Black Voters, Aghast at Trump, Find a Place of Food and Comfort
PHILADELPHIA — Natalie Solomon was always an early riser. Back in her days at a Ford-owned auto electronics plant, managing production schedules and bringing in $60,000 a year with overtime, she would be behind the wheel of her Ford Explorer by 4 a.m. — in time to grab coffee at Wawa, swing by her locker, grab her smock and get on the factory floor before 5.
“But that part of my life is closed now,” she said. Still, at 60, car or no car, she needs a morning routine.
So twice each week at 5:30 a.m., earbuds in and listening to a motivational speaker “to get myself together,” she pads down the steps of her stone house and heads for the No. 18 bus.
Her destination: Mount Airy, a tidy neighborhood of brick homes where she volunteers at one of Philadelphia’s busiest food pantries, the Kitchen of Love. By the time Ms. Solomon arrives, the line for free groceries is growing, populated with proud retirees and struggling working-class people like herself.
It is a poignant scene in an election year filled with snapshots of Americans whose grievances have fueled the rise of Donald J. Trump. But this part of Mount Airy is largely blue-collar and black, not white. And far from being animated by Mr. Trump’s angry campaign, people here are terrified by it — and are mourning the departure of Barack Obama, the nation’s first (and, some fear, its last) black president.
“I wish he was a dictator,” Calvin Gardner, 64, a retired construction worker, said, expressing longing for a third Obama term.
As the race between Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton stumbles to its dizzying finish, the Kitchen of Love offers a window into America’s deep racial divide, painfully exposed in this toxic election year. In these voices and stories, in a politically engaged community where voter turnout is high, are echoes of disaffected Trump backers in Appalachian coal country or Rust Belt factory towns — sentiment so apparent it became a Saturday Night Live parody.
There is the same rage at an economy that has sent jobs overseas. “Rich people have enough doggone money, and we need to bring our jobs back,” Ms. Solomon said.
There is the same disgust at the whole campaign spectacle, the same frustration at a system that benefits society’s extremes. As Tony Morse, 49, a behavioral health specialist who uses the pantry to feed foster children in homes he supervises, said, “Politics is for the very rich and the very poor.”
But after that, the race is a study in, well, black and white.
When Mr. Trump says America needs to be made great again, people here see a nation that Mr. Obama pulled back from the brink. When Mr. Trump vows to take on the Islamic State, they envision their children and grandchildren being sent to war.
When he talks about “law and order,” they imagine more funerals for black people killed by the police. His racially charged appeals for their votes, and unfounded warnings of voter fraud in cities like Philadelphia, sound alarm bells about their civil rights.
“What the hell have you got to lose? You live in poverty! You fools ain’t no good!” Yvonne Hilton, 66, a Jamaican-born nurse, exclaimed, angrily mimicking Mr. Trump.
And in her impression is perhaps what separates those at the Kitchen of Love from many whites in similar economic circumstances. In an anxious time, in a needy place, everyone seems fixated on what they have to lose.
Less to Fall Back On
The volunteer-run Kitchen of Love, open on Thursdays and Fridays, serves 500 to 700 people each week, roughly half of them older than 65. That it thrives in such a stable corner of Philadelphia tells a deeper national tale, about what the Urban Institute in Washington calls the “stalled, struggling black middle class.”
In 2011, the first year of national job growth after the recession, black households saw their incomes drop by 14 percent, compared with 7 percent for whites, according to a data analysis the institute published in February. Black families hold just one-seventh the assets and savings of white families, a gap of more than $600,000 per family.
Blacks have less equity in their homes and are less likely than whites to inherit money, and were thus hit harder by the foreclosure crisis. They are more likely than whites to be raising grandchildren or supporting needy relatives. In tough times, they have less to fall back on.
All of this is playing out here in East Mount Airy, once a heavily white and Jewish neighborhood in northwestern Philadelphia, just across the border from suburban Montgomery County. Sandwiched between Chestnut Hill, with its upscale boutiques, and less affluent Germantown, where Ms. Solomon lives, it has long stood for upward black mobility.
“I often say this was the place where working-class black folks would come when they wanted some R and R,” Cherelle Parker, a member of the Philadelphia City Council and former state legislator, said. “But R and R has translated from rest and relaxation to reverse mortgages and retirement insecurity.”
Marlene Trice, who founded the Kitchen of Love, bears witness to these changes.
A no-nonsense woman with a booming voice and a penchant for T-shirts with sayings like “Keep Calm and Love Jesus,” Mrs. Trice, 69, and her husband, Clarence, 73, bought their home in East Mount Airy in 1969. He details cars; she worked at the prepared food counter at Pathmark — “I fried the chicken, made the hoagies, did the party trays” — until its parent company filed for bankruptcy last year.
“I thought I would work until I was 75,” she said.
