BALTIMORE – Pete Peterson walks to work. When he has too much to carry, he pushes along the tools of his trade — a shovel, a sledgehammer — in a large metal shopping cart.
In blue pants and a matching jacket, faded in the rectangular spots where patches used to be, he seems to know everyone in Highlandtown, where he lives in a sparsely furnished rowhouse. Word of mouth is how he gets his work.
Peterson owns his own licensed demolition business (Pete’s Demolition LLC) and specializes in gutting and digging out the basements of Baltimore’s rowhouses. He has worked in construction since he was 19 (He’s 40 now.), and for the past 15 years he has done almost all of his work in East Baltimore or in nearby Canton.
From this vantage point — more than a year ago, he said, before most people heard about it in the news — Peterson saw the recession coming.
Construction, said Peterson, is “the canary in the coal mine.” It’s the real estate investors who buy and sell and buy houses, and the large group of workers who fix these houses up, who notice a drop in purchasing before anyone else.
“I had a bad feeling when (housing prices) were starting to get really high,” Peterson said. “Something didn’t seem right.” The prices weren’t “normal.”
“How is it normal for 30-foot…rowhouses to be worth $700,000 in Baltimore City? In East Baltimore?” Peterson asked.
His calls for work started to slow. “Then,” he said, “everything started getting a little screwy.”
But Peterson is no stranger to recession-related business woes. It was the last recession that brought him to Baltimore in the early 1990s, after the construction industry in his hometown of Greenbelt collapsed. And it was the loss of his job at a warehouse that went out of business that pushed him into construction in the first place.
A recession, said Peterson, is “like a flood. When the flood comes in, eventually it’s going to go away. That’s pretty much what’s happened now — a big storm.”
And Peterson has enjoyed some of this rainy weather.
“If you work construction and your friends find out you’re slow, they’ll find something for you to do,” he said. “So I’m never bored. You can always find something to keep you busy. That’s the least of my worries.”
Besides, Peterson continued, “I definitely did my share of 365 days.”
For one five-year period in the early 2000s, before Peterson began his own business, he felt like he never had time off. He washed dishes, he covered the night shift at a laundromat and he worked construction in between.
Once, he recalled, he worked five different jobs in one day, just by walking down the street and responding to people who needed help.
“That’s why I’m not so sad about having a day off here and there.”
Even so, Peterson doesn’t want to abandon his business. After three years, he considers it too well-established for that.
A community man, Peterson knows “all the little old ladies in the neighborhood.”
“It’s tight-knit here,” Peterson said. “You see how many houses are stuck together.” He gets most of his business because “people know you, people know who to call.”
“A few years ago, my mom came to visit me, and I was showing her around the neighborhood,” said Peterson. “I was pointing out the houses that I worked on — Oh, I worked on that house, that house, that house. After a while, she’s like, ‘Just point out the ones you haven’t worked on.'”
Peterson doesn’t blame his business model for his business slump.
“I don’t think the business model was bad. I don’t think anyone’s business model was bad,” he said. “There’s nothing any of us could have done to stop it; (the recession) was going to happen.”
Peterson has begun to make some small changes, adapting to the economic collapse.
He has begun to take on smaller jobs, or jobs that are farther from home. He’s advised his crew of six or seven — who “are making do, but they’re making do with less money” — to work for him part-time because he’s unable to guarantee full-time work.
He’s designed new business cards, which he plans to place as ads in neighborhood newsletters. And he’s filled his free hours with volunteer work, cleaning up Patterson Park and renovating rowhouses with Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity.
“I’m not rich. I’m never going to have a lot of money to give,” Peterson said. “But I can give a little sweat.”
Peterson began volunteering with Chesapeake Habitat in May 2005. According to the program’s official records, he has contributed 692 service hours so far.
But, Karen Edsell, the program’s director of volunteer services, said that Peterson’s hours are hard to track because he often lends a hand even when he isn’t scheduled to work. She estimates they are closer to 2,000.
Peterson, Edsell said, has “a once-a-week commitment, at minimum,” with the program.
Because he is “so regular and consistent and is so well liked and easy to work with,” Edsell said, the program allows him to volunteer whenever he is available.
“Pete is one of the most reliable, hardworking, humble volunteers with whom I have ever had the privilege of serving,” Edsell continued. “We are happy to have his help.”
In volunteering with Chesapeake Habitat, Peterson said, he is not alone. “I’ve noticed Habitat for Humanity has got a lot more volunteers that…are skilled,” he said. Joining the usual Habitat crews are “construction guys coming down.”
But, said Peterson, these jobless construction workers should be used to the idea of unemployment.
“It sounds a little fatalistic,” he said. But “if you’re in construction, you’ve been laid off before. Even during the good times, when a job ends, you get laid off. So you just live with it.”
“Living with it” has not been too difficult for Peterson. “I didn’t have the most lavish lifestyle to begin with,” he said. Off the job, he reads. He takes quiet walks. He lies in the grass on Sunday afternoons.
He spends little and saves what he can. “You don’t take a vacation to Bermuda,” he said. “If I go on vacation, it’s to some place cheap. I went to New York and I just stayed in a hostel, took the Megabus. I think the whole trip was like $100 for a week.”
It helps that Peterson doesn’t have a car or a truck (“You know, that’s a payment”). It helps that he is “blessed with a cheap mortgage.” And it helps that he is just a frugal guy. “I try to be frugal. I didn’t have much choice when I was younger. Fortunately, I got simple tastes.”
At 17, Peterson (whose real name is Glenn) dropped out of high school and moved out of his parents’ house. “I was never good at school,” he said. The classes, he said, were “so damn boring.”
“I never received any money from my parents after that,” he said, so Peterson began full-time warehouse work, learning to save his money and support himself. “I have no regrets.”
Peterson predicts that his work will soon pick back up. “Houses are overvalued,” he said. “As soon as (prices) go down enough, people will snatch up bargains and people will start buying again.” He added, “It’s not like no one’s ever going to buy a house again, no one’s ever going to have kids, no one’s ever going to move.”
It’s hard work. It’s unpredictable work. But Peterson loves construction. He visited New York (one of the few vacations he’s ever taken) “to look at the buildings.” He reads history books to learn about how construction was done in the past. He admires the ancient Romans because they built roads.
And he collects artifacts from work sites — tobacco tins and shards of smoking pipes, glass bottles that held soda or medicine, a ledger book, a passport, a framed photograph of a woman in a bathing suit, a letter informing a mother that her daughter could come home from the Maryland Tuberculosis Sanatorium — displaying them in his own “museum.”
“For some strange, dumb reason,” Peterson said, “I like shoveling dirt and gutting houses. I haven’t quite figured it out. Until my mother’s dying day, she could never figure that out, why I liked it. But you have to like it.”
Perhaps, said Peterson, this “intellectual” interest in construction stems from the city itself. “It helps that this is an old city,” that his neighborhood is filled with “old houses.”
But it’s also a practical interest. Because if you don’t know how old rowhouses were built, then you won’t know how to work within them. It’s like “knowing how an engine runs if you’re a mechanic,” Peterson said.
Or perhaps, he continued, this all stems from a book on architecture that his father bought for him when he was a boy. “If he had known I’d grow up to shovel dirt,” Peterson laughed, “maybe he would have rethought that.”