New Jersey bankruptcy Article
Article printed in the New York Post, April 12, 2004
By ANDREW JACOBS
MOUNT POCONO, Pa. — Dazed with exhaustion, Angela Dean takes a third swipe at the snooze bar and then realizes she cannot afford another 10-minute reprieve from reality. It is 3:30 a.m., and there is laundry to be done, lunches to be made and homework to be checked before she can climb aboard the 5:15 bus that carries her to her big city job two states away.
She smears toothpaste on her sons’ toothbrushes, changes the water in a fishbowl that has turned brown and then trudges into Trenton’s bedroom. ”C’mon ragamuffin child,” she says, shaking her whimpering 8-year-old awake and pushing him toward the bathroom. Eleven-year-old Michael is less compliant, and only the promise of a lollipop gets him out of bed. Half an hour later, the boys are bundled into the car and Ms. Dean is driving like mad to the home of a baby sitter. ”Pay attention in class,” she calls to Trenton before heading down the mountain.
With a minute to spare, Ms. Dean boards the bus and nods to the bleary-eyed club of commuters. As the bus rumbles past the darkened windows of strip malls and half-finished homes, Ms. Dean unfolds a blanket, tries to apply makeup and gives in to slumber. By the time it crosses the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border, the 5:15 has become a rolling dormitory, the whoosh of hydraulic brakes mingling with an orchestra of snores.
Nearly three hours later, after the usual crush at the Lincoln Tunnel, the bus emerges into Midtown, and Ms. Dean, 38, a labor investigator for New York State, fixes her hair and offers a bitter assessment of her life. ”I spend more time with these people than I do with my own family,” she says, stuffing the blanket into her bag.
Ms. Dean is a weary soldier in a growing legion of teachers, subway conductors and executive secretaries, 17,000 strong, who make the voyage each day from the forested Pocono highlands to the steel escarpments of Manhattan. Largely black and Latino, urban refugees from places like Newark, Brooklyn and Queens, they come here for the schools, the trees and the $140,000 starter homes, seeking what generations of middle-class strivers have always sought. With Long Island, Westchester and suburban New Jersey beyond their means, more than 44,000 arrived in the 1990’s.
But this mass westward migration has also had a dark side. Since 1995, more than one in five households with mortgages in Monroe County, Pa., have stumbled into foreclosure proceedings, their credit ruined, their family life in tatters.
Some simply misjudged the financial and physical strain of commuting or the cost of heating a home through the bitter Pocono winters. Others overstretched budgets, leaving themselves vulnerable to unforeseen expenses or an unexpected pink slip. Hundreds more, perhaps thousands, fell victim to misleading real estate deals that saddled them with overpriced houses they could neither refinance nor sell.
For every family that folds, dozens of others hang on, forgoing vacations, raiding retirement accounts and taking on second jobs in their quest to stay one step ahead of the marshal. Sometimes it is not clear who are the biggest losers in the Poconos land rush: those who lose their homes or those who do not.
There are many places to gauge the stresses on this unlikely suburban outpost of New York City, marked by 6 a.m. traffic jams and look-alike subdivisions.
Richard Proctor can only wring his hands as the waiting list for boys seeking a Big Brother mentor stretches to 60 names. Tracey Johnson, who helps run a domestic violence center, cites a numbing flood of calls to her crisis hotline. With newcomers cut off from old friends and family, she trains postal carriers to spot signs of abuse. ”For a lot of people, the mailman is their only link to the outside world,” she said.
At St. Luke’s Roman Catholic Church in downtown Stroudsburg, where the soup kitchen, once dominated by hard-drinking men, feeds a growing cadre of mothers and their children, the Rev. Thomas McLaughlin shakes his head at the tales of overworked parents struggling with unruly teenagers or imploding marriages. ”People used to resolve their disputes around the dinner table,” he said. ”But when you’re commuting five or six hours a day, there’s no time for dinner.” But as good a view as any can be seen at Pocono Country Place, the community where Ms. Dean has lived since 1997.
