close to home

As the U.S. unemployment rate hits a 25-year high and the Dow Jones Industrial Average hits a six-year low, award-winning FRONTLINE producer Ofra Bikel chronicles the recession's impact on one unlikely American neighborhood -- New York's Upper East Side.

In Close to Home, Bikel sets up her cameras in the hair salon she's patronized for 20 years. It's an intimate space where she has come to know well the surprisingly diverse clientele -- from athletic trainers and housewives to high-end bankers, actors and opera singers. Despite expectations that this neighborhood is a secure bastion of privilege, these days, when clients get in the chair, they offer a window into the country in recession: Some are broke, others don't have a plan, and they're all looking to commiserate.

Deborah Boles, the owner and sole hairdresser at Deborah Hair Designs, started the business in 1985. "I wanted a place where people can go and they can feel comfortable," she says. "They know they belong here." But it's all on the line with the current downturn -- clients come less often; some skip coloring or skip the trim -- and as Deborah watches neighboring businesses go under, she wonders how long she can survive.

Barbara, Deborah's sister, helps out at the salon, but she has been struggling with her own economic crisis. After buying a home in Florida at the height of the market, she now has a subprime mortgage that she can no longer afford. Unable to pay the exorbitant interest, she has had to take in four tenants, each with their own stories of foreclosure and unemployment.

Updates on Three People in this Story (Dec. 3, 2010):

Alan, one year later, is working at a sign manufacturing business and continues to search for a retail construction opportunity that makes better use of his skills. Rob is looking to speak with senior executives at small- to medium-size companies about partnering to solve their challenges. A client of Deborah’s, who saw this program, advocated with the bank for Barbara, Deborah’s sister. Barbara’s loan was modified and she can now afford to keep the house.

posted october 27, 2009; updated december 3, 2010

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