DETROIT, MI — The other day on my way home, three kids were selling bottled water for a dollar to the drivers stopped at the light at the corner of Mack & I-75. That is not unusual during the summer months today in Detroit. When school reopens, their place will be taken by an adult waiting for the drivers to feel some compassion and hand him a dollar or two during the fall, winter and spring.
The end of the past
I grew up near E. Grand Blvd and Milwaukee in the 1950s and early 1960s. I-75 didn’t exist yet and I-94 was just being built. On Saturday mornings in the summer, we would walk the neighborhood curbs collecting bottles to get 15 cents to go to the Home Theater on Chene St. to see the Saturday matinee of two movies, a serial, and six cartoons.
It was a neighborhood that developed in the 1870s and experienced its greatest growth in the 1920s and 1930s as the auto industry grew. Most residents worked at Dodge Main in Hamtramck or the Packard plant on E. Grand Blvd. The Dodge Main plant opened in 1910 and closed in 1980. The Packard plant opened in 1903 and closed in 1958.
The neighborhood was demolished in 1980 to make way for GM’s Poletown plant which opened in 1985. It employed 4500 workers and introduced 260 robots into the production process to produce 60 front wheel drive Cadillacs per hour.
The social cost of building that plant was that 4,200 mostly first and second generation immigrants lost 1300 homes, 140 businesses, 6 churches and 1 hospital.
In 1987, GM closed the Clark Avenue and Fisher Body Fleetwood plants in Southwest Detroit. GM permanently laid off 6,100 people producing the rear wheel drive Cadillacs at a rate of 50 per hour.
The beginning of the future
In 1990, Chrysler demolished the old Jefferson Assembly Plant which opened in 1907 and included factories on both sides of Jefferson. Chrysler opened Jefferson Assembly North which now employs around 4,500 on three shifts. It also uses approximately 500 robots in the production process that produces 75 cars per hour.
In addition to cutting the workforce in half, the neighborhood on the north side of Jefferson Avenue around the old plant was destroyed to make room for the new plant forcing thousands of mostly first and second generation migrants from the South to lose their homes. The south side of Jefferson remains to this day a field of hundreds of acres of flat debris laden land.
We are living through the transition from industrial production using people to build cars to electronic production using robots to build cars. At the same time, kids have moved from collecting empty bottles on Saturday to see a movie, to kids selling bottled water at expressway entrances and exits most days of the week. We are moving from working for a living to asking for charity to stay alive.
It is time we realize that we are not struggling to regain the past. We are struggling to define the future.