Sometimes, it is completely necessary to hit the “reset” button. Back in February of 2011, my newly jobless self was one of those people in need of a brief change of environment in order to break out of the mental and emotional ruts that had started to form from my Monday-through-Friday job search regimen. At the time, I asked myself, Why not go back to your hometown for an extended weekend? There would be old friends, familiar sights, delicious food, and a chance to reflect on both where my life had started and where I wanted it to go from there. So, I rented a Ford Escape and (literally) escaped back to Flint, Michigan.
I suppose I should qualify that this essay isn’t so much specifically about the titular vehicle, but about my experience of it within the context of both the where and when I spotted it on the road. Flint’s challenges following its near-complete deindustrialization have been well documented elsewhere, and it’s not my intent here to express anything but genuine affection for the city which helped shape much of who I am today. I will say, though, that the irony of being unemployed at the time and traveling to a place with one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country was not wasted on me. I had just wanted, among other things, to hear the reassuring warble of tires on the beautiful, red bricks of Saginaw Street, downtown.
I spotted our featured car also on Saginaw Street, but in the city’s far north end, not far from the Lutheran church were I was baptized and also the Buick factory complex where this car might originally have been manufactured. Taking family friends and relatives to the complimentary GM factory tours that were offered at most of the seven, major plants was something my parents used to enjoy doing when I was young. Being a budding car fanatic in the birthplace city of General Motors, I used to love going and in fact, I might have been a witnessing toddler-in-tow when this 1976 (or ’77) Regal was coming down the line.
Never as popular as its sales-powerhouse A-Body platform-mate from Oldsmobile, the Cutlass Supreme and Supreme Brougham, selling only a fraction of its volume, this generation of Regal coupe still sold very respectably, with 124,500 sales for ’76, and another 174,600 for ’77. Judging by the dual exhausts out back, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a hopped-up Buick 350-V8 4-bbl. under the hood, originally rated at 165 hp for ’76 and 155 hp for ’77. Curiously enough, and according to my automotive encyclopedia from the editors of Consumer Guide, only the Regal sedans of these two model years came standard with V8 power. The base engine for Regal coupes was the 110-hp 3.8L V6. With a 3,900 starting weight (for ’76), the extra money for one of the two optional V8s would have been money well spent on your Regal coupe.
After seeing this then-35 year old Regal on the road, it gave me the idea to visit and photograph some of the remnants of the once-sprawling, defunct Buick City factory complex, which had ceased almost all operations when it closed in 1999. This was where many of the sixth-generation LeSabres, which had famously won J.D. Power & Associates’ award for initial quality (and on which I had taken drivers’ training), were manufactured.
As I surveyed what was visible of the plant and surrounding areas from the streets and sidewalks, what struck me the most were the little details that provided some glimpse into the day-to-day lives of the factory workers who had built these cars. There was this phone booth on the far end of a parking lot. When had been the last time someone had put some change into it to make a call?
There was the rusted-out gate arm with flaking paint where electronic readers or paper tickets were used to grant or limit access to preferred parking directly across the street from one of the plant’s entrances. Maybe this is where the foremen parked.
A closed deli across the street from the plant probably used to be packed around Noon (as likely was the Tropicana bar, just up the street) about thirty-five years ago. Its once-proud awnings now sat in tatters, with strips of vinyl flapping in the wind.
Only a few vehicles passed while I was taking these pictures. I was filled with awe and reverence for both the auto industry that had once made Flint wealthy, and for the workers that, probably with some varying degrees of sobriety on any given day, had literally set these car-building wheels into motion. I remember getting chills that day as I took in the sights and sounds of what I saw here on this stretch of Industrial Avenue (the street’s actual name).
The next day brought actual chills with a blizzard having rolled in early evening while I was having dinner with friends. Probably against my better judgement, I took this opportunity to go back out and take more pictures. Perhaps I might have overestimated the four-wheel-drive capabilities of my little Escape, but I saw this night as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to capture in digital pixels what might never look exactly the same in my presence again.
When I had arrived back at the plant and parked my Ford on a side street, the wind was howling throughout this complex, loudly audible from the sidewalks. The distant clanging of windows reverberated out of what were now cavernous, wide-open buildings. Wind whistled through these structures at varying pitches in unison, sounding not unlike the ghosts of former autoworkers begging to be heard, or of long-gone percentage points of GM’s onetime marketplace dominance.
Standing in the middle of the road on the Leith Street bridge that crosses the Flint River, I snapped the above picture, imagining what the various pipes and tubes contained in that metal framework used to carry between the north and south portions of this plant.
As I flipped through the frames on my camera back in my hotel room, I realized just how much my perspective had changed, even during just this extended weekend. My job-hunting vigor felt renewed as I reflected on generations of autoworkers and Flint residents who had believed, for decades, that a GM job could be taken for granted – whose livelihoods were yanked away in a quick and nearly deadly succession of major plant closings that rocked the economy of the Vehicle City and its surrounding areas starting in the 1980s.
I realized then that there really was no room for self-pity. Yes, I had been laid off through no fault of my own as had been many of these former autoworkers, but unlike for many of them, there were viable job opportunities out there waiting for me back in Chicago that would not require relocation or a certain relinquishing of built-up assets and equity that I’d simply have to leave behind and could never get back.
A month after I took these pictures, I accepted a new job offer in Chicago and officially started that position on April Fool’s Day of that year. I’ve been working for that same employer ever since. I do consider Chicago my beloved, adopted home, but at least once a quarter (and sometimes more often), I find myself back in a steadily improving, economically diversifying, artistically satisfying, and always comforting Flint, Michigan. My dad may have originated from another continent, and my mom from a different state, but Flint and Michigan will always be “home” to me. It remains important to me to remember my roots and where I ultimately came from.
February 19 & 20, 2011.