Rusted Out: Some Personal Glimpses of the Tragedy of Detroit

1954 ChevyIn 1954, Ernest Gohn, my stepfather, did three things that changed his life and mine. He married my mother, took a job in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to teach at the University there, and acquired a gorgeous tan Chevrolet Bel Air convertible. (A non-ragtop but otherwise nearly identical model is shown here.) My stepdad was not a materialistic guy in general; he was happiest teaching the poetry of Spenser, Milton and Dryden, and in most respects he looked down on America’s consumer culture. It speaks volumes, therefore, that this refined man would fall for wheels that were so exuberantly gaudy. He was living proof that Detroit in that era dictated the esthetics of even the most fastidious intellectuals.

Detroit had come through the UAW organizing struggles of the 1930s and the mobilization of World War II, and now it was entering its greatest glory: catering to U.S. families during the Baby Boom years. It was as brash and confident and exuberant as it was possible for an industry to be. I had been exposed to the world before these sheetmetal fantasies; having moved almost directly from Europe, where I had spent my earliest years, to Ann Arbor, I could remember the stodgy black sedans of postwar Opel and Peugeot back on the Continent. This stuff, the tan Bel Air and the neighbors’ two-tone blue-and-white Buick that shared a driveway with us, was much more exciting.

Detroit also dominated eastern horizon in my new home town. We couldn’t literally see the skyline, but the city, forty miles away, was an unseen presence, animating the economy, personal and collective. We all knew that cars made our world possible. Or not. I can remember Stan, a classmate in my parochial school, whispering to the teacher that he wouldn’t be back next semester, because his dad had been laid off from his assembly line job. And I had some opportunities to see it all up close. My father, an economist, came in to visit me and eagerly took me on the tour of the great Ford River Rouge plant. You could see glowing ingots coming in at one end of the complex and complete automobiles rolling off the assembly line at the other end. Alex Tremulis, a legendary car designer you can see portrayed in the movie Tucker, who worked on the Mustang for Ford, took my buddy Rob and me to the Detroit Auto Show at Cobo Hall, a dazzling experience.

And as the new things came out of Detroit, we were smitten. A next-door neighbor got a Corvair as soon as it came out, and I remember her driving me hell-for-leather around the countryside, proud as a peacock. My religion teacher in 1964 confessed without a snigger and without irony to being contrite for lustful anticipations of the Mustang he was about to buy. Of course, the cars didn’t stay looking sleek and finny and gleaming for long. This was before the era of effective rustproofing. Most cars got the rust leprosy fairly soon. First there would be spots and then, unless drastic measures were taken, there would be holes. The family Bel Air, before it got traded in in about 1962, developed a dangerous hole where you could look through the floor right next to the accelerator pedal. But hey, that kind of thing meant more trade-ins; Detroit was content.

During the summer of 1969, home from college for what would prove to be the last time, I took a job for a few weeks at the Ford Grove Street Plant in Ypsilanti, making shock absorbers. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done: pressured, destructive of one’s back, and boring beyond description. The template for personal relationships was clearly military. We saw no more of the managers than a private sees of the generals. The floor boss I reported to was obviously an NCO by temperament, the obnoxious hillbilly sergeant from a thousand movies. And we workers were disrespectful, mutinous, and strictly in it for the money. A colleague invited me over to his house after work and the expected social activity was to get drunk. There was no all-for-one, one-for-all spirit that reportedly motivates Japanese workers. In the brief time I was there, two jobs on my assembly line were taken over by robots. What loyalty could you give back to that? And a good part of our output was crap. There were two assembly lines for shocks. On mine they made shocks that were original equipment – not just in Ford’s cars, but sold to be installed in other makes as well. That line ran too fast, and we sometimes couldn’t get all the shocks off in time, and they’d be painted twice. We didn’t care. We’d take them off the line and jam them in packing crates, so many and so hard that frequently the bells broke right in front of us; no one ever suggested we take out the broken shocks. The other line was replacement shocks. It ran slower, there was never a repainting problem, and they were babied when they went into packing crates. Multiply this discrimination between original equipment and replacement equipment by the number of parts in a car, and you can see why the odds were so high you’d soon have something wrong with your vehicle after you got it home from the showroom. And Ford would be right there to sell you the replacement parts.

I spent the next twenty years building a life elsewhere (though I never have got rid of the paper that proclaims me a withdrawn member in good standing of UAW Local 735). I drove around Detroit in 1987, twenty years after the great July 1967 race riot, and the scars were still there. Block after block of houses torn down, boarded-up houses, wrecked houses, grinding poverty everywhere. And a surprising absence of people on the streets.

Over the years thereafter, as I’d come back to visit my parents, the drive from Detroit Metropolitan Airport to home would carry me past the Grove Street Plant, and it was reassuring to see it still standing there. Once I actually saw a shift coming off.

After my parents died, I’d still come back for high school class get-togethers. I noticed in recent years that the blue Ford oval had come off the plant. So last year I went out to check it out. The parking lot where I’d started my own working day was in shocking condition. Weeds grew through cracks. The watchtowers were boarded up. I talked to one guy, told him I worked here forty years ago, almost. No Ford oval any more, he tells me, because Ford spun off the plant along with Visteon, which sold out to Rawsonville, which sold out to Automotive Holdings, LLC. But all of it’s being outsourced now anyhow. They’re all getting buyouts, and the plant will be closed by 2009, completely gone, the parts made somewhere in Asia.

In October of this year I go back for another high school function. This time I drive east from Detroit Metro, into the heart of town. The scars from 1967 are a lot less visible. But nothing new has replaced what was lost. In the heart of downtown, you see no one but no one, in the middle of a business day. There seem to be only a couple of gleaming new towers, the Renaissance Center. You look up and you see the name GM written on them. Some renaissance! I make my way over to Woodward Avenue, the main drag, and point the car northwest in the direction of Pontiac. I’m going through one hollowed-out African American neighborhood after another. Then come the suburbs, Royal Oak and Bloomfield Hills. After all these years, I’ve arrived where the generals lived and still live. The suburbs still look lush and well kept, and full. But I can’t help wondering how long.

The wonderment increases later when I reflect on a conversation a year earlier with Bruce, who attended high school with me. A lawyer for one of the Big Three, he tells me he spends much of his time fighting fuel efficiency standards. Not fighting to get them accepted, or to accommodate his employer’s fleet to them. Just fighting them. And he believes in what he’s doing, heart and soul.

Detroit has had my whole lifetime to get this right, to stop making crap, to heal the class divisions in its workforce that sap quality, to achieve fuel efficiency. And what they have to show for it is a bombed-out town, a market that has passed them by, genetic oppositional defiant disorder when it comes to government regulation, and apparently a profound vulnerability to the financial climate change now upon us.

They beat the rust problem around 1980, incidentally. Interestingly, the Japanese still sell rusty cars in their domestic market. But they understood that to compete with the American nameplates, they had to rustproof their cars sold here. And that’s what they did. What it takes.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn