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Women of Troy

ISSUE:  Fall 2009

Editor’s Note: In Women of Troy, poet Susan Somers-Willett and photographer Brenda Ann Kenneally look at the lives of young, working-class women in Troy, New York, a industrial powerhouse in the nineteenth century but now a town where few opportunities exist—and those typically in the form of low-paying service jobs. Kenneally introduces the collection in “Upstate Girls,” and Somers-Willett provides an introduction of her own in “The City Ablaze.”

Upstate Girls

The city of Troy sits on the banks of the Hudson River less than 150 miles north of New York City. During the War of 1812, a local butcher named Sam Wilson marked barrels of his meat to be shipped to American troops with the label “U.S.” Soldiers joked that it stood for Uncle Sam, and Troy is still known as “The Home of Uncle Sam.” In the 1820s, Hannah Lord Montague invented the detachable shirt collar and spawned an industry that became the cornerstone of the regional economy, employing over 8,000 sewing-machine operators. During the Civil War, the city’s steel-processing plants made millions of dollars manufacturing horseshoes and figured prominently in the Union victory. Troy helped forge the American ideology and exemplified the possibilities of the nation’s future.

The proud accomplishments of the city’s beginnings stand in stark contrast to its present social conditions. In 2007, 16.3 percent of all children in Troy were living in households headed by a single female; 19.1 percent of the population was living below the US poverty line. The per capita median income was just $16,796. Most families in Troy survive on minimum-wage jobs with little or no benefits.

The photographs presented here are part of “Upstate Girls,” an ongoing project intended to document the nearly invisible service tier of working-class America through the microcosm of Troy. Labor historians have argued that Troy was the prototype for the industrialization of America and our “most important city during the Industrial Revolution.” But, after World War II, the model of sweeping economic growth that had set the standard for developing countries became America’s industrial undoing, and cities like Troy became casualties of the new global economy.

Since 1990, the only growing population in Troy has been that of inmates, mostly young men with brown skin and low incomes. Thus, the title refers not only to that rusted and ruined northern part of New York State but also what the region has come to stand for. In street culture—and now in the lyrics of countless hip-hop songs pulsing from car windows in my neighborhood in Brooklyn—“upstate” refers to the prison system; during the 1970s, prisons became increasingly important to post-industrial towns like Troy as manufacturing jobs were lost to globalization. This incarceration industry was a boon to local economies, but it was built on the backs of thousands of first-time convicts facing steep mandatory sentences under newly enacted Rockefeller drug laws.

A generation later, the fluid boundaries of the prison population have altered Troy’s domestic and social landscape. Local law enforcement’s reaction to the changing complexion of their predominately white community has been to make more arrests and adopt zero-tolerance policies. As a result, record numbers of males from Troy’s lower-income population are now incarcerated. The culture of incarceration, in turn, has disrupted traditional domestic gender roles among the poor, and familial bonds—between husbands and wives, mothers and sons—have suffered. Women, who have been forced to take on the financial burden for entire families, do so with minimum-wage service jobs that offer little opportunity for advancement beyond bottom-tier management positions. This criminalization of the poor has created a permanent underclass of girls who abandon high school to contribute to the family income. A first job at a local big-box store or fast-food chain is treated as a rite of passage into womanhood. And the items they sell, often to other young women just like them, are marketed to imply an inclusion in an American culture that they, in reality, have little access to.

My photography project, now nearly seven years in the making, weaves together the stories of several specific young women who have come of age in Troy’s service-sector economy. I met the first of them while on assignment for the New York Times Magazine in 2003. A friend and colleague, Adrian Nicole Leblanc, had written a book, Random Family, and the Times hired me to take pictures for an excerpt that they were running. It was supposed to be a single assignment, but afternoons spent photographing kids in rooms paneled with simulated wood grain, killing time until their mothers dragged in from work, brought back a flood of memories of my own upstate upbringing. Such lack of opportunity creates an emotional poverty among the young. It boosts the craving for intimate relationships. And it often leads to teen pregnancy.

