January 28, 2023

A Long Goodbye for the Company Town

abandoned GM plant

A GM Powertrain plant decays into the earth

The University of Michigan recently received a donation of $50 million for its Writers’ Program. That kind of money can buy a lot of coney dogs. A 350 pound Detroit homicide detective with a hunger for coney dogs is one of many great characters in Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy. LeDuff has a bachelor’s from Michigan and master’s from California-Berkeley but I don’t think his 350 pound homicide detective is the kind of creative writing material that Helen Zell envisioned when she made the donation. The 22 students chosen from almost a thousand applicants in creative writing will split one million dollars yearly. LeDuff got his start working in a slaughterhouse before the New York Times hired him. So it goes.

The picture isn’t from Dresden or Detroit, or even Syria. The rubble is what remains of a General Motors plant in Saginaw. Someone had punched a hole in the fence so I slammed on the brakes and ducked through the hole to get a quick picture. I have seen this kind of destruction in so many cities, I can’t even take a guess at the number of abandoned manufacturing sites. Detroit has 139 square miles of abandoned property and 45,000 abandoned houses. Smaller company towns that had built America’s industry are incapable of dealing with closures and abandonment. School closings are on the front page of every newspaper in the dying company towns.

I didn’t intend to drive past the abandoned GM plant in Saginaw. A week of heavy rain created flash floods in many rivers around the state. The rising water chased me away from a nicer area and into this one. Small groups of “irregular” kids, wearing dirty clothing, their young faces looking too old already,  wandered the street in the rotten weather. LeDuff was asked why should the rest of the country care about Detroit. Because it’s spreading, he said. Like the rivers cresting and flooding the streets. Bill Moyers reported on homeless in of all places, Silicon Valley. A commentator said the country was splitting apart. As Detroit goes, so it goes. There have been a number of high profile articles on Detroit in the last week. If you really want to understand a city, watch the schools, grocery stores, and the morgue. There’s a photo in LeDuff’s book of the unclaimed bodies at the morgue in Detroit. An elderly man was in the morgue for two years. No one wanted to make the effort to give him a burial. The dead are abandoned like the buildings.

On the Michigan Writers’ Program website, Helen Zell explained why she made the record donation: “Books have the power to inspire and change people, to create action, to generate movements, and to better understand those qualities that are uniquely human. We want to capture important stories that might otherwise go untold.”

The stories in the crevices of these company towns are worth a dozen coney dogs, at least. The stories will be written through the eyes of a 350 pound Raymond Chandler character who makes too many damn phone calls after midnight. Or perhaps a ruin porn brick salesman, some bland bastard with too many stale stories and takes too long to say goodbye. The Atlantic asked Walter Mosley for his favorite passage in literature. Mosley said Chandler wrote it at the end of The Long Goodbye: “He was looking at me and neither his eyes nor his gun moved. He was as calm as an adobe wall in the moonlight.” The innocuous line hit Mosley “like a thunderbolt,” turning the ordinary sight, an adobe wall, into a sinister canvas. “It juxtaposes light and dark, serenity and violence, in a way that reaches beyond the physical into the anguished struggle of the human heart.”

Vision that punches a hole in the fence around the company town and the human heart.

Chandler writes in The Long Goodbye:

“The average man is tired and scared, and a tired, scared man can’t afford ideals. He has to buy food for his family. In our time we have seen a shocking decline in both public and private morals. You can’t expect quality from people whose lives are a subjection to a lack of quality. You can’t have quality with mass production. You don’t want it because it lasts too long. So you substitute styling, which is a commercial swindle intended to produce artificial obsolescence. Mass production couldn’t sell its goods next year unless it made what is sold this year look unfashionable a year from now… The stuff inside is mostly junk.”

A hard boiled autopsy report for the company town.


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