Death of a Factory
This article first appeared on February 1, 2007 in Lost Magazine.
In the early 1980s, I was a student at J.W. Sexton High School in Lansing, Michigan: a World War II-era brick fortress that sat across the street from a Fisher Body auto plant. The plant was blocks long on each side, and its corrugated steel skin was painted a shade of green somewhere between the Statue of Liberty and mold. It loomed so near the school that on football Fridays, nightshift workers stood in the balconies to watch the Sexton Big Reds butt heads in Memorial Stadium.
Fisher Body defined the west side of Lansing, from the air that it breathed to the beer that it drank. When I ran on the stadium oval, I inhaled paint fumes with every gasp — a sweetish chemical odor I still associate with the track team. Facing every plant gate was a tavern, so shop-rats could speed from punch-out to bar stool in five minutes or less. Gus’s Bar advertised “Booze and Burgers,” and the Shop Stop was renowned for its post-shift brawls. In addition to these drinking establishments, off-limits to us students, there was a forbidden party store, the Sav-Way, whose coolers were stacked with six-packs.
An industrial park is not the most wholesome setting for a secondary education. Our old band teacher, whose window opened toward the plant, developed a heart problem from breathing atomized paint. At the time, though, I thought it made perfect sense to put a school next to a factory. Sexton, with its seven-story clock tower, as tall and square as a chimney, its chrome doors, its Art Deco lines, had an industrial look of its own. Fisher Body turned out cars, Sexton turned out students. Who grew up to make cars. When Sexton opened, in 1942, General Motors was the largest private employer in the world, and there might as well have been a tunnel from the graduation stage to the trim line. One week, you had a diploma in your hand. The next, a paint gun. Thirty years later, you retired on full benefits, and opened a motorcycle detailing shop.
That wasn’t the story of my generation. I started high school in 1982, the rock-bottom pits of the Rust Belt era, when Michigan’s unemployment rate was 15% and laid-off autoworkers wore Japan-bashing T-shirts that said “Two Bombs Were Not Enough.” Sometimes, as I walked past the plant, I would stare through the high windows, into the vaporish yellow haze of the shop floor, watching an auto frame jerk along in its progress from chassis to Caddy. That was as close as I ever got: Fisher Body wasn’t letting any Sexton students inside for field trips or character-building summer jobs. Auto work was not my class’s calling. The morning after our graduation, there was a line outside the personnel office, but that was just my schoolmates performing their parents’ ritual, for a god who no longer listened to prayers for $13 an hour jobs. “Generous Motors” had dropped its nickname and reverted back to its sterner title: The General. And The General wasn’t enlisting privates.
Still, when I heard in 2005 that Fisher Body was closing, I was bummed. As long as it was there, I knew Lansing had not been abandoned, and neither had our ideal of urban living. The Twentieth Century shop floor was a great integrator, a great income leveler. Not only did blacks and whites build the same cars, they earned the same money as the budget analysts at the state capitol. Sexton’s swath of west Lansing took in the biker neighborhoods near the airport, the ghetto that produced Earvin “Magic” Johnson, the country club and the governor’s mansion. We were a statewide power in basketball and golf. A local joke went “What’s black and white and black and white and black and white? The lunch line at Sexton.”
Today, Fisher Body is only half there. The green skin remains, but the innards are being eaten away by cranes and bulldozers. A chain-link fence surrounds the factory. Hanging from its weave is a sign with this Big Brother-ish slogan: Demolition Means Progress. The grid of warehouse windows is pocked with broken panes. Peer through the holes, and you can see heaps of snarled metal, the remains of the assembly line.
When a factory dies, it saps the life out of the neighborhood, too. Verlinden School, which had educated the West Side’s middle class since the Roaring ’20s, now wears a board over its first-floor windows, a plywood bandage. There is no middle class left to educate. Up the street, an aluminum bungalow sports a yellow repossession sticker. Sav-Way, site of so many lunch-break beer runs, now subsists on an inner-city trade of baby food, lottery tickets, canned spaghetti, and Wild Irish Rose.
The Shop Stop is gone, its “For Sale” sign advertising a reduced price. So is Gus’s. Only Harry’s Place, opposite the main gate, is still hanging on. It was a cold autumn afternoon, an hour before the Northern dusk, so I went inside and sat down at the once-forbidden bar. The waitress was smoking a cigarette.
“What can I gitcha?” she asked.
“I’ll have a Jack Daniel’s, neat.”
“Anything to eat?”
“What’s the soup?”
She bought me a bowl. The butt still smoldered in her lips.
“So how are you staying in business, with Fisher Body closed?” I asked, sipping my whiskey. It warmed me like jets of propane.
Harry’s still thought of itself as a shop bar. On the wall was a collage of autoworkers’ snapshots, assembled for Fisher Body’s 80th anniversary. There’s nothing more Lansing than a shop bar, and nothing more obsolete.
“We’re doing breakfast now,” she said. “And karaoke. We’re trying to get an entertainment license, so we can bring in bands. We’re getting the demolition crew coming in, but they’re not gonna be there forever, so we’re really depending on the Sexton students, and the neighborhood.”
(There was also a keno screen overlooking the bar. One of my best friends fixes ticket machines for the Michigan Lottery. As they say in Econ class, his business is “counter-cyclical.” When everyone else is laid off, he works overtime.)
I was sitting next to a neighborhood regular, an evening-dapper man in a leather coat and porkpie hat. He sipped a punt of beer while studying the Michigan State basketball game on an overhanging TV. We got to talking sports.
“Did you see the Sexton score last night?” I said. “They barely beat St. Johns. That’s just a little hick country school. They should have whipped their asses.”
“Sexton’s not getting the talent these days,” the regular responded. “They’re all going to the other schools, out to the suburbs.”
Sexton’s student body was shrinking nearly as fast as GM’s employment. In the 1970s, Lansing had 20,000 autoworkers, and its most celebrated metal-shop project, the Oldsmobile, was the third best-selling brand in the U.S., after those Titanic rivals, Ford and Chevy. As a result, I had 2,100 schoolmates. Then the Olds became as stodgy as its name — it was the kind of boxy car that down market detectives drove on Mannix — and its nameplate was stripped from the GM roster. Today, there are 6,000 autoworkers, and thus about 1,100 Sexton Big Reds. Sure, the kids aren’t inhaling the primer from a four-door sedan, but as we say in factory towns, “That smells like a paycheck.” It smelled like an education, too. Now that the West Side’s factory is dead, and its taverns are dying, I worry its high school might be next.