasant Unity, the split between hope and doubt is striking. Rich Foschia, a 69-year-old Mount Pleasant home inspector, says he worries Mr. Trump will get the country involved in a foreign entanglement. Mr. Welty fears Mr. Trump will undo President Barack Obama’s progress on the economy and healthcare.
Rick Walters is full of hope as he sits on a stool at the diner, which is just miles down the road from the Latrobe house that got famous during the campaign for its larger-than-Trump exterior decor. Mr. Walters, a self-proclaimed “Trump guy” who has lived in Pleasant Unity all 58 years of his life, says he believed in Mr. Trump’s message.
The patrons at Mr. DeAngelis’s donut shop in Beaver are putting their hopes into something more specific, but hypothetical: that Mr. Trump could replicate what he did in Indiana in November with the Carrier furnace plant on a wider scale. In a symbolic victory for his pledge to keep jobs in the U.S., Mr. Trump gave the plant millions in tax breaks to keep it from sending 800 jobs to Mexico.
“Let’s hope our new President Trump, with his incentives, let’s hope he brings those jobs back,” Mr. Johnson says. “He’s already making some moves...You gotta do what you have to do. That’s a start.”
Though the mood is mostly upbeat in the Ford City church basement, several community residents describe the hopelessness they feel. Ms. Hosack even shows it on her skin.
Mr. Berkey, who, with his wife, is doing his part as a pastor to try to help people who are struggling, says he sees the hopelessness.
“Wherein years gone by, you could grow up in this community, you could find a job, you could settle down and buy a home and retire in this community, there are not as many opportunities for that anymore,” Mr. Berkey says. “So young people have a hard time finding jobs. I think it’s just that loss of hope and loss of potential.”
Some look to a new president for hope. Others just look for a new attitude.
“I try to look at the good side of things,” Mr. Walters says. “It will brighten you up a little more when you do that.”
Julian Routh: email@example.com, 412-263-1488 or Twitter @julianrouth