At 7:07 a.m., the last Tahoe reaches the end of the assembly line. Outside it is still dark, 15 degrees with 33 inches of snow—nearly a December record—piled up and drifting as a stinging wind sweeps across the acres of parking lots.
Inside the Janesville Assembly Plant, the lights are blazing, and the crowd is thick. Workers who are about to walk out of the plant into uncertain futures stand alongside pensioned retirees who have walked back in, their chests tight with incredulity and nostalgia. All these GM’ers have followed the Tahoe as it snakes down the line. They are cheering, hugging, weeping.
The final Tahoe is a beauty. It is a black LTZ, fully loaded with heated seats, aluminum wheels, a nine-speaker Bose audio system, and a sticker price of $57,745 if it were going to be for sale in this economy in which almost no one anymore wants to buy a fancy General Motors SUV.
Five men, including one in a Santa hat, stand in front of the shiny black SUV holding a wide banner, its white spaces crammed with workers’ signatures. “Last Vehicle off the Janesville Assembly Line,” the banner says, with the date, December 23, 2008. It is destined for the county historical society.
Television crews from as far away as the Netherlands and Japan have come to film this moment, when the oldest plant of the nation’s largest automaker turns out its last.
So the closing of the assembly plant, two days before Christmas, is well recorded.
This is the story of what happens next.
Janesville, Wisconsin, lies three fourths of the way from Chicago to Madison along Interstate 90’s path across America from coast to coast. It is a county seat of 63,000, built along a bend in the Rock River. And at a spot on the banks where the river narrows sits the assembly plant.
General Motors started turning out Chevrolets in Janesville on Valentine’s Day of 1923. For eight and a half decades, this factory, like a mighty wizard, ordered the city’s rhythms. The radio station synchronized its news broadcasts to the shift change. Grocery prices went up along with GM raises. People timed their trips across town to the daily movements of freight trains hauling in parts and hauling away finished cars, trucks, and SUVs. By the time the plant closed, the United States was in a crushing financial crisis that left a nation strewn with discarded jobs and deteriorated wages. Still, Janesville’s people believed that their future would be like their past, that they could shape their own destiny. They had reason for this faith.
Long before General Motors arrived, Janesville was an industrious little city, surrounded by the productive farmland of southern Wisconsin. It was named for a settler, Henry Janes, and its manufacturing history began early. A few years before the Civil War, the Rock River Iron Works was making agricultural implements in a complex of buildings along South Franklin Street. By 1870, a local business directory listed fifteen Janesville carriage manufacturers. Along the river, a textile industry thrived—wool, then cotton. By 1880, 250 workers, most of them young women, were weaving cloth in the Janesville Cotton Mills.
As the twentieth century opened, Janesville was a city of about thirteen thousand—descendants of the original settlers from the East Coast
and immigrants over the decades from Ireland, Germany, and Norway. Downtown, Franklin and River Streets were lined with factories. Milwaukee and Main Streets were crowded with shops, offices, and, at one point, a saloon for every 250 residents. Stores stayed open on Saturday nights for farm families to come into town once their week’s work was done. The bridge that carried Milwaukee Street over the river was still wooden, but electrified streetcars running north and south from downtown had replaced the old horse-drawn trolley service. Janesville was a railroad hub. Each day, sixty-four passenger trains, plus freight trains, pulled in and out of town. Raw materials arrived for factories, politicians for whistle-stop tours, and vaudeville stars for performances at the Myers Grand Opera House.
In Janesville’s long history of making things, two figures stand out. They are homegrown captains of industry, obscure to most Americans but legend to every Janesville schoolkid. They shaped the city’s identity along with its economy.
The first was a young telegraphy instructor in town named George S. Parker. In the 1880s, he patented a better fountain pen and formed the Parker Pen Company. Soon, Parker Pen expanded into international markets. Its pens showed up at world leaders’ treaty signings, at World’s Fairs. Parker Pen imbued the city with an outsized reputation and reach. It put Janesville on the map.
The second was another savvy businessman, Joseph A. Craig, who made General Motors pay attention to Janesville’s talent. Near the close of World War I, he maneuvered to bring GM to town, at first to make tractors. Over the years, the assembly plant grew to 4.8 million square feet, the playing area of ten football fields. It had more than seven thousand workers in its heyday and led to thousands of jobs at nearby companies that supplied parts. If Parker Pen put Janesville on the map, GM kept it there. It proved that Janesville could surmount adversity under trying circumstances, seemingly immune to the blows of history. During the Great Depression, it closed—and reopened a year later. During a sitdown strike, a seminal event in U.S. labor history, while autoworkers rioted elsewhere, peace held in Janesville. During World War II, the plant
turned out artillery shells as part of the home front before postwar production resumed, greater than ever. Even as the auto industry’s fortunes in the 1970s started to fade, dooming other plants, Janesville’s assembly line moved on and on.
