Posted by: productivityinc | June 29, 2009

Growing up in the shadow of the Big 3



Detroit, Grand Blanc, Hamtramck, Dearborn, Flint, Flat Rock…. if someone didn’t work for Chrysler, General Motors, or Ford they worked at the bowling alley, gas station, grocery store, or they were a barber, dentist, maybe a banker…. that was my world.   I grew up in Michigan in a small house on Polk Street on the dirt roads of Dearborn Township in the 50’s.   I remember summer visits to the ‘Ford Rotunda’ which always meant a bus trip and tour at ‘The Rouge’ (  Hot, humid, always predictable with the smoke and noise of thousands of people all working with a common purpose (at it’s peak 100,000 worked at ‘The Rouge’), and best of all, the vast, expansive parking lot full of brand new cars.  What a site.  I loved it.  Everybody in my neighborhood, without exception, had a tie to the one of the ‘Big Three’.  It was known from a young age that I too would work in the auto industry…there was nothing to suggest anything different.  My father drove a semi loaded with coil steel, and my mother worked at the drug store.  I can’t remember the name of my dad’s friend who lived behind us over on Hip Street, he drove a car hauler!  For a young boy, that was huge, what a rig!  I remember Dad would talk about how his friend was paid more for driving a hauler… I knew that was the job I wanted!!


Out of the Marine Corp., it was back to Dearborn, a job with  Chrysler, UAW Union Steward, Yoder Rolling Former Operator, and fork truck driver (one day I even unloaded my dad’s semi). At the end of the shift, a couple supervisors and few of us union guys would meet at a bar on Ford Road and share some refreshments.  The friendships that grew out of this daily occurrence stretched to weekend barbeques and back to the workplace.  In my experience, we were all on the same team.

I was living my boyhood destiny, good job with a good company, UAW Steward, lots of overtime, new car, lots of friends (including all the shift supervisors), one bedroom apartment… all I wanted was a boat for waterskiing.   As far as I was concerned, I had arrived!

But things were about to change.  In 1962 the ‘Ford Rotunda’ (http://automotivemileposts
) was destroyed by fire and by the mid 1960’s the ‘The Rouge’ was changing and so was Dearborn.  By the end of the decade, I decided to make a change of my own.  With a degree from night school, I began to look outside the auto industry for my next job.  Eventually I accepted a position in California.  I was the first in my family (probably the neighborhood) to leave the state and the security of industry.

Whenever I would go back to visit my folks, I would be amazed at how much had changed.  During one visit, I drove over to West Dearborn to visit my old Chrysler plant and it was gone.  The site had been turned into a shopping mall.  You could drive [as you still can today] to the top of the T-Bridge and catch a wonderful landscape of ‘The Rouge’ and even that looked different (growing-up my school bus went over the T-Bridge everyday).  It was clear; this was no longer the Dearborn of my boyhood.  Plants closed, operations and jobs were dropped.  By 1981, 50% of the original Rouge had been divested.  In 1992 the only car still being built at ‘The Rouge’ was the Mustang.  Today, now called the new ‘Ford Rouge Center’, a few thousand still work there, it is still Ford’s largest single industrial complex.  Yet it is not even close to what it used to be.

I still go back to Dearborn, I know a lot of people there, but it is not the same Dearborn I knew as a child.  No longer are sons replacing fathers.  Gone are the long queues of haulers waiting for their load of cars or trucks or tractors.    But mostly what’s missing is the city’s strong sense of its own identity.

Back when I grew up if someone had told us that in the year 2009 two of the big three would be bankrupt and that a non-U.S. car company would be the biggest in the world, we would have had them committed, or at least run out of town.  Yet, that is exactly where we are today.

The world is constantly changing and the world of work is no different.  The truth is that today’s industrial leaders might not be around tomorrow.  That’s just life, but to a young boy living in the shadow of the Big 3 in their heyday, the unraveling of the U.S. car industry brings a profound sadness.

Here is hoping that both GM and Chrysler will come back as viable organizations and that Ford will continue on its path to profitability so future generations of young boys and girls can marvel at their shiny new energy efficient cars and think –if I can only get a job making cars like these, I will have arrived!

Michael J. Kuta



  2. Mike…..Great reflection of what once was. You obviously grew up in the heart of true industry of proud Americans that most of us can only read about in text books and that my children will probably never experience. We need to get that back!!!

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