The Arkansan in the green hood called his job “moving furniture.” The locution said more about his quiet competence than it did about the task his crew was undertaking in Detroit.
Hollow-cheeked and short on teeth, he was working in the cold of an unheated auto factory in the dead of winter. The Arkansas Boys, as they were known, had come to Michigan to dismantle monster presses that had recently bashed steel into body parts including roofs for Ford Rangers, writes Paul Clemens in his gritty new book, “Punching Out.”
Most of the plant’s power was out, pipes were bursting and the riggers -- workers hired to pull the presses apart with gantries and cranes -- warmed themselves at fires in oil barrels. The Great Recession had begun, adding yet another insult to Detroit’s decades of injuries.
“The plant looked like a Hooverville,” Clemens says in this blackly comic journal of what often happens after a U.S. factory shuts down: Its equipment is auctioned off and shipped to countries where labor is cheaper.
The Budd Detroit Automotive Plant once employed almost 10,000 people, Clemens says. During World War II, the factory fed the Arsenal of Democracy. When peace came, it built bodies for Ford Motor Co.’s two-seater Thunderbird sports car. By the time the plant’s closing was announced in 2006, it was down to some 350 employees and owned by ThyssenKrupp AG.
Clemens observed the sale, dismemberment and exit of the plant’s equipment from early June 2007 to late April 2008. Truckers hauled Budd’s largest press line about 1,800 miles (2,900 kilometers) to a plant owned by Spanish auto supplier Gestamp in Mexico, where line workers earned some 3,500 pesos, or $290, a month to stamp out parts for, well, a Dodge, he says. Other presses migrated to Brazil, India and, he surmises, China.
“I felt as if I’d witnessed an execution,” he says.
Clemens, whose father worked for auto subcontractors, knows Motor City well. His 2005 memoir, “Made in Detroit,” turned a coming-of-age story into a portrait of a city on the skids. This time around, he turns his months inside Budd into a disturbing look at the decline of America’s working class. It’s the story of a “reverse life cycle,” he says.
“Rather than observe the coming into being of a butterfly,” he says, “I wanted to document the recreation of a chrysalis, cracked and shorn of its caterpillar.”
The ravaged cocoon, in this case, was massive -- some 2 million square feet spread over an 86-acre site on Detroit’s East Side. (That’s about 185,800 square meters on 35 hectares). Yet it was only four miles from Clemens’s front door and blocks from where family members once lived. By 2007, the neighborhood was half abandoned; from Budd’s roof, it looked “like a crackhead’s mouth,” one rigger said.
Through a union rep, Clemens got to know Eddie Ray Stanford, a former Budd worker who was providing security for the company that was dismantling the presses. Mustached, more than six feet tall and steeped in the southern charm of his native Tennessee, he gave Clemens access to the factory.
Eddie becomes the soul of the book, an embodiment of Detroit sensibility. When the Arkansas Boys grow homesick, it’s Eddie who explains why.
“They’re not used to Michigan women,” he says. What made Michigan women unsettling? “They got teeth,” Eddie says.
“The older Arkansas Boys did not,” Clemens says. “Dave and Terry senior had dental outcomes consistent with the 19th- century English Midlands.”
Rotting bicuspids aside, the Arkansas Boys fared better than many working-class Americans as the U.S. unemployment rate began climbing toward 10 percent. Across the country, 1,200 to 1,500 manufacturing plants were shutting down every year, Clemens says, citing newsletter Plant Closing News. Riggers at Budd started at $16 an hour, with a jump to $20 an hour after 30 days, he says -- “better than a new hire would get at Ford.”
Clemens’s prose blends memoir with precise reporting, a smattering of literary criticism and a taste for lists. We get inventories of shuttered plants, lost jobs and factory equipment sold at auctions. Though Clemens strives to keep an open mind, he remains passionate about his home town and gets impatient with how outsiders perceive it.
“Creative destruction,” observes a Canadian academic as Clemens drives him into Detroit from the airport.
“Destruction, anyway,” Clemens responds.
Detroit was already veering toward a dystopia when I last worked there in 1990. Judging from Clemens’s “journal of the plague year,” things have gotten much worse. As I closed this admirable and original piece of reporting, I felt numb.
(James Pressley is a book critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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