There have been cities in the United States that have stood as monuments to the American Dream made manifest – Pittsburgh for its steel industry and Detroit for assembling the motor cars that changed the world. The bright promise of progress for all fueled our rise to power into the optimistic 1950s when the boom–bust cycle of consumption pressed on the U.S. to look for foreign trade. We globalized rapidly and “The American Product” has become debt itself. The blue collar class whose manufacturing jobs were a source of productivity and pride has become a permanent underclass in service to those of greater means. The United States’ current economic upheaval has forced scrutiny of the gross inequities of America’s social divide and the fact that unquestioned exploitation of wealth and power by a few must lead to the end of our current economic values.
For over nine years photographer Brenda Ann Kenneally has followed the lives of a group of young women living in Upstate New York. The stories of the women of Troy, NY are an intimate and powerful look at the cycle of class separation and economic inequality facing many Americans today.
Labor historians have argued that Troy is the prototype of the industrialization of America. The city of 44,000 sits on the banks of the Hudson River 140 miles north of New York City. During The Civil War, Troy’s steel processing plants made millions of dollars manufacturing horseshoes, and factored in the victory for the North. In that same period, Hanna Lord Montaque invented the detachable shirt collar and spawned an industry that became the cornerstone of the regional economy, employing over 8,000 operatives. Troy became know as “The home of Uncle Sam”, when a butcher named Sam Wilson marked barrels of his meat to be shipped to Union troops with “U.S.”; soldiers joked that it stood for Uncle Sam. Fifty year later, Congress made a proclamation that Uncle Sam would be a symbol of America’s freedom and Troy, New York would officially be considered his home.
The proud aspirations of America’s beginning are seen in stark contrast to Troy’s present social conditions. In 2007, 16.3% of all children in Troy were living in households headed by a single female, of these, 16% reported income below the U.S. poverty line. Most families in Troy survive on minimum wage jobs with little or no benefits. The median income for a family of three is $16,796. Since 1990, the only increase in population and revenue in this part of Upstate New York has come via an intrastate migration from the south (primarily the boroughs of New York City). The pattern is attributed to a growing number of prisoners housed in the region’s major correctional complexes. As the majority of the manufacturing businesses move overseas, prisons have become the areas fastest growing service industry and the fluid boundaries of their 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. Record numbers of males from Troy’s lower income population are now incarcerated – collateral damage in the Rennsslear County Sheriff’s battle against a self-fulfilling prophesized growing crime rate. The culture of incarceration among the poor has altered traditional, domestic gender roles and family dynamics between husbands and wives, mothers and sons, has suffered.
Brenda Ann Kenneally is a mother, documentarian and interdisciplinary artist living in Brooklyn. Kenneally’s obsession with capturing a core truth of the people she photographs earned her The W. Eugene Smith Award in 2000 for photographers who work in the tradition of the legendary Life Magazine photographer. Her long-term projects are intimate portraits of social issues that intersect where the personal is political.
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