NORTH CHICAGO, Ill. – America's economic slump is taking an increasing toll in towns where industry is king.
Shops are newly shuttered and paint is peeling in this small blue-collar city between Milwaukee and Chicago. Help-wanted ads draw hundreds of responses and neighborhood stores keep busy cashing unemployment checks.
Even a half-price sale - intended to clear out merchandise so Maria Bozinis could convert her too-quiet drug store to a dollar discount store - couldn't generate brisk business.
``People just can't afford to buy anything,'' she said.
The picture is similar in other manufacturing cities, particularly in the Midwest - Columbus, Ind.; Flint, Mich.; Danville and Decatur, Ill. Manufacturing areas are taking the biggest hit from unemployment now at a four-year high.
``Things have been getting worse,'' Bozinis said on Friday, the day the government announced the jobless rate had jumped to 4.9 percent. ``Retail sales are pretty poor.''
The factories that dot the Lake Michigan shoreline have long made gritty North Chicago vulnerable to the hiccups of industry, much more so than its bigger namesake 35 miles to the south.
But the latest downturn has pushed local unemployment to 10.4 percent, more than twice the national average.
``There just isn't much out there,'' said Booker Borden, 53, a furnace operator who lost his job when the R. Lavin & Sons refinery and smelter closed in July, costing 120 workers their jobs.
``I'm going to keep looking,'' he said as he passed the time watching a Cubs game on TV at a bar. ``That's all I can do. Eventually something will have to come through.''
Put in historical perspective, the nationwide unemployment rate remains low. Midwest manufacturing towns, too, have seen far worse times. But that's little comfort to laid-off workers whose manufacturing backgrounds leave them ill-suited to try to find work in other fields.
The Midwest has an advantage over other regions for manufacturing, with a central location that makes it a transportation hub and a large, experienced pool of workers. But that same concentration of manufacturing jobs puts it on the leading edge of economic suffering.
The Midwest is only marginally less vulnerable to downturns now than it was in the recessionary Rust Belt days of the 1970s and '80s, said Wallace Hopp, professor of industrial engineering and management sciences at Northwestern University.
``When manufacturing takes a nosedive, we feel it first in the Midwest,'' he said.
The fact the region lags behind others in so-called New Economy jobs eases the difficulty somewhat, according to University of Illinois economist Fred Giertz.
``The bad news is we're not as high in computer and technology jobs as some other regions,'' he said. ``The good news is when that sector goes down it won't affect us as much.''
In North Chicago, 39-year-old Ruben Shepherd has seen both sides of the employment picture. Laid off earlier this year, he found a job as a production worker at a factory that makes alcohol and nail polish remover.
Stark reminders of the downturn face him every day on the way to work - the plywood that covers windows at a recently closed pizza joint, hot dog eatery, Burger King and coin-operated laundry.
``It's pretty grim,'' he said, sitting outside on his lunch break. ``Things were looking better until the economy got worse. Now there are layoffs ... and it's getting overcrowded with job hunters.''
But the strength of the town's two big employers, Abbott Laboratories and the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, continue to provide something of a security blanket.
As he got up to return to work, Shepherd added optimistically: ``There's still work in manufacturing. They always need people. ... We'll pull through.''