I wanted to document this trap, but I also wanted to better understand it. I was twelve when I lost my virginity. He was much older. It was 1972 and age was just a number. He taught me about music and marijuana and rebellion. He saved my life. We had time after my days at Saint James School, when my mother was working her job as a telephone-exchange operator and studying to take the civil-service test. After my parents divorced, she got us a house in West Albany across from the meatpacking plant and the key was under the mat. He had long hair, a Volkswagen bus, Frank Zappa albums, Firesign Theater episodes, bongs, a draft card, a stereo with a separate receiver, blotter acid, Tolkien books, and Leather Nun Comics. For a boisterous girl with a dreamy heart, born into a stifling town, he aroused the suspicion that there could be something more. I became his disciple. I became pregnant.

They gave me a pill to relax me before administering the local anesthesia. Even in the early days of legalized abortion, terminating a pregnancy before twelve weeks was a speedy outpatient procedure. My mother had given birth to me in that very hospital after trying unsuccessfully to terminate her pregnancy by taking a pill given to her by some quack up north in Buffalo—the place where pregnant girls from downstate drove all night to get to and returned the next day, problem solved. My grandmother had pulled the Ford out of the drive under the cover of night and slid past the cracks in the neighbors’ curtains for the four-hour trip to un-ruin my mother’s life. And yet, here I was—fourteen years later, in her place, remaking her mistakes. They put me in a group home after my mother brought me before a judge to ask for help in controlling me.

Not long after, I hitchhiked away, drowned my badness in seventy-nine-cents-a-fifth Pagan Pink Ripple with a twist-off top—the best a teenager could shoplift from a mom-and-pop. Then came a twenty-year exile where I found photography and didn’t die and did my best to forget. But I never lost my outrage at the wrongheadedness of the notion that people who are financially and emotionally vulnerable and generally ignored by society at large can then be “controlled” by the penal system. And I had experienced firsthand how difficult it is to get beyond a legacy of disenfranchisement. When I began photographing the girls on Sixth Avenue in Troy the decades separating me from my own glassed-in front porch on Second Avenue, the key under the mat after school, collapsed. I saw all our lives. I am still an upstate girl.

Troy stands as a testament to the disconnect between American ideology and reality. Increasing legal assertion in the lives of the poor and its resulting shifts in family roles, the implausibility of upward mobility, poor health care, substandard nutrition, and an absence of access to higher education are the results of the self-perpetuating and ever-widening class divide in post-post-industrial America. Troy’s rich labor history reminds us of how progress in the United States has always been made possible by the toil of a forgotten working class. The technological advances that have been made since the Industrial Revolution imply that we, as a nation, have arrived, but they also have sealed the fate of many who still have far to go.

—Brenda Ann Kenneally


The City Ablaze

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 post-industrial 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. Sturdy-legged 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 Brenda 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.

Three women I’ve profiled in this series of poems—DJ Guerin, Dana Aftab, and Billie Jean Hill—are longtime subjects of Brenda’s. They all have lived at some point on the same block of Sixth Avenue, and they all are mothers currently receiving some kind of public assistance. DJ is known to her friends as “the Wildcat.” She is thirty-two and the mother of seven kids, four of whom live with her and the first of whom she had at fifteen. She works part-time at the Hess gas station, a job which pays her enough money to put gas in her van and pay child support for the children not living with her. DJ was recently evicted from her apartment. Her four younger children are staying temporarily at her mother’s house while she surfs between friends’ apartments. She talks tough, shouts insults above the fray of her kids, was abused as a girl by a family member just like her mother before her and her daughter after her. She admits to a short temper and says she wants to go to anger-management classes. As she juggles the responsibilities of a working parent, the most precious commodity in DJ’s life seems to be free time. She spends rare child-free moments driving friends around town, visiting her boyfriend, or drinking on a stoop with girlfriends and watching the neighborhood drama unfold—“running the roads,” her mother calls it.

At twenty-one, Dana is the only woman I met who considers herself on the path toward economic independence. She got pregnant at seventeen and, after a difficult last-minute decision, gave up her baby girl through an open adoption to a couple in her family’s evangelical church. Dana was ostracized by many of her friends for her decision to give up her child. She became pregnant with another daughter in 2008 and married the father, a Pakistani American who converted from Islam to Christianity during their courtship. Religion is now a large part of Dana’s family life. She shares a small two-bedroom apartment decorated with family photos and Bible verses with her husband, their one-year-old daughter, and her four-year-old stepdaughter. A full-time mom, Dana supplements her husband’s modest income as a disaster cleanup technician by cleaning her pastor’s house once a week. Although she still relies on food stamps and Medicaid to help make ends meet, she is optimistic about the future and dreams of living a middle-class suburban lifestyle and having more children. Dana talks about her life in “past” and “future” stages; she describes herself as a person who made some bad choices as a teenager but who has chosen a more responsible path as a Christian wife and mother. Still, when I talked with Dana, I sensed an unspoken sadness and perhaps boredom with her life. It made me wonder if the division of her life into the scripts of former-bad-girl and future-good-girl had left much room for her present, which is admittedly difficult with two small children and a growing sense of financial responsibility.

