It wasn’t long ago that GM’s Hamtramck plant was being hailed as a Detroit comeback story. Now it’s closing, and the town around it faces the end of its manufacturing era.
Bill Norona knew something was up when he came in on the Monday after Thanksgiving. The 42-year-old had been working at General Motors’ Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly for about four years. He’d heard rumblings about the plant closing, but he dismissed them as rumors. It was the economic anchor in the city, and it produced the most technologically advanced car in GM’s lineup—the hybrid Chevy Volt. The plant was a part of the identity of Hamtramck, Michigan, a two-square-mile city of about 22,000 people almost entirely surrounded by the city of Detroit. It was the last vestige of the town’s once-mighty manufacturing sector. It wasn’t going anywhere.
But that morning, representatives from GM management called the plant’s workers together in its central meeting area to deliver the news: The plant was to be idled after 34 years in production.
“This is being ripped from us,” Norona told me. “There were no plans; we were not told ahead of time.”
When Renee Dixon, a 38-year-old line worker at the plant, first heard the news, she didn’t believe it. “I brushed it off,” she said. “I assumed it was something sensationalized by the media.”
Plants in Oshawa, Ontario, and Lordstown, Ohio, would also be closed, affecting thousands of jobs, GM announced on November 26. At the beginning of February, the automaker said that it would also lay off 4,000 people from its white-collar workforce. Unlike past cuts triggered by economic downturns, however, this decision reflected a corporate strategy to shift production towards hotter-selling and higher-profit SUVs and trucks, spelling doom for plants like Detroit-Hamtramck that primarily made sedans.
It wasn’t long ago that this plant was being hailed as a Detroit comeback story. President Barack Obama visited in 2010 and took a Volt for a test drive, just two years after the federal government’s bailout of General Motors in 2008. But the hybrid model never caught on among consumers as gas prices fell and Americans lost their appetite for smaller cars. Volt production ended in mid-February. The plant was set to go dark in June 2019, but late last month GM announced that production of Chevy Impala and Cadillac CT6 models would extend until the end of the year, handing about 800 workers a seven-month reprieve.
Like Janesville and Lordstown, Hamtramck’s history and fortunes are lashed to the economic contributions of its auto plant. The Dodge brothers first started making cars here in 1910. Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly straddles the border between the enclave city of Hamtramck and Detroit, and the bruising battle behind the plant’s creation plays a major role in the former’s history. With the car industry reeling and jobs bleeding from the city in the early 1980s, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young supported GM’s scheme to build a new state-of-the-art assembly plant in a majority-Polish immigrant community known as Poletown. The automaker used eminent domain to seize part of the 4.1 million square feet that the current plant sits on, razing 1,500 homes, 144 businesses, and 16 churches.
Since then, the city’s demographics have changed, as have its fortunes. Fewer than 30 of the 1,500 GM employees at the plant live in Hamtramck itself, according to the local UAW chapter. Instead, like Norona and Dixon, the vast majority reside in other Detroit communities. Almost half of city residents are immigrants, and of this group 80 percent are from Asia, mostly from Bangladesh and Yemen. What economic growth the town can celebrate is owed to this influx. Today’s Hamtramck is the kind of place where a Polish restaurant, a Middle Eastern kabob place, and a paneer pizza parlor share the same street. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder came to the city in 2015 to anoint its newly-created “BanglaTown.”
Hamtramck’s economic woes predate the plant’s impending closure—its poverty rate has hit 51 percent, almost double what it was in 2000. But that doesn’t mean the city won’t feel the impact of the shuttered factory. The Center for Automotive Research, an industry research group, estimated in a 2015 report that every person employed by the auto industry creates about 6.6 other jobs in the community and in the supply chain—the so-called “multiplier effect” of manufacturing.
Mohammed Monshin Uddin has lived in Hamtramck since he came to the U.S. from Bangladesh in 2006. He owns and manages Aladdin Sweets and Cafe, a Bangladeshi restaurant in Hamtramck that’s a popular spot for GM workers. (At $8 a person for the lunchtime buffet, it’s a good deal.) He’s expecting to lose about 35 percent of its customers when the plant closes. In fact, he can already see the effects of the announcement. “[The workers are] counting money they have to spend. They don’t want to spend more living or buying food. So they’ll stay home.”
The same phenomenon is expected to blow a hole in Hamtramck’s $17 million annual budget. The office of Mayor Karen Majewski estimates that every year, the city takes in about $800,000 in revenue from the plant through a mixture of income tax, property tax, and a proportion of the plant’s revenue shared between Hamtramck and its surrounding city of Detroit. To make up for the lost GM revenue, cuts will have to come from the city’s general fund, which appropriates money to basic city services like fire and police response. “Nothing is off the table,” Majewski said.
But there’s not much left to cut. The city only recently came out from under the stewardship of an emergency manager, who, among other things, had outsourced EMT service in an attempt to ease a budget deficit. “Most departments are already operating at minimal personnel,” said Majewski. “We have one full-time city clerk with a part-time helper. Where do you cut in a department like that?”
GM’s departure also raises questions about what will happen to the massive plant itself, which separates the city from I-94 and dominates its southern side. Some residents have proposed razing the factory and converting the site into green space. Others hope a new manufacturer can move in, as Tesla did to a GM plant in Fremont, California. Still others hold out hope that GM might decide to produce another vehicle at the plant and keep it open after 2019. (General Motors did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)
But the odds of that may be long: The carcasses of many other car plants are scattered throughout the Motor City. Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly is one of only two remaining assembly plants within the city limits. Just across I-94, the long-abandoned former Packard Plant—3.5 million square feet of photogenic mid-century ruins—looms as a cautionary example of what can befall a once-mighty manufacturing facility. The last car rolled off its assembly line in 1956. Plans by a Spanish developer to renovate the vast property into a mixed-use “mini-city” are proceeding very slowly.
Still, Detroit’s manufacturing story isn’t over: Fiat Chrysler recently announced that it would convert an existing engine manufacturing plant on the east side of Detroit to build new Jeeps.
For some Hamtramck workers, the job goes on. Norona is one of the lucky ones. Because he had accrued enough seniority at GM, he was able to put in a transfer for the plant in Flint. That will turn his 18-mile commute from Wyandotte, another Detroit suburb, into an 80-mile trek. But at least he’ll still have a job.
Renee Dixon doesn’t yet know what she’ll do. She’s a single mom, so commuting to Flint isn’t an option. Making things worse, she can’t look for other work yet, since GM hasn’t given her an end date for her job. “Right now, it’s all preparing,” she said. “I have to make sure I put a little extra money aside every week, but I don’t know if I’m going to be able to find anything when I’m unemployed.”
That’s more or less the same position the town is in as it waits to see what’s next. The mayor suggests that losing GM also threatens to exert a more intangible cost. “We can talk about the financial effects, but I think that there’s also cultural and psychological effects,” Majewski said. “This is the last vestige of auto production on Hamtramck soil, and we’re a city that was built on the auto industry. This really does signal the end of an era.”