In 1996, Mrs. Trice opened the food pantry in North Philadelphia, the poor neighborhood where she grew up. In 2010, a new recreation center was built in East Mount Airy. Ms. Parker suggested that Mrs. Trice move the pantry to the old center, in a boxy cinder-block building next to a playground and school.
“I said, ‘No, the people are not going to come out like they do in North Philly,’” Mrs. Trice recalled. “But now, let me tell you something: They made a liar out of me.”
Helping, and Receiving Help
Ms. Solomon turned up at the Kitchen of Love four years ago, frightened and sick. “I was hoping it would help me to eat better,” she said.
A daughter of a factory worker and a Philadelphia police officer, Ms. Solomon is a private woman, and not as financially secure as some of the people she now serves. She inherited her house from her mother, raised five children and lost two sons to violence. She was engaged once, but never married; in a quiet moment, she wondered if “maybe I should have, because I would have a husband to help me out.”
Still, during her 27 years at the Ford factory, later spun off as a subsidiary called Visteon, she “considered myself middle class.” Active in her union, she took trips to cities like Cincinnati, where she shook hands with Mr. Obama at the N.A.A.C.P. convention in 2008. She thought he might save the plant, but it closed in 2010. She does not blame him.
“I blame Ford,” she said.
She was too young for early retirement, and the Affordable Care Act had not yet become law. She declined coverage under the Cobra program; she needed the money, she said, to buy heating oil for her house. When her unemployment compensation ran out, she dipped into her pension, agreeing to benefits at a vastly reduced rate: roughly $5,000 a year.
The local community college offers a human services program — “to prepare graduates for careers as professionals in mental health agencies and social services,” according to its website — and Ms. Solomon enrolled. She has no computer and was often on campus until 10 p.m.
“I wasn’t really eating,” she said. “Maybe twice a week I would go to the cafeteria and eat half a turkey sandwich with lettuce and tomatoes on, but most of the time I drank Mountain Dew and Pepsis and coffee and cakes to keep myself alert, for the sugar. I would wake up at 3 in the morning, trying to do homework.”
Then the fainting spells started. She spent five days in the hospital getting blood transfusions. Mrs. Trice later helped her find a doctor. Today, Ms. Solomon has health coverage through Medicaid, expanded in Pennsylvania under the Affordable Care Act.
“She came to me asking for help,” Mrs. Trice recalled. “And after maybe six months, she asked me, ‘Could I volunteer?’”
Parked outside Mrs. Trice’s home is a rusty white pickup truck, with 172,000 miles on it and a creaky driver’s-side door that needs to be slammed several times before it will shut. Stepping off the bus, Ms. Solomon pulled the key out of her purse: Her volunteer duties include driving to local grocery stores to pick up their castoffs.
A mile away, Mrs. Trice was barking out orders amid shelves of canned goods and 30-pound “senior boxes” of food for the elderly that are distributed once a month. Gospel music played on an old boom box. A truck from Philabundance, the regional hunger relief organization, was on the way.
As much as food, the Kitchen of Love offers comfort in an uncertain world. It is a place to debate whether the new Powerball lottery is a good value or a scam; to get tips on which programs help with home heating costs; to watch the schoolchildren, in uniforms of khaki and blue, scamper around the playground — and maybe get a kiss from a grandchild passing by.
It is also, lately, a place to vent about a presidential race that feels too horrible to watch, yet too compelling to avoid.
In Mr. Trump’s statements, people here concede, there is a tiny kernel of truth. Yes, there is violence in their community; Ms. Solomon, in her quiet grief, knows this. Yes, many people here lost their jobs, even under an African-American president, but some of Ms. Solomon’s friends from the factory are now employed.
When people here watch Trump rallies, some see imagery that reminds them of their childhoods in the Deep South; some go so far as to wonder if Mr. Trump’s supporters have been planted by the Ku Klux Klan. Their feelings about Mrs. Clinton are mixed, but those who are voting for president will vote for her.
They hold Republicans in disdain. But their reaction to Mr. Trump is especially deep and visceral.
“Back to slavery days,” Ms. Solomon said gravely. “Do as master say.”
But if Mr. Trump has brought racial animus to the fore, some see that as a blessing. “It kind of pulled a blindfold off of America,” Inez Muhammad, 54, a disabled federal worker, said.
Like many here and across the nation, Ms. Solomon is looking past Election Day: She fears that Washington “will be a mess,” with Mr. Trump kicking up a fuss if he loses. She has been working on her résumé and intends to re-enroll in college, to prove to her grandchildren that “if Nana can get a degree, you can too.”
In the meantime, she has volunteered to help Democrats register voters and pushing everyone she knows to go to the polls, especially her grandson, who is 18. “I told him, that’s not a given right for black people,” she said. “Too many people died for you to give up that right.”