Saturday, March 21, 2009

Baker's Keyboard Lounge

At 75 years old, Detroit's Baker's Keyboard Lounge is the oldest running jazz club in the world. It's small stage has seen the likes of Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Cab Calloway, John Coltrane, and Ella Fitzgerald, to name a few. But just as the club is preparing to celebrate it's 75th anniversary, owner John Colbert has made it known that it's doors may soon be closing.

"The business has dropped about 35-40% four nights out of the week," says Colbert. "Our cash reserve is down to keeping us open about 2 and a half months at most".

He acknowledges that Jazz's hey-day has passed, causing their clientele to diminish in the past decades. In an attempt to keep customers coming, the club expanded their event repertoire to include new genres. But opening a lunch and dinner restaurant at the club is what really kept the money coming in. Now that people are eating out less, Colbert believes the recession may put the final nail in his club's coffin.
The night after an article about Baker's dire situation came out in the Detroit Free Press, the club was crowded with people there to support it and take in the sounds of Gerard Gibbs (on keys below) and his band. Colbert hopes that as news of the club's situation spreads, help will find a way of arriving.

At the end of the night, a waiter tallies up bills on a piano in the corner.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Tiny Texas Houses

Brad Kittel is a 53 year old Texan entreprenuer. In 2006 he opened his latest in a string of start-up businesses called Tiny Texas Houses. A former Austin real estate broker who focused his energies on run-down East Austin, Kittel turned away from that business after about a dozen years.

"At that time, I didn't even know what the word 'gentrified' meant. But after the houses there had gone up in prices, then all of a sudden I was the bad guy cause I'd gentrified the neighborhood. I was blamed for raising prices and all the taxes going up,"recalls Kittel.

He then turned his energies towards dealing in salvaged home furnishings, and eventually landed on the idea of the tiny house. According to his website, Kittel began building the tiny houses "to demonstrate just how great it can be to downsize our carbon footprint, simplify our lives, and live in a house with a soul that will be energy efficient as well as beautiful".

Kittel is hoping that the idea of the tiny house will resonate particularly well during the economic downturn. He wants to position his company's product as a smarter alternative to the McMansion style homes that have been cropping up all over America in the last decade.

And the bottom line? Kittels' houses start at $38,ooo and go up. So while they're not exactly cheap, they are within reach for many first time home-buyers.

In addition to being energy efficient, the tiny houses are built almost entirely out of salvaged materials (seen above), save for plumbing, wiring, and some hardware. In the state of Texas, approximately a third of all solid waste in landfills is debris from construction and demolition projects.

But beyond the practical benefits of his houses, Kittel hopes to have an impact on an American mentality. With that in mind, there is an educational component to his business plan.

"My goal is not to build a million tiny houses, it's to teach people to build a million tiny houses," says Kittel. He hopes to establish an internship program at his facility so people can come learn how to salvage materials and build these houses themselves.

"We can't compete with Wal-Mart, and we're not trying to," says Kittel. "The built-in obselescence has become the mantra of the United States, and unfortunately people have come to accept the Wal-Mart mentality of cheap, cheap, cheap. Quality is not an issue. We've got to move away from that Wal-mart mentality. We as Americans have to say 'Hey, everyone here is not a pig' everybody here isn't glutonous and wanting to have it all. We're willing to save some for our grandkids and for the rest of the world. It's the sense that I'm not sure people will do that. But at least I want to put that banner out there and say there are alternatives".

Blake Sims, 27

Sims worked as a technician at a 50 year old off-set lithography company in Austin, Texas. He was employed there for 7 months before getting laid off in December. At that time, he was the only employee whose position was cut.

"Everybody else I worked with is married with kids, so here's me, a single dude...really anybody else at my job would have been in a much rougher spot if they'd been let go," says Sims.

He explains that his boss was so distraught over having to cut his position that Sims was consoling him as it happened.

"My boss was actually in tears when he told me, so here I am patting him on the back saying 'Hey man, it's all right,' while I'm losing my job".

