Upstate Girls
a layered documentary project started by Brenda Ann Kenneally
and The Team of Volunteer Producers
Why Troy

Upstate Girls; What Became of Collar City

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There have been cities in the United States that have stood as monuments to the American Dream made manifest: Pittsburg for its steel industry and Detroit for
assembling the motorcars that changed the world. The bright promise of progress for all fueled our rise to power into the optimistic 1950’s when the boom-bust cycle
of consumption pressed on the United States to look to foreign trade. In the age of globalization, the “American Product” has become debt itself. The blue collar class
whose manufacturing jobs were a source of productivity and pride has become a permanent underclass in service to those of greater means. The United States’ current
economic upheaval has forced scrutiny of the gross inequities of America’s social divide: unquestioned and continuing exploitation of the lower classes by the elite holders of wealth and power is indicative of our ailing economic values.

As a journalist and activist I have dedicated my life to exploring the how and why of
class inequity in America. I am concerned with the internalized social messages that will
live on for generations after our economic and social policies catch up with the reality of
living on the bottom rung of America’s upwardly mobile society. My project explores the
way that money is but a symptom of self-worth and a means by which humans separate
from each other. Poverty is an emotional (rather than simply) physical state with layers
of marginalization that cements those who live under them into place. The current and
widespread worldwide economic crisis has taken some of the moral sting out of being
poor, though the conversation remains centered on economic rather than social stimulus
relief. The unspoken but salient truth is that its focus is honed on those who have recently
joined the impoverished, rather than on the Americans whose ongoing struggles remain
unaddressed and rendered invisible by the headlines.

My project has followed seven women for five years as their escape routes out of
generational poverty have lead to further entrapments. I am looking to compile a
generational history of the emotional spiral of those resigned to the lower class in the
United States. I plan to use the Getty Grant to continue this work over the next year when
the need for nuanced and sustained journalism that is reflective of the social fallout from
the crisis that we are in will be crucial, and the responsibility for preserving these stories
for history is incumbent.

I have chosen to work in the City of Troy, New York as labor historians have argued
that Troy is a prototype of the industrialization of America. The city of 44,000 sits on
the banks of the Hudson River, 140 miles north of New York City. During the Civil
War, Troy’s steel processing plants made millions of dollars manufacturing horseshoes
and factored in the victory for the North. In that same period, Hanna Lord Montague
invented the detachable shirt collar and spawned an industry that became the cornerstone
of the regional economy, employing over 8000 operatives. Troy became known as “The
home of Uncle Sam” when a butcher named Sam Wilson marked barrels of his meat to
be shipped to Union troops; soldiers joked that it stood for Uncle Sam. Fifty year later,
Congress made a proclamation that Uncle Sam would be a symbol of America’s freedom,
and Troy, New York would officially be considered his home.

The proud aspirations of America’s beginning are seen in stark contrast to Troy’s present
social conditions. In 2007, 16.3% of all children in Troy were living in households
headed by a single female; of these, 16% reported income below the U.S. poverty line.
Most families in Troy survive on the income from minimum wage jobs that provide
few or no benefits. The median income for a family of three is $16,796. Since 1990,
the only increase in population and revenue in this part of upstate New York has
come via an intrastate migration from the south (primarily the boroughs of New York
City). The pattern is attributed to growing number of prisoners housed in the region’s
major correctional complexes. As the majority of the manufacturing businesses move
overseas, prisons have become the area’s fastest growing service industry and the fluid
boundaries of their population have altered Troy’s domestic and social landscape. Local
law enforcement’s reaction to the changing complexion of their predominately white
community has been to make more arrests. Record numbers of males from Troy’s lower
income population are now incarcerated; collateral damage in The Rensselaer County
Sheriff’s battle against a growing self-fulfilling prophesized crime rate. The culture of
incarceration among the poor has altered traditional domestic gender roles, and shattered
the family dynamics of affected households.


Upstate Girls is supported through the award of competitive grants and the journalist's personal funds. You can help by purchasing fine prints (e-mail Brenda), or through tax deductible donations through our 501(c)(3) partner, the Sanctuary for Independent Media.

Past supporters have included Christina Cahill, Alberto Guzman, Gillian Laub, Diane and David Kent, Daniel Portnoy, Amanda Silverman and Leanne Ridel.
Upstate Girls; what Became of Collar City by Brenda Ann Kenneally, Laura LoForti, Murray Cox and Steven Zeswitz is copryright Brenda Ann Kenneally.
No unauthorized copies or use is allowed. Please contact for licensing.