Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 2 of 14)

This is the second in a series of posts considering Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story. In this post, I’ll write about the prologue and the first four chapters of Janesville (Prologue, A Ringing Phone, The Carp Swimming on Main Street, Craig, and A Retirement Party).

Janesville, Wisconsin’s manufacturing story reaches back far before General Motors produced its last SUV at the local plant on 12.23.2008 (a Tahoe “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”). Still, it’s the plant’s closure – and really what that closure has meant to Janesville – that surely drew Goldstein. If GM had reopened the plant (or closed it only briefly), then there’d be little here that drew the attention of a national reporter. Janesville is, in this way, a story of loss and attempted recovery.

Goldstein’s Prologue presents Janesville’s two manufacturing titans:

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.

Her early chapters describe – in a seemingly supportive way – three contemporary residents as they learn about the plant’s closing. The first is Paul Ryan (in A Ringing Phone), and although Goldstein describes Ryan without express criticism, here description conveys that he didn’t see the closing coming, despite his prominent role (even then, although more so now, of course):

[Ryan] has made a point of nurturing relationships with the company’s top brass. When Rick [Wagoner, GM Chairman & CEO] is in D.C., Paul meets him for breakfast. Nearly every week, he talks with Troy Clarke, president of GM North America. So he certainly is not oblivious to the facts that GM has been faltering since before the recession, gasoline prices just past $4 a gallon are on the brink of an all-time high, and the Janesville Assembly Plant is churning out full-size, gas-guzzling SUVs whose popularity has fallen off a cliff.

Paul is aware of these facts, and yet, lately, as General Motors’ fortunes have been falling and falling, his private conversations with Rick and the rest of the brass have yielded no whiff of concern that the assembly plant’s future is in peril.

So it is hard for him to absorb what Rick is telling him: Tomorrow, General Motors will announce that it is stopping production in Janesville.

For an instant, Paul is stunned.

Subtle, but damning nonetheless: on this reading, despite breakfasts and repeated phone calls with executives, Ryan gleaned nothing about the plant’s closure.

Chapter 2, The Carp Swimming on Main Street, begins with an account of Bob Borremans, and Goldstein describes him in a way that offers a clue to what she thinks of some job-training programs:

Bob has been the Job Center’s director for five years. For almost a quarter century before, he was an administrator at Blackhawk Technical College, the two-year school that provides most of the job training in town. As a young man, he had been a mild, back-of-the-room kind of guy until the president of the college noticed in him a spark of creativity, promoted him to be a vice president, and helped him find his voice, which over the years grew more and more outspoken. Sometimes even now, months past sixty, his trim beard gone white, Bob thinks that people who knew him when he was young wouldn’t recognize the person he has become.

Call it arrogance, call it what you want, Bob sees himself as a fix-it guy—the adult in the room, the one with a doctorate who can take on a project and do it better than anyone else.

One could call it arrogance, and it’s Goldstein who’s doing the calling. (I’d not disagree with her on the point.) It’s a clue she’s left us, about where she might be going…

Chapter 3 looks back to Joseph Albert Craig’s success in persuading GM to build a plant in Janesville, how that plant switched from tractors to automobiles, and other ways in which Janesville kept auto production going. (Creative labor-management relations in the 30s prevented violence that beset other GM plant during the 1936–37 General Motors Sit-Down Strike.)

Chapter 4, A Retirement Party, describes the impending retirement of longtime GM worker Marv Wopat around the time that GM announces the closing:

The morning of the closing announcement, Marv awoke to a call from a friend making sure that he’d heard. As soon as he hung up, Marv phoned his GM’er kids, his son, Matt, and his daughter, Janice, right away. He did not want them to find out from anyone else. He was the one, after all, who had taught them while they were growing up that the assembly plant was the best place for a steady job with good pay. And even though the situation was scary now, no doubt, Marv began in those very first calls to his kids to impart his conviction. Just because the company says it is closing Janesville, no reason to think that the plant won’t end up getting a new product instead. Even if the plant shuts down for a while, he figured, it will reopen. It always has.

Now, under the Schilberg pavilion, Marv wants to believe that everything will work out okay.

So he does not say out loud a thought burning inside him: Matt and Janice may not have the opportunity to work at the plant long enough to retire.

One can be cold about many things, and yet find these words genuinely moving, conveying as they do Wopat’s natural concern in the face of powerful, uncertain forces.

A few words about Goldstein’s second chapter, The Carp Swimming on Main Street. That chapter draws its title from flooding in southern Wisconsin around the time the GM plant closing was announced:

By Wednesday, June 11 [2008], eight days after GM has unleashed the impending economic disaster, the National Weather Service predicts a natural disaster by the weekend: the worst flooding of the Rock River since the government began keeping track. Volunteers and jail inmates fill more than 260,000 sandbags. The sheriff calls in the Wisconsin National Guard. More than seven inches fall in Wisconsin and Iowa onto land still soaked from a harsh, snowy winter….

It exceeds a hundred-year flood. The county estimates the damage at $42 million….

The Rock River rushes so hard and so high that it washes fish off course. Carp are now swimming on Main Street. Near the street’s northern end, in the flooded parking lot of the United Way of North Rock County, the carp find a favorite new spawning ground. Hearing about the misdirected fish, people in town regard it as a spectacle, not a disaster. On the first dry land above the flooded street, despite the damage all around, people of Janesville—and some tourists, too— gather for days, snapping photos and laughing and cheering as the hundreds of yellow carp swim by.

There’s a Whitewater connection to all this, beyond GM. The City of Whitewater (and partner public entities) received a grant in 2009, totalling $4.7 million dollars, due to the loss of automotive jobs and the 2008 flooding:

September 7-September 11, 2009

….$4,740,809 to the Whitewater Community Development Authority, the University of Wisconsin Whitewater, and the City of Whitewater, Wisconsin, to fund construction of the new Innovation Center and infrastructure to serve the technology industrial park, including a road linking the project with the University of Wisconsin’s Whitewater campus. The goal of the project is to create jobs to replace those lost in the floods of 2008 and those lost from recent automotive plant closures. The Innovation Center will serve as both a training center and technology business incubator and will be constructed to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building certification standards. A portion of the project’s cost will be funded through EDA’s Global Climate Change Mitigation Incentive Fund. This investment is part of an $11,051,728 project which grantees estimate will help create 1,000 jobs and generate $60 million in private investment.

See, Whitewater’s Innovation Center: Grants and Bonds.

What I wrote then (“Every part of this description of the grant’s goals is astonishingly inapplicable to the use and value (such as it is) of the Innovation Center that Whitewater is actually building”) is more true today, as nothing of benefit to afflicted workers has or ever will come from the building. It’s nowhere close to meeting its estimate.

When Janesville’s residents absorbed the loss of their factory, while watching those carp swim by, there cannot have be one rational person among them (or anywhere) who would have foolishly thought that Whitewater’s eventual use of those millions would produce a result near the estimated value.

Goldstein remembers Janesville’s past; it’s the least that I can do to remember Whitewater’s.

Previously: Part 1.

Tomorrow: Considering Janesville: An American Story (Part 3 of 14).

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