From the dawn of the Twentieth Century, the fate of Detroit’s schools and the fate of Detroit’s automobile factories have been inextricably intertwined. Nowhere is this more apparent than on East Grand Boulevard at Concord Avenue, where the shabby hulks of Emma Thomas School and the Packard Motor Car Company factory stand like monuments to the boom and bust cycle of the city’s industrial history. An April, 1906 Detroit Free Press article that touted the opening of seven new schools — including Emma Thomas School — drew a clear connection between schools and Detroit’s economic future. A secondary headline for the article declared: “Detroit’s Splendid Schools Attract Factories that Bring With Them Hundreds of Families With Children” (“Detroit’s Educational Facilities” 2).
Across Concord from the school, and straddling Grand Boulevard, a landmark in American industrial design, the Packard Automobile Plant, was taking shape. The Packard company was moved to Detroit from Warren, Ohio, in 1903 by a group of investors led by Richard P. Joy. Between 1903 and 1905, nine conventional factory buildings were erected on the plant’s 59-acre site. But in 1905, with the help of innovative design by the renowned architect Albert Kahn, Packard opened “the first of the modern steel, glass and concrete factories in America” (Beasley and Stark 105). Eventually, the Packard plant comprised 4 million square feet of factory space, and employed thousands of workers — 25,000 at the peak of production — who streamed to the plant from neighborhoods up and down Grand Boulevard and Mt. Elliott, and from across the city’s east side.
Gloria Whelan captures the intimate — and ambivalent — relationship between the school and the factory in her story, “The First City.” The story is structured as the memoir of a woman who, as a child during the Depression, moves to a small four-flat apartment building her family owned on Grand Boulevard near the Packard plant and attended a school directly across the street from the factory. As the girl struggles to come to terms with her new surroundings and her family’s reduced circumstances, the school and the factory become symbols for innocence, learning, and the intimidating, malevolent power of the industrial city.
The Grand Boulevard Whelan describes is “a tree-lined street of large homes and small apartments.”
A short distance from this genteel street, and breathing down its neck, was the Packard Motor plant sprawling over acres of land and railway track. Appendaged to the plant was block after block of the small neat homes of the Packard workers. In the city’s earlier days, buildings were more compatible — factories, homes, schools, stores all kept an eye on one another. (Whelan 183)
But this neighborliness has a sharp edge to it, especially during the depression. Whelan’s narrator, her parents, and three aunt-uncle pairs are forced by economic necessity to move into the apartment building that the narrator’s grandfather purchased as an income property. They have lived previously in spacious suburban affluence, and the story traces the narrator’s growing awareness of the world amid her family’s efforts to retain as many of the trappings of affluence as they can. At the heart of the story is the Packard factory, an emblem of the city’s stark and menacing energy.
I was eight the year we all moved into Detroit and nothing in the city seemed safe or even reasonable to me, least of all the Packard plant ringed round with its snarls and tangles of railway track. We moved to the Boulevard in the heat of summer and the windows of the factory were open so that you could see the blue-green glow of the plant and hear the screams and clank of the machinery. On a hot, windy day you choked on its sulphurous odor. In the music room of my grandparents’ home on Mt. Elliott Street my grandfather had painted a mural of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung.” I was convinced the inside of the factory must be like the cave where the ugly Alberich hammered away in the eerie glow of the flames from his forge. (184)
The narrator tells of her dismay at being taken to the school for the first time: “Directly behind the school, I could see the factory breathing hell fire” (190). She is discouraged, too, when she discovers that unlike the new suburban school she had attended before, “everything at this school was old or broken” (191). And she is so disoriented on her first day at school that she leaves by the wrong door, advancing “deeper and deeper into the incomprehensible world of the factory” (192). She is rescued by a worker leaving the factory at the end of his shift who walks her home:
He took my hand and I had to follow him. “This place is new to you? he asked. I nodded. “Me, too. Where I come from it’s all open country, but nothing to eat.” I thought of the deep green yard I had left and my parents’ worry over the grocery bills, but I believed I had not come close to what he was saying. I held more tightly to the man’s hand.” (192-193)
The factory — and the industrial city it represents — is frightening and harsh, Whelan suggests, but it is also alive and necessary. It may be hellish, ugly and sulphurous, but it puts food on the table. The factory is a world of compromise, and the school it looms over bears witness to that lesson.