So when the assembly plant stopped on a frozen December morning of 2008, how could people in town have known that this time would be different? Nothing in their past had prepared them to recognize that another comeback would not save them now.
The work that vanished—as many as nine thousand people lost their jobs in and near this county seat in 2008 and 2009—was among 8.8 million jobs washed away in the United States by what came to be known as the Great Recession. This was, of course, not the first moment at which some American communities have hemorrhaged jobs in their defining industries. The textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, began to shut down or move to the South as early as World War I. Youngstown, Ohio’s, Black Monday of 1977 began to erase an eventual fifty thousand jobs in steel and related industries. But this mighty recession—the worst economic time since the 1930s—stole American jobs, not in a single industry, not in a cluster of ill-fated communities, but up and down the economic ladder, from the East Coast to the West, in places that had never been part of the Rust Belt or any other bad economic belt and had never imagined that they would be so bruised. Places like Janesville.
Today, the assembly plant is padlocked behind a chain-link perimeter. Over the portico of the Art Deco main entrance, its logo is visible still. The logo is the outline of three gears, a different design in each one. In the right gear, the GM symbol. In the left, the crest of the United Auto Workers. Between them, a white field shaped like Wisconsin, with a candy pink heart near the bottom where Janesville sits. And in black letters across the top: JANESVILLE PEOPLE WORKING TOGETHER. The logo is starting to rust.
Inside, the plant is dark.
Its innards—lathes to welders to five-ton hoists, all the equipment that a dead auto factory no longer needs—have
been picked over and auctioned off. Outside, the parking lots’ concrete acres are empty except for a security guard’s lone sedan. Against the sky, smokestacks seem to go on forever, spewing nothing at all.
Out back, nature has reclaimed an expanse where the rows of gleaming SUVs used to be parked before they were shipped away—fields now, with saplings sprouting up. At the back entrance, a small sign is perched atop a guard’s gate, missing a few letters: T FOR HE MEMORIES.
Without its assembly plant, Janesville goes on, its surface looking uncannily intact for a place that has been through an economic earthquake. Keeping up appearances, trying to hide the ways that pain is seeping in, is one thing that happens when good jobs go away and middle-class people tumble out of the middle class. Along Racine Street, the route from the Interstate to the center of town, little American flags flutter from every street lamp. Main Street, with its nineteenth-century buildings of red and Milwaukee cream brick, retains its architectural grace. That some of its storefronts are vacant is nothing new; the mall began pulling business away from downtown in the 1970s. A recent Heart of the City Outdoor Art Campaign has splashed large pastel murals on the sides of downtown buildings, each mural commemorating one of Janesville’s first decades, from its founding in 1836. The mural on the back of City Hall, illustrating the coming of the railroad through town in the 1850s, has a steam locomotive and a spike-driving man, and, lettered across the bottom, “History. Vision. Grit.”
So Janesville goes on, yet it is altered. The change can be glimpsed from the many “For Sale” signs that appeared along residential streets, from the payday loan franchises that opened along the Milton Avenue commercial drag running north from downtown, from the enlarged space now occupied by the Salvation Army Family Center.
And the citizens of Janesville? They set out to reinvent their town and themselves. Over a few years, it became evident that no one outside—not the Democrats nor the Republicans, not the bureaucrats in Madison or in Washington, not the fading unions nor the struggling corporations—had the key to create the middle class anew. The people of Janesville do not give up. And not just the autoworkers. From the leading banker to the
social worker devoted to sheltering homeless kids, people take risks for one another, their affection for their town keeping them here.
It is hard. The deserted assembly plant embodies their dilemma: How do you forge a future—how do you even comprehend that you need to let go of the past—when the carcass of a 4.8-million-square-foot cathedral of industry still sits in silence on the river’s edge?
Still, people cling to Janesville’s can-do spirit. A month before the assembly plant closed, its managers and its United Auto Workers local announced together that the last Tahoe would be donated to the United Way of North Rock County and raffled off for charity. So many tickets, at $20 apiece or six for $100, were sold, so many of them to laid-off workers who didn’t have a clue where their next paycheck would come from, that the raffle raised $200,460, pushing the United Way’s annual campaign above its goal in the depths of the recession.
The winning ticket went to a GM retiree who had worked at the plant for thirty-seven years and has so cherished the Tahoe that it seldom leaves his garage.