After five weeks of searching, Sims managed to find a new job at a sign making business. But instead of using the de-facto job-hunting tool of his generation, the internet, Sims took a more old-fashioned approach.

"I just walked in off the street," he says.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Lee County, Florida

Lee County lies on the Gulf coast of Florida, about half way between Tampa and Miami. It saw a development boom a few years ago, but last year Cape Coral, a primarily residential area laced with canals, led the nation in home foreclosures. More than three quarters of the homes sold in Lee County as a whole last year were in foreclosure or close to it. Though the county attracted urban planners, construction workers, and home-buyers five years ago, it now has the highest unemployment rate in the state of Florida.

John Hawkins is a 55 year-old heavy equipment operator. He moved his family from Long Island down to Cape Coral four years ago to work in construction, clearing and grading land for housing developments. He worked for the same company all four years until this past Thanksgiving when he was laid off. He is pictured here at one of the sites he worked on, where many homes remain unfinished or vacant.

John and his wife have three children, and while she works part-time, their financial situation is growing dire. He describes job hunting:

"I go to the career center here in Fort Myers, which is a frustrating experience in and of itself. You stand there at 6:30 in the morning and there's a line in front of you of 30 or 40 people. The doors don't open until 8. I spend the whole day there because I'm not fluent with computers, I have to seek help. I fill out applications for jobs all day, some of which I'm qualified for, some of which I'm not. Then I go home, only to not get any replies,".

One of their sons has moved back to Long Island to find work, and their 16 year-old daughter has taken a part-time job at a movie theater. John himself is studying to qualify for new classes of licenses. He is pictured above with the handbook he is using to gain a license to drive a bus.

"What I'm trying to do is invest in myself while I have this time," he says of the effort to give himself more of an edge on the job market. But he believes his family's future in Florida is uncertain.

"I've even begun applying to trucking jobs out of state, but I want to wait until my daughter graduates in June. It's up in the air where we go from there...if it doesn't get better, who knows? If I don't get a job in the next two months, we're not going to be able to make rent".

In 2002 Amy brought her family to Fort Myers, a city just east of Cape Coral. They came because Amy was an urban planner and Lee County was one of the fastest growing counties in the country at the time.

They soon realized Florida's climate wasn't good for a respiratory condition Amy has and planned to move to North Carolina. In 2006 she left her job in preparation for the move and to care for their new daughter Evelyn. The couple soon found they were unable to sell their house for what they'd paid for it. Additionally, they owned eight other properties in the county, all of which had depreciated greatly. Before they knew it, the family was facing foreclosure and had to declare bankruptcy.

Amy's husband Rick is a car salesman and now works 10 hour days, seven days a week, to make ends meet. They've moved into a rental home, but don't know how long they will stay there. They are being enticed to stay in Florida because of the incentives offered through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, a part of Obama's stimulus package.

"I believe in the NSP program because there's a lot of people here, myself included, who are in the construction industry that don't want to have to take unemployment, they want to work. But there's no work, so what do you do in that situation? You create work," says Amy.

The program allows local governments to redevelop foreclosed properties, and offer them to low to middle income families at reduced rates. The hope is that it will create jobs again in the construction field and help families get homes they can afford. It has already spurred an upswing in home purchases in the area in the last four months.

While Amy realizes staying in Florida is not good for her health, she feels they have the best opportunity here now.

"I've got to do what's best for my family. Where else can we go where my husband can make $60,000 a year and we're going to get a mortgage?"

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Christopher Moulder, 42

Christopher Moulder runs his own industrial design studio in Atlanta, GA. With the help of a small staff, he creates inventive, sculptural lighting solutions that are equal parts form and function.

Projects lay scattered around his cavernous warehouse studio, and two of his assistants buzz away on them with precision power tools. Classical music blasts over the stereo and nearly drowns them out.