Packard’s workers built 1.5 million cars at the plant before the company merged with Studebaker and left the city in 1956. Today, the factory and the long-closed school — as well as the surrounding neighborhoods — show the decay of deindustrialization. The structures are used for storage or as homes for a few dozen small businesses that cannot even suggest the vibrance and vitality of the area at its peak, when the Packard plant pulled in people and pushed out cars, and the children of workers learned their lessons in the shadow and the din of the factory.
Philip Levine draws on that decay of the Packard plant and its surrounding neighborhoods for a central image — an intimation of death and transition — in his poem, “The Last Shift.” In the poem, he recalls a time when he was driving to work and got stopped by a train crossing on Grand Boulevard. “Then I saw the moon rise above/ the packing sheds of the old Packard plant” (Levine 333). As he waits for the train to clear, he notices the signs of decay around him. He sees some men in an alley who
were keeping warm by a little fire made from fence posts and garage doors and tossing their empty wine bottles into the street where they shattered on the frosted roofs of cars and scattered like chunks of ice. . . . (333)
Police in a patrol car nearby do nothing but doze and eat doughnuts. A two-story house beside his car has been ripped open and gutted:
all of its rooms torn into view, its connections and tubing gone, the furniture gone, the floors ripped up for fire wood. (333-4)
Kids, he imagines, heading to school to school, would “slide on the ice and steal/ each others’ foolish hats and laugh/ while they still could” (333).
Everything seems to be falling apart, and then, as the train appears to be stalled on the tracks, “Around me, / the engines began to die, and then / my own went.” He feels “a deep cold” rising in his legs and senses “a darkness / I had never seen before” (334). It is as if he, like the city around him, is beginning to die.
. . . I knew these tiny glazed pictures — a car hood, my own speedometer, the steering wheel, the windshield fogging over — were the last I’d ever see. These places where I had lived all the days of my life were giving up their hold on me and not a moment too soon. (334)
But while the imagery of death is very strong, those final words, “not a moment too soon,” suggest another interpretation — liberation, rather than death — that gives a double meaning to the poem’s title. “These places,” this city, are giving up their hold on the speaker; they are letting him go, giving him his freedom. From this perspective, “The Last Shift” ceases to be a literal description of the job to which the speaker is driving, and becomes a change of consciousness that enables him to free himself from the urban death and decay in which he is immersed — as these places give up their hold on him.
Stephen Jones teaches history at Central Michigan University and taught English for ten years at Detroit’s Chadsey High School. He has taught history at Michigan State University and Wayne County Community College and English and history at Baker College in Clinton Township. He is co-author, with Eric Freedman, of African Americans in Congress: A Documentary History, published in 2007 by Congressional Quarterly Press. He received his B.A. in English, and his M.A. and PhD. in American Studies from Michigan State University. For more than twenty years he was a newspaper reporter and once covered the auto industry for the Associated Press.
Photos by Anna Fedor
Baumgarth, Ernest A. “How Ghost Plants Here Get New Lease on Life.” Detroit News 12 Nov. 1958.
Beasley, Norman and George W. Stark. Made In Detroit. New York: Putnam’s, 1957.
Danilovich, Robert S. Location and Distribution of Defunct Automobile Plants in Detroit, 1900-1956. Master’s Thesis. Mt. Pleasant, MI: Central Michigan University. May, 1974.
“Detroit’s Educational Facilities: A Lodestone.” Detroit Free Press 29 Apr. 1906: Part 5, page 2.
Hunter, George and Madison J. Gray. “The Battle for the Packard Plant.” Detroit News 5 May 1999: 6-7S.
Levine, Philip. “The Last Shift.” Michigan Quarterly Review 25 (1986): 333-334.
Lewis, David L. “Detroit’s Historic Packard Plant.” Michigan Monthly November 1995: 36.
Scott, Gerald. “Glory Days: Last Rites for Detroit’s Dowager Automobile Plant.” Monday Morning Newspapers 22 Feb. 1999.
Whelan, Gloria. “The First City.” Michigan Quarterly Review 25 (1986): 182-193.
Last update: September 23, 2007