Drugs fill economic gap left by steel's departure from northeast U.S.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

ALIQUIPPA, Pa. -- Amid the bleak, rundown brick buildings, drug dealers drive around in shiny sport utility vehicles, 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.

Declining communities

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.

Aliquippa not alone

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.

Crime increases

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.

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