Orlando's American Dream Deferred: Location sets the stage for economic mobility

Unemployed male from Chicago's Englewood neighborhood faces many challenges

October 24, 2012

Thirty-year-old Orlando Fenderson is tall and lanky with dark-brown skin and high cheekbones. He's out of his 20's now and that's given him some maturity and perspective.  A decade ago, he was hanging out with a bad crowd on street corners, dealing drugs. And he's currently unemployed.

Orlando was born and raised in West Englewood on Chicago's South Side. It’s next to the larger Englewood neighborhood and often the two communities are lumped together because they share many characteristics.

One of the most devastating factors of economic mobility is where you live. Without quality education, good jobs and solid social connections, your chances at moving up the economic ladder are few and far between.

"I used to be on jobs all the time. When I left that last job, I was supposed to get right back on it. I just looked at it like man, forget it. (I've) just been slacking," Orlando said. 

Englewood is virtually all black. The community's unemployment rate is 25 percent compared to the nation's 8 percent. Nearly half its residents live in poverty. That number is more than double for children in Englewood.

Residents earn a median income of less than $20,000 a year. Nearly 30 percent have no high school diploma. And if statistics are right, most of the people here are doomed to this fate because nearly half of people raised in the bottom income bracket remain there for life.

The search for work

Orlando's tried to change his fate.

On an autumn afternoon, Orlando visited a temp agency. He checked boxes that indicated he’d work any shift. Orlando even put down a salary requirement of $8 an hour –25 cents less than Illinois’ minimum wage. The storefront was packed with mostly out-of-work men – many African American; others  Spanish-speaking.

Women behind the desk asked if those seeking temporary work were willing to toil in the cold, if they own steel toe boots, if they had their own transportation. Amid the loud chatter in the room, Orlando gave an unequivocal "YES!" to each question -- even if it wasn't true. After all, he could always buy some new boots or borrow his dad’s Grand Am.

A temp agent told him, "give me a call tomorrow and we’ll see if we have anything available."

On the ride home, Orlando expressed optimism.

"Someone actually told me to call back. See all the ones we been through ain’t never got this far with them," he said.

But disappointment followed days later. Orlando dialed the agency from his kitchen.

"Yes, I was calling to see if there’s any work in today," he asked.

"The name?" asked the voice on the other end.

She put Orlando on hold, then told him to call back. He disappointedly hung up the phone. There is no work. This has been his life from more than half a decade.

A life standing still

It's not to say Orlando hasn’t had jobs. He's packed supplies and done some warehouse work. His last job was around 2007 when he worked for a small mechanic shop. But it closed down.

While the streets were an unquenchable lure, high school, from the jump, was tough to navigate. That’s the way it goes in Englewood. The homicide rate is 48 per 100,000. Englewood dominates the headlines for its disproportionate violence statistics.

Orlando said that violence kept him from going to his neighborhood high school. He would’ve crossed hostile gang territory. He insisted he wasn’t in any gang then or ever, but that doesn’t always matter.

"They jump on you. That’s about it. (They would) probably get further than that if they have a gun. They brought guns to school back then before metal detectors. They brought guns to school," Orlando said.

So Orlando attended another school, miles away. But he goofed off and lied to his father and stepmother about attendance. Not that it would have mattered, the high school Orlando avoided and the one he attended both underperformed.

He ended up dropping out.

"(I was) hanging on the streets. (I was) messing with the streets, hanging out too much when I could’ve stayed in school," Orlando said.

And that set the stage for his next endeavor at age 19.

Taking a bad turn

"Basically, I was selling crack," Orlando admitted.

Orlando watched the boys on the corner who were selling drugs. He watched them with a mix of admiration and envy before he took to slinging himself.

"I sat there and watched them and kicked it with them three or four days. I was just saying 'Dag, look how fast they making that (money). Before the night’s over they got $500, $600, $700 in they pocket and I got $20 and I spent my $20."

He stood on that corner for about a year before getting caught. When a Chicago police officer saw him ply his trade, Orlando tried to hide his drugs on the shelf of a corner store.

The subterfuge of buying chips and pop didn’t work.

