Among the ghosts of Detroit

Book re­view by Peter Whoriskey

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - By Paul Cle­mens Dou­ble­day. 271 pp. $25.95

PUNCH­ING OUT One Year in a Clos­ing Auto Plant

How do you tell the story of what is no longer there?

For many Amer­i­cans, the dec­i­ma­tion of the nation’s man­u­fac­tur­ing work­force over the past three decades is sensed only through statis­tics— mil­lions of jobs lost, fac­to­ries closed and a vague un­ease that some work­ing fam­i­lies are be­ing rolled over. But in Detroit, the eco­nomic de­struc­tion is pal­pa­ble in the old plants that have been emp­tied and left to rot, serv­ing as gi­ant road­side tomb­stones for a more pros­per­ous era. In “ Punch­ing Out,” Paul Cle­mens, a na­tive of Detroit, has set for him­self the task of de­scrib­ing in depth the shut­ter­ing of one be­he­moth, as a kind of farewell.

The idea that a ma­jor Amer­i­can city could be in the process of turn­ing into a ruin is both hor­ri­fy­ing and al­lur­ing, be­com­ing the sub­ject of nu­mer­ous trendy pho­tog­ra­phy ex­hibits. But Cle­mens wants to do more than muse about an­other empty fac­tory. “ The arty delec­ta­tion of Detroit’s de­struc­tion — ‘ruin porn,’ as it’s called — it some­times seems to take up half the In­ter­net,” he writes. “I un­der­stand the fas­ci­na­tion com­pletely, and I don’t get it at all.”

His case study is the Budd Au­to­mo­tive plant, which in its hey­day con­sti­tuted a small city in it­self, en­com­pass­ing about 2 mil­lion square feet and em­ploy­ing 10,000 work­ers. Among other things, it stamped out pieces of Ford Ex­plor­ers.

Be­gin­ning af­ter pro­duc­tion has ceased at the plant, Cle­mens’s story cen­ters on the grim work of wreck­ers and movers of equip­ment, of the se­cu­rity guards ward­ing off van­dals and of cor­po­rate scav­engers from plants in Mex­ico and else­where who buy Budd’s ma­chin­ery for use in coun­tries where la­bor is cheaper.

The tale un­folds in a se­ries of vi­gnettes that Cle­mens cap­tured while hang­ing out dur­ing the months-long dis­man­tling of the plant. The woes of Detroit pro­voke both des­per­a­tion and philoso-

phiz­ing. Stand­ing around 50-gal­lon oil drums with fires in­side to keep warm, work­ers re­flect somberly, some­times col­or­fully, about the ex­o­dus of man­u­fac­tur­ing and about their home­sick­ness.

A scrap thief, caught by the se­cu­rity guards, is forced to kneel with his hands be­hind his head, but then asks for a job. A trucker named Rafael shows off his tat­toos of an Amer­i­can ea­gle and a phoenix and then com­plains about Detroit: “It’s cold, it’s mis­er­able. I want to go home and ride my mo­tor­cy­cle.”

And the author of an in­dus­try news­let­ter called Plant Clos­ing News, a kind of almanac of eco­nomic de­struc­tion, sees in the shut­ter­ings a re­flec­tion of moral de­cline, com­par­ing the up­heaval first to the fall of Rome and then to the way­ward peo­ple of the Bi­ble, with scrip­tural ci­ta­tions of Chron­i­cles. “You know what? It’s that des­per­ate. We’ve lost our hori­zon. We don’t know whether we’re fly­ing right side up or up­side down,” he says.

The equip­ment be­ing sal­vaged from the Budd plant will end up in In­dia, Brazil and Mex­ico, some­times to make parts for the same auto com­pa­nies, but with much lower la­bor costs. At the Mex­i­can plant, the only other one that Cle­mens vis­its in the book, he notes that work­ers make about $3,500 a year, only a small frac­tion of what the union­ized work­ers at the U.S. plant once made. Re­mem­ber, Cle­mens in­structs, that “ this city once was a Cadil­lac, be­fore be­com­ing a Buick, then an Oldsmo­bile and a Pon­tiac (both de­funct), and fi­nally, a Chevy, a high mileage hauler that has done hon­est work but can some­times seem closer and closer to com­ing to a halt.”

Cle­mens dis­plays a fas­ci­na­tion with equip­ment, al­though its use and sig­nif­i­cance will of­ten be a mys­tery to read­ers. But the ul­ti­mate ab­sence, at least for this reader, is what the Budd plant was like in its hey­day and what has hap­pened to those who once pop­u­lated the vast com­plex.

At one point, Cle­mens is left to imag­ine, as if in a movie, the man­ager look­ing out over the fac­tory floor from his of­fice as he re­al­izes that things are headed for trou­ble. It is just the kind of scene that, if doc­u­mented, might best de­scribe the loss im­plicit in all those va­cant fac­to­ries.

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