During the Super Bowl Chrysler debuted a commercial for its new Chrysler 200 sedan that closed, stoically, with the phrase “Imported from Detroit,” a reference to the 200’s assembly at the Sterling Heights plant in Michigan and a statement that was especially poignant me. The commercial and the closing sentiment really stuck me, not because of my constant made in the USA flag waving, but more because I was just finishing reading the book Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant. The story – by Detroit native Paul Clemens – documents the shuttering of the Budd Detroit Automotive Plant, Stamping and Framing Division. Budd, a longtime supplier of the Big Three, was founded in 1912 and was probably most famous for stamping the body parts for the Ford Thunderbird in the 1950s.
At its peak Budd Detroit employed 10,000 people, but by the time Clemens arrived there were only a dozen or so people remaining to help strip the place for its metal and machinery. Basically a flock of factory undertakers arrived to strip it for salvage and then leave it for dead. The plant’s massive and valuable presses – which were some of the largest in the world – were sold, systematically dismantled by a highly skilled group of riggers and then shipped to India, Brazil and Mexico to live on making auto parts in other parts of the world. Ironically, the Budd plant in Detroit was sandwiched between a Chrysler assembly plant and a Chrysler engine factory, but that didn’t stop its main press line from being shipped a few thousand miles to central Mexico to stamp body sides for America-bound Dodge Journeys, for who but Chrysler.
This story isn’t about Chrysler and doesn’t blame them, before its closure Budd was actually making the bodies for the Ford Explorer and Ford Expedition, but then the economy shifted, gas hit $4 a gallon, sales of SUVs fell off and Budd was done for. Punching Out is about the quiet decline of America’s industrial power. About the decline of America’s industrial existence, period. And this story is not heartwarming and doesn’t leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. It left me with a lot of unanswered questions. It left me wondering, why? Was it the unions? The mismanagement of the automakers? The cultural changes in America and the evaporation of our work ethic? Or a combination of all of these things.
The way I see it America is fucked. We’ve lost our desire to be middle class. Everywhere you look, every home or apartment is advertised as “luxury,” because god forbid anyone just have a humble hard working home. America is either a gated community or a ghetto, there’s no in-between. Granted, I’m a materialistic motherfucker (or so it seems from this website and my $109 notebook buying ways) and am also someone that does “marketing” for a living, but I grew up witness to the destruction of a blue collar American city in Cleveland, Ohio. When the steel mills and factories were closing at their highest rates, the Cleveland Plain Dealer called it “The Quiet Crisis,” and things just disappeared overnight. The evaporation of Cleveland’s manufacturing industry is something that left a mark on me – something I will always think about.
What Clemens describes in Punching Out is happening all over America. It is happening in Detroit and Cleveland and Flint and Gary, Indiana, in Philadelphia and Newton, Iowa. In Philadelphia they’re tearing down abandoned old factories and putting up a casino. I hope some people from Brazil and Mexico and India come to gamble. We can use the money.