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Dan Shaughnessy

Motor City steers into a skid

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / June 3, 2009
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DETROIT - Vacant streets, vacant buildings, and vacant looks in the eyes of hard-working people who have had their livelihoods erased or threatened: This is downtown Detroit in the first week of June in 2009.

The Tigers are playing the Red Sox at Comerica Park and the Red Wings - God bless 'em - are skating toward another Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh, but it is impossible to be in Detroit this week and not feel the pain and the fear that grips this region more than any other in America.

While the Red Sox were enjoying a day off just a few blocks from General Motors's world headquarters Monday, the automaker filed for Chapter 11 in Federal Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan.

This is big news across the US and around the world. Here, it is the only news. It is the realization that the impossible has happened. A way of life is gone, probably forever.

"We actually had a team meeting about it," said Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who grew up in Perrysburg, Ohio, where he had a job cutting windshields for GM cars. "I told the guys, 'This is not a year to not run out ground balls.' We get a check every two weeks, and there are people who just found out they ain't getting a check. We've got to pinch ourselves and realize how lucky we are."

GM was founded in 1908 and became the world's biggest carmaker by 1932. In the "Happy Days" of the late 1950s, GM owned half of the US auto market. Michigan assembly lines cranked out millions of family wagons, pickups, and cool cars with big fins. It was American muscle on parade and we were a nation of two cars in every garage.

In Michigan, GM was the embodiment of the American dream. You could get a job at the plant, work there your whole life, raise a raft of kids who could go to college to East Lansing and Ann Arbor, and you probably had enough left over for a summer cabin up north.

Hall of Famer Al Kaline, who came up to the Tigers in 1953, said, "People never expected to be worrying about losing jobs, losing homes, or having to return cars. If you were part of GM, that was the place. We used to say that if GM went under, the whole country would go under."

They also said, "What's good for General Motors is good for the country."

Now the crumbling of the biggest of the Big Three tells Michigan that nothing is safe.

Monday's announcement means a loss of 21,000 jobs at 14 plants nationwide. Michigan's share is the elimination of seven plants and almost 9,000 jobs. That comes on top of 140,000 manufacturing jobs this state has lost since 2004. A GM American work force that once numbered almost 400,000 will be reduced to less than 40,000 workers by the time the closures are carried out. It touches everyone. Even big league ballplayers.

John Smoltz was born in Warren, Mich., and grew up in Lansing. Today he's having brunch with 40 Michigan relatives in downtown Detroit.

"I'm saddened," Smoltz said. "So many of the plants in Lansing have been shuttered. And the trickle-down effect goes beyond what people think. People talk about our national economy and such, but I don't know of any place that's been hit harder."

Jason Varitek was born in Rochester, Mich., and still has more than 100 relatives here.

"Uncles, aunts, cousins, you name it," said the Red Sox catcher. "A lot of them with the auto companies. What's happening now is a reflection of our whole economy. People see what's happening to the car companies, but it's connected to everything."

"It's the ripple effect," added Kaline. "When the auto industry is hit like this, it affects the Ma-and-Pa shops and the bars next to the factories."

Above the evergreen batter's eye in straightaway center field at Comerica, there's a huge "General Motors" sign. GM couldn't afford to pay for the massive ad this year, but Tigers owner Mike Ilitch kept it anyway, flanking it with Ford and Chrysler emblems. Underneath the Big Three logos, a sign reads, "The Detroit Tigers support our automakers."

The Tigers are in first place, but attendance is down nearly 10,000 fans per game from last season. Some of the dropoff owes to the fact that the Tigers had tremendous preseason sales after a 2006 World Series appearance. But it's more than that. Major League Baseball anticipates a 3 percent falloff in attendance this year, but once again, Detroit is taking a bigger bite from the rotting apple.

The Red Sox are staying downtown at a hotel that was closed for a couple of decades. It's the place where Tigers manager Mayo Smith went for a drink with Angels manager Bill Rigney after the Angels eliminated the Tigers from the 1967 pennant race (a boffo day in Boston). It's also a place where in June of 2009 the streets have no people and the people have no jobs.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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