With 10,000 residents, it is a densely built warren of vinyl-sided saltboxes and compact colonials set amid a former Girl Scout camp. When Bob Levy arrived from Brooklyn in 1979, there were 300 homes here, all of them weekend homes. ”We used to have socials in people’s homes,” he said, driving past streets called Fox Chase and Honeysuckle Way. ”Everyone knew everyone.”
But over the last decade, as housing prices in metropolitan New York soared, the neighborhood drew hundreds of frustrated renters who could afford only a long-distance version of the American Dream. Today, nearly a third of the residents here are black or Latino and most of them still hold jobs in the city.
In the process it has become a symbol of the frustrations and fears that have become byproducts of the changing demographics here. And Pocono Country Place, which has drawn ugly nicknames like ”Pocono Criminal Place,” or ”the ghetto in the woods,” has become a lightning rod for some of the racial issues simmering below the surface of life here.
With its own 23-member security force and a rigorous front-gate entry procedure, it is hard to appreciate all the gripes about crime. But nearly everyone, it seems, knows someone whose home has been burglarized. Then there are other incidents, like when a school bus was hit by BB pellets last year or the series of recent police raids that targeted homes selling drugs.
Mr. Levy, a retired bakery salesman, attributes the burglaries to teenage boredom. ”We have a lot of parents who leave their kids alone, and they vandalize our clubhouse and tennis courts,” he said during a tour of a new security center that allows video surveillance of some public areas. ”We’ve tried to offer them activities like game night or supervised dances, but that doesn’t seem to interest them.”
The homeowners’ association bans ”for sale” signs, but a trained eye can spot signs of foreclosure: the weedy yards, the padlocked front doors, the torn draperies veiling darkened interiors. With so many homeowners strapped, one in five cannot pay their association dues, pushing up the fees for those who do. Besides slapping liens on property owners, the association has no choice but to restrict the pool and tennis courts to households in good standing. The creation of a delinquent class only helps fuel animosity between the Poconos’ haves and have-nots.
Lately Ms. Dean has been counting herself among the have-nots. With time and money in short supply, she has given up the gym, Sunday church services, movies and restaurants, unless it’s the dollar menu at McDonald’s. When school is out, everyone returns to her mother’s place in Queens so Ms. Dean can save money on commuting. She cuts her own hair, keeps the thermostat at 62 and decorates with floor models and discount store castoffs. The whole ordeal, she believes, helped drive away the man she had hoped to marry. ”The Poconos just wasn’t his speed,” she said with a shrug.
As the sheriff solicitor of Monroe County, Barry Cohen has a front-row seat for the spectacle of foreclosure sales that play out each month in the basement of the county courthouse, a stately confection of brick and limestone. Like his father before him, Mr. Cohen, 51, serves as legal adviser to the auctions, which dispense with nearly 100 properties a month, up from a handful in the 1980’s, when the Poconos was still known as a couples hideaway and the Mount Airy Lodge jingle was familiar to every New Yorker with a television.
An intense, opinionated man who wears a baseball cap during auctions, Mr. Cohen expresses scorn for those who see a television ad on Saturday, drive in from the city on Sunday and head back that evening with a signed contract on a new house. ”They leave thinking they’ve bought their dream home when in fact they’ve bought nothing more than a future foreclosure,” he said one Tuesday as the auction room emptied out.
These same people, he says, are also destroying the laid-back tranquillity of his Poconos, a place where front doors were never locked and drivers took their sweet time on Route 209. Their children are troublemakers, ”and the criminal conduct is enhanced, even permitted, by the lack of supervision,” said Mr. Cohen, whose father moved the family here from Philadelphia in 1950.
The domestic turmoil plays out in Elisabeth Brune’s English classes at Pocono Mountain West High School, where rapid turnover takes its toll on cohesion and staff morale. ”You try to build a sense of family in your class, and when you lose somebody and gain somebody in the middle of the year, it strips the fabric a bit,” she said in the teachers’ lounge as her colleagues nodded in agreement.