The studio is busy. Moulder says business is going great, and he has a theory as to why: many of his competitors have recently failed. He cites a handful of other local design firms in town that have closed in the past few years, including one that used to be run by one of his employees.

"In the last three or four months, I've been getting inquiries and orders... it's enough that I have to start re-assembling my team".

His team needed re-assembling after the abrupt cancellation of a big job for condo developer WCI Communities in the fall of 2007. The real estate developer had hired Moulder to design lighting for a large hotel in Miami, but backed out mid-way through. It soon became known the company was in trouble financially, and they eventually filed for bankruptcy the following year.

The WCI project was so big it had consumed all of the activities of Moulder's company. When it ended, they had no other jobs in progress. He considers himself lucky it ended when it did, because it forced him to scale back his operation months before the economic crisis really struck.

"If it had ended a year later, business would have been at a dead stop at a bad time. This past year I've been relaying the groundwork just enough to where [the current jobs] can tide me over".

Moulder is pictured holding a crystal left over from the ill-fated WCI project.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Jessica Williams, 23

Jessica Williams was a Volunteer Activity Coordinator for Florence Crittenton in South Carolina for three months.

"I didn't realize that they were already under financial struggles [when I started in August], but it became much more apparent by October when they called me in one day and said 'Hey, you have two more days'", says Jessica about her brief experience there.

Jessica had just graduated college the previous spring and was very proud to have landed a full-time job with benefits through the organization which helps pregnant teenagers prepare for motherhood. She attempted to find more work in South Carolina, but had no luck. Instead of giving up, Jessica has decided to look at her lay-off as an opportunity.

"Originally, before all this happened, I was supposed to be famous," she says with a smile. " I actually went to school for theater, but I told my friends I would never be a starving artist. But now that I'm starving, I may as well go get the second part too".

And so Jessica packed up and moved to Atlanta to pursue acting. She has been staying with a friend there now for three weeks and has already found some part-time work at an after school program. It's not much of an income, but it is something and allows her the time she needs to find her way into Atlanta's acting world.

Jessica is also a devout Christian and has found opportunities to share and develop her faith. She practices Praise Dancing, which is a form of worship gaining popularity in Christian churches across America. Since losing her job she has been involved in about a dozen performances and is being asked to teach classes at churches in South Carolina and Georgia. She views the dancing as a part of her career as a performer, and will even be going on the road to dance in a touring production.

"I've always been one to 'go get it'. This is a situation where it's been much more of a struggle to [do that]. For a moment I was really down, and wondered if I should just give up and quit. But... I can't afford to do that. Life is too short and I refuse to. I will make it. It's just a matter of when and how, because this place is complicated".

Chanda Williams, 27

Chanda Williams was an office manager and event coordinator at an Atlanta restaurant. In October, after struggling through a slow-down in business, the restaurant was bought by a larger company and her position was eliminated. She has been out of work since.

Williams lives in East Atlanta with her husband, a maintenance worker at Emory University, and their 3 year old son Che. Their home is cozy and scattered with toys, and looks out over a partially wooded backyard that this morning is blanketed in snow. The house is owned by Chanda's mother, a fact Chanda considers a blessing that allows them to continue to stay afloat.

"I have a bachelor's degree and I can't even get secretarial work," says Chanda. "My fall-back has always been waiting tables, but I have a friend who is a manager at a restaurant, and he told me they put an ad on Craigslist for servers. They got 200 responses in the first day and half of [the applicants] had masters degrees".

Since Chanda is home most of the time now and they've lost her income, the Williams have taken Che out of daycare. Coincidentally, two of her friends with children also lost their jobs recently, and the three have teamed up to create their own daycare network.

"It forced us to build a community," says Chanda.

The three mothers each take turns watching the kids, giving the other two time to job hunt and run errands. The solution was a welcome change for Chanda after a period of being home with her son seven days a week.

"I didn't realize that working part-time was keeping me sane, because it was a break and it was making me a better mother. If I have the day away from him, then the time we have together is so much better".