Orlando had nine bags of crack – worth about $90. In 2002, he was sentenced to four years in prison but a Cook County judge recommended Orlando go to boot camp instead. He did and served four months.

"My brother and them said I should fight it. But my old man said he wasn’t gonna spend no money. He (said 'I) ain’t got no lawyer cause this is something you shouldn’t have been doing. You brought this on your own self,'" Orlando remembered his father saying.

Orlando's father's voice cracked when he recalled the incident.

"I was taking care of him. I was giving him money. That’s what made me so mad with him. He didn’t have to do that. I gave him anything he wanted, anything he asked for," Abe Fenderson said.

A middle class home

Abe Fenderson bought their two-story pale yellow house with his earnings as a construction worker.

Plastic outfitted the living-room furniture. A delicate white lace tablecloth blanketed the dining room table and contrasted the chocolate-colored carpet. Dozens of family photos lined the walls and curios. Two large fish tanks bubbled. The Ten Commandments are framed on a wall.

The house smells like home cooking, courtesy of Mr. Abe; Fendersen’s nickname on the block. He makes oxtail soup from scratch and cooks any type of beans: black-eyed peas, pinto.

Mr. Abe is 79-year-old. He’s a deacon in his church and is a bit hard of hearing.

Orlando's mother died of brain cancer when he was in elementary school. Mr. Abe remarried a few years later. But the pain of his boys losing their mother at a young age made Mr. Abe overcompensate.

"I have a soft heart, when she passed away I started to give them whatever they wanted, whatever and stuff. And they got to it," Mr. Abe said.

Mr. Abe has been a priceless safety net for his children – especially for his younger son who’s never left the nest. At 30 years of age, Orlando has no bills. He pays no rent. He doesn’t have a car. He receives food stamps. He just recently got a cell phone.

"I would like him to have a job to have his own money and stuff. I ain’t gonna be here always. I’m trying to get him to see that. Ain’t nobody got a no diploma but me," Mr. Abe said.

Mr. Abe tried to make light of that fact that he’s the only one with a high school diploma. Orlando's brother Kevin also dropped out of high school and recently moved back home in the basement.

He, too, is unemployed.

This isn’t the life Mr. Abe imagined, once a poor black man from the South.

"I put some money up for them. I thought they’d maybe go to college. The money stayed there so long and they didn’t even finish high school so I took it out and spent it."

It was a lot of money: $60,000.

Mr. Abe moved to Chicago from rural Alabama in the early 1950s. Back then the neighborhood was more middle class with fewer boarded-up houses.

When the neighborhood declined, Mr. Abe thought about moving.

"You can’t run from nothing. (I) decided to stay with it instead of running from it," he said.

But the neighborhood Mr. Abe chose to live in might have set up Orlando to fail.

Setting the stage for poverty

"Englewood has always been in tough straits," said Nik Theodore, an urban planning professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

"The current economic downturn that we’ve been struggling through has made conditions even tougher in the neighborhood. Englewood is difficult because decades ago, most of the neighborhood businesses left or closed. So a big source of employment in the neighborhood dried up," Theodore said.

The national unemployment rate has dipped below eight percent. Englewood’s unemployment rate is more than three times that figure. That makes social mobility seemingly unattainable, especially when you take into account that some residents, like Orlando, have dropped out of high school.

"We can’t say a mistake someone might have made dropping out of school at age 16, well, you’re just out of luck. We need a second chance system that tends to be the public workforce development system. We need strong organizations, strong job-training programs that will allow Orlando and people like him to try to develop the skills they didn’t develop in their 20s. But here they are in their 30s. They’ve straightened things out for themselves but they need an opportunity," Theodore said.

All of Orlando's issues are compounded by his record. As he tries to put a foothold in the economy, he needs help.

"I ain’t supposed to have no background. I was supposed to been college now. I should’ve had a master’s degree, a bachelor’s degree. I should’ve had one of them by now. If my mama were still here, she’d make sure we had it," Orlando said.

He makes calls on a near daily basis and scours the Internet for jobs. He's searching for a way out of his situation. Orlando has no desire to go back to the streets.

But the nonviolent offense hangs over his head like an unpayable debt. In the second part of this story, we'll learn how Orlando tries to live with dignity and hope.

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