Some years more than 1,200 new students arrive and another 600 leave the school district, a result of mortgage defaults, fracturing marriages or an inability to adapt to the challenges of rural living. A gleaming two-year-old campus of brick and glass set atop a windswept plateau, Pocono Mountain West was designed to relieve crowding at the district’s other high school. But with 2,100 students, it already has 200 more than it was built for. For now, the remedy can be seen behind the school’s playing fields, where 34 acres of birch and maple have been cleared for a $44 million expansion.
Cynical after 20 years in the classroom, Ms. Brune views the changes through the prism of her vastly different sophomore classes. While most of her students devour ”The Great Gatsby,” her so-called applied kids, many of them city school veterans, watch films because they cannot read on their own. On a recent morning, she tried to read aloud chapters of ”The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963” but ended up spending much of the period threatening the unruly with disciplinary points.
”They have no interest in furthering their education,” she sighed after the bell sounded. ”I don’t know what they’ll do when they get out of here.”
Although she partly blames larger forces in society, she says parents could do more to discipline and guide their children. ”When we have open house, hardly any of these parents show up,” she said. ”Either they’re working or they can’t be bothered.”
Some students and teachers say the tensions are less about race and more a clash between street-smart city youths and those who don camouflage and disappear into the woods on Buck Day, the first day of rifle season and an official school holiday. Still, some parents grumble and cite the district’s sinking test scores, the financial drain of special education students, now 17 percent of the district total, and a skirmish during Pocono Mountain West’s graduation ceremony that left one person stabbed and another in handcuffs.
If racial issues can lurk beneath the surface in the Poconos, it is not something entirely new. Robert Hillman, a boyish 60-year-old giant who runs the local office of the N.A.A.C.P., remembers being greeted with racial epithets when he was the only black student at his high school in the 1960’s. A decade ago, when Monroe County was home to a dozen white supremacist groups and a spate of cross burnings, Mr. Hillman organized a multiracial SWAT team to clean up the physical mess and soothe the communal angst.
He credits vigorous prosecution and a visible opposition to killing off support for hate groups. ”When they’d burn a cross, we’d plant a tree,” he said over cheeseburgers at a local restaurant. ”We positived them to death.”
And Angela Dean is trying to stay positive, too. For all the problems, she says quitting and returning to Queens is not an option. She knows how dodgy city streets and a faltering public school system can make short work of adolescent innocence.
”I want my boys to have a real childhood,” Ms. Dean said.
Still, having narrowly escaped foreclosure once before, she is never sure how much longer she can hold on to the three-bedroom colonial she rarely sees in the light of day. ”I’m playing Russian roulette with the bills,” she said.
Compared with the morning trip, the bus ride home was almost festive, with passengers loudly trading tales about the previous Friday, when a snowstorm turned a three-hour ride into a seven-hour odyssey. Home builders still hawk the imminent arrival of a commuter train, but the bus riders know better. ”They’ve been saying that for years,” Ms. Dean said with a laugh.
With Interstate 80 a sea of pulsing red taillights, Ms. Dean worried that the baby sitter might charge an extra $15 if she got home late. By the time she stepped into the kitchen at 8, the boys were hungry and jousting for her attention. In the hour before bedtime, she warmed up some hot dogs and helped Trenton with his arithmetic. Michael reminded her about the $100 required for a field trip, and Ms. Dean shook her head. ”I don’t even know where this is coming from,” she said writing out the check.
Ms. Dean, who has a degree in urban studies, is always scheming for a way out. She talks about saving up for a local White Castle franchise or buying a coffee cart and planting it at the bus station to serve morning commuters. But she realizes that finding work locally is probably not an option, especially with a $1,200 mortgage payment and $400 more in water, sewage and utility bills. Instead, she is reluctantly thinking about making her day even longer.
With traffic getting steadily worse, Ms. Dean has been arriving at work late these days and the added stress has been getting to her. ”I’m going to have to start getting up earlier,” she said before turning in for the night. ”Maybe I’ll take the 4:45.”