Sunday, April 01, 2007

Flint, MI, As Far As The Eye Can See

The New York Times tells what by now is a well-known story: tens of thousands of Michigan auto workers have taken buyouts, leaving the industry and in many cases the state.

In comparison to past rounds of layoffs, which tended to focus on line workers in individual cities and plants, this downsizing of the auto industry wears the kinder, gentler face of buyouts. And when you compare auto workers with displaced workers in other industries, Big 3 employees have it pretty good. The buyouts in some cases are six figures, and the state is finally reacting to the industry downturn like the crisis that it is, offering retraining and college scholarships to try to cushion the blow.

But Michigan is one knockdown away from being down for the count, and everyone knows it. The real estate market is glutted with sellers, foreclosures, and people looking to get what they can before the bottom drops out. And the Big Three's disaster ripples across Michigan's economy, for both blue- and white-collar workers. The cars are harder to sell; the chemical and heat treatment shops that offered good work to blue-collar guys not lucky enough to get UAW jobs close, one-by-one.

This weekend I had the good fortune to be stuck in truly disastrous Michigan traffic, heading north on I-275 in rush hour in an airport rental car. ("Do you have anything small and fun?" I asked. "All we have is a Ford Taurus, or another Ford Taurus," the cashier deadpanned. Detroit will always be able to sell rental cars, even if I would pay $100/day to drive a BMW, or even a Volkswagen.)

I sat there, listening to NPR drifting between the Lansing and Detroit frequencies, and wondered: Where do all of these cars come from? Where are they going? I hopped off the highway at 6 Mile Rd and drove through Livonia, the most firmly middle-class city I've ever seen, and looked at one "For Sale" sign after another. I slid a couple of blocks north to 8 Mile Rd, driving past Detroit's legendary strip of strip clubs, liquor stores, and fast food joints, always a growth industry in a city of poor people. But even they seemed to be losing some of their grimy sheen.

Construction pushed me up to 9 Mile Rd, and Ferndale, through row after row of discarded light manufacturing, places with names like "Michigan Button Manufacturing" and places that sold sheet metal and cookware, buildings that were impossible to interpret whether they were still open or long since closed. I drove past my best friend's old neighborhood, of metal bungalows and shabby parks.

But then, when I crashed into 9 Mile Rd just half a block away, a revelation -- here were coffee shops, organic supermarkets, chain bar and grills, and high-end furniture outlets, shoulder to shoulder with the old guitar stores, unrenovated family restaurants, and places to grab cigarettes. (Even the dollar store was a clean and oversized "Dollar Palace.") Ferndale had always been one of the weirdest places in the Detroit suburbs -- but this was even weirder than I'd remembered. Where did these yuppies come from? What jobs did they have? At what brunch cafes on Woodward Ave were they welcome?

Compared to the traffic I encountered on I-275, with van after truck after assholes in Mustangs headed out to the great unknown, the Livingston County exurbs, the suburbs of Oakland and Macomb county seemed strangely empty. I drove from one side of town to another without encountering any traffic to speak of; even for a weekend, the place seemed emptier, sadder, more uniform than I'd remembered.

At my brother's wedding, I talked to my cousin, who was working to build a new GM plant in Mexico. I talked a little bit to my Dad, who is trying to plan a new county building, police station, and courthouse not far from Wayne State's campus. My parents are renovating their house -- whether to sell it, live in it, or just because they finally have enough time and money to recuperate from nearly 30 years of offspring-inflicted damage. My old college roommate and his wife, both high school friends of mine, want to sell their house and move out to St. Clair County, farther and farther away. It seems that all the growth in Michigan is in small towns, as people with skills but no prospects in the city and suburbs find schools and small businesses and ordinary jobs to sustain them, while the high school kids move away.

It's as though a star has collapsed, and all the planets have lost their orbits, just bodies with some mass, losing density, drifting out into space. And in every hole of the universe where the integrating structure has broken down, void and entropy are there, to take its place. When I lived there, fusion was already in decline, and the body grew and grew, doomed but defiant. It was still a mighty red sun.


DDK23 said...

Thanks Tim, you said so eloquently what we have been experiencing and fear.

PoN said...

re: the rental cars

Most of the large rental car companies (Hertz, etc) were owned by Detroit automakers and used as dumping grounds for inventory they couldn't move. Coincidentally, these rental companies always got their asses kicked by independents like Enterprise.

However, just recently (past 12 months), the automakers have sold off those rental arms to private equity groups. So it remains to be seen how many Tauruses will be on those rental lots 5 years from now.

I really liked the burned-out sun metaphor. Detroit: the brown dwarf of our nation.

Also 'cause I link it ALL THE TIME:

Andrew said...

Your stellar metaphor is quite apt.

To carry it further, it's almost as though the few thriving suburbs comprise the planetary nebula that lingers around the pale, diminished glow of Detroit... The city has just enough energy left to keep pushing the people further and further away.