Rust Belt cities see rise in drugs

January 15, 2008 4:44:19 PM PST
Amid the bleak, run-down brick buildings, drug dealers drive around in shiny SUVs, Cadillacs and convertibles, the sun glinting off their chrome-plated spinning hubs. Drugs and money are exchanged on street corners. Addicts crash in crack houses, some of them right downtown. Gunfights erupt between drug dealers jealously guarding their territory. Rival gangs - the L's and the G's - deal the crack that flows into this riverfront town from New Jersey, New York, Detroit and Washington.

In Rust Belt cities like Aliquippa, drugs moved in after steel moved out.

In 10 of 14 Rust Belt towns in six states surveyed by The Associated Press, all with populations of 30,000 or less, drug-related arrests more than doubled in the past 15 to 20 years, even as the number of residents declined in every community.

The closing of the mills and factories in the industrial Midwest and the layoff of thousands of workers created "a niche in the economy for drug dealing," said Rick Matthews, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis. "The immediate response is, `I can make a lot more money swinging crack than working at Wal-Mart.'"

Aliquippa, about 30 miles from Pittsburgh, was once a steelmaking powerhouse. The big Jones & Laughlin Steel Co. mill was practically the only game in town, employing more than 10,000 people at its peak in the late 1960s and early '70s, after which it went into a long, painful slide. By the late 1980s, LTV Steel Mining Co., which had taken over the mill, had all but closed the plant. It now stands empty.

Aliquippa's population is now down to 11,000, half of what it was in 1970, and law enforcement officials estimate drug dealers did $30 million in business in Beaver County in 2006, with this woeful city at the center of the trade.

Similarly, in Sandusky, Ohio, where two auto plants downsized significantly in the mid-1980s, drug arrests are up nearly fivefold in the past two decades, to more than 1,000 last year. Assistant Police Chief Charlie Sams said the town was overrun with crack as unemployment shot up.

In Jamestown, N.Y., once a major furniture hub, drug arrests have quadrupled over roughly the same period, while in Granite City, Ill., the number has more than tripled.

Today in Aliquippa, the seven-mile riverfront stretch where the steel mill operated is desolate, a seemingly never-ending line of barren gray concrete. A drywall factory and a trucking company are among the few businesses in town. A $200 million ethanol plant is coming, but it will provide only about 70 full-time jobs.

More than 21 percent of Aliquippa residents live in poverty, almost double the national rate. The unemployment figures are deceptive; they show joblessness running only about 2 percentage points above the national average, now about 5 percent, but that doesn't take into account those who are so discouraged they have stopped looking for work.

Aliquippa police made 53 drug-related arrests in 2005, up from seven in 1990, and again authorities say the numbers don't tell the whole story. Many shootings and robberies are also connected to drugs.

William F. Alston, a former Aliquippa police chief, recalled that in the mid-1980s and into the '90s, he began arresting middle-age drug dealers, some even in their 60s and 70s, instead of the usual teenagers.

"That was a direct correlation to the decline of the steel industry," he said.

Many of the drug buyers are professionals from outside of Aliquippa, said Alston, a former police officer now in charge of Weed and Seed, a state and federally funded program to reduce violence. To pay for their drugs, addicts prostitute their bodies, sometimes for as little as $5, and burglaries have been on the rise.

"People were not going to accept not having a good lifestyle, so if they had to sell drugs, they sell drugs, if they have to sell their bodies, they sell their bodies, yes," said Timothy Hollins, who was one of the first to be laid off from the steel mill and has spent much of the past 25 years drunk or high on crack.

About seven years ago, John Stanley, an Episcopal missionary from Australia, moved to Aliquippa to help the poor. Much of his time is spent in his coffee shop, Uncommon Grounds, where addicts, recovering addicts and troubled youth can seek advice from Stanley and his co-workers, all of whom have undergone extensive training on how to help the down and out through Jesus' teachings.

"This whole city struggles with a mental illness that comes out of unresolved grief," Stanley said, likening the closing of the mills to the death of a loved one.

Mayor Anthony Battalini said he does not believe the town will ever fully recover "unless some miracle thing happened here." He is encouraged, however, by a complex of 39 homes being built, mostly for residents who work in Pittsburgh or at its airport.

Hollins supports his drug-and-alcohol habit with occasional jobs painting homes and moving furniture. On a recent midmorning, he was sober enough to be coherent, and was having coffee at Uncommon Grounds.

Hollins said Stanley has inspired him to try to remain drug-free. But the obstacles are great: He hasn't been able to find any work except for odd jobs. Just visiting the former mill site is depressing, and downtown is boarded up and desolate, too.

"The American dream ain't here anymore," Hollins said.


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