Billie Jean is a brash and tenderhearted twenty-five-year-old single mother of a seven-year-old son. She recently lost her part-time job as a hotel housekeeper and had to move out of the three-bedroom apartment she shared with her sister and baby niece after her sister gave birth to twins. She’s now living in a hotel room—the temporary housing assigned to her by the state—as she looks for a place of her own. Her mother, a daily drinker with whom Billie Jean has an on-and-off relationship, looks after another family’s children in exchange for free living space in an unfinished basement. Billie Jean talks loudly and listens to her music more loudly; with her most recent federal tax-return money she bought four-foot-tall speakers that make the windows in her apartment shake. She dates black men exclusively and craves things that make her feel good: sex, parties, fast food, marijuana. She went to prison on a felony charge after a drug bust at her apartment. She’s also battling depression and a perpetual broken heart. She has dreams of owning her own McDonald’s franchise someday, growing old with a man who is good to her, and living in a house with a white picket fence. Above all, she wants to be someone’s favorite person. She moved to St. Louis once with a man who she thought would be her lifetime partner, but he started physically abusing her soon after they left New York state. She returned to Troy after he was sent to prison for beating, raping, and sodomizing her in front of her son.

All three of these women self-identify as poor, and although some of them have the dream of joining Middle America, few believe they will actually succeed. Theirs is a day-to-day existence in which there is much drama but little change. When I asked them if anything had changed in their lives as a result of the recent economic crisis, they all replied “No.” To many of them, it feels as if their economic positions will always remain the same even as more people may be joining them in line at the Office of Temporary Assistance.

In photographing the women of Troy over several years, Brenda has developed what many documentarians might consider a shocking lack of boundaries with her subjects. She brings her teenage son with her on trips to Troy, gets embroiled in family dramas, hands over a few dollars when she can for gas or rent. The fluidity between her subjects’ lives and her own affords Brenda’s images an incredible intimacy. In many ways these photographs are self-portraits, images of whom Brenda could have become had she not explored the world beyond her own upstate working-class girlhood. When her subjects pose for portraits, Brenda directs them not to smile—an artistic nod to the stately poses necessitated by early photography and meant to undo the imperative to “say cheese” in the modern family snapshot. I suspect it is also a reflection of how Brenda remembers or wants to remember growing up in West Albany: as a streetwise girl with a hostile beauty facing the roles of motherhood and dependence on the state that everyone else around her saw as inevitable. It is the expression of stretch marks and cigarettes and swing shifts fueled by Mountain Dew. It is the necessary toughness of girls besieged too soon by the responsibilities of single parenting and financial independence, and when this expression is burned onto paper—when we meet their gaze with ours—Brenda’s wish for these women to live beyond the streets that raised them comes sharply into focus.

In contemplating the embattled lives of Brenda’s subjects—lives presided over by the bronze figure announcing her call to arms—I couldn’t help but recall Euripides’s tragedy The Trojan Women, in which the conquered city of Troy burns as its women await enslavement and mourn their husbands and sons slaughtered by the Greeks. The women of today’s Troy face a less dire but not dissimilar fate. With the men in their lives largely absent or imprisoned, they are left behind to construct a domestic sphere for themselves and their children in a crumbling city, some of them in the throes of homelessness, depression, addiction, or abuse. As dark as this existence may sound, there is also much light to be found here: a family’s hands clasped in prayer over a Mother’s Day meal, a van stuffed with ladies wearing lip gloss for an impromptu midnight drive to a club, a toddler using her newfound legs to dance to Ol’ Dirty Bastard as it thumps through her aunt’s sky-high speakers. Moments like these prove that even as these women describe themselves as poor, their poverty does not define them. 

—Susan B.A. Somers-Willett



In Verse is supported by Public Radio Makers Quest 2.0, an initiative of AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio. This project is made possible with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and by a broadcast partnership with Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen.


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