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What's Ahead For The Towns Where GM Is Shutting Operations


Janesville, Wis., knows all too well what happens when General Motors leaves town. The automaker pulled out of the city in 2008, leaving 13 percent of the town unemployed. On Monday, five other North American cities got word their GM plants are closing.

Amy Goldstein is a staff writer for The Washington Post, and she spent six years in Janesville studying how the city recovered from the loss of their main employer. She says there is a lot the city can teach those still reeling from this week's announcement.


AMY GOLDSTEIN: Good to be with you.

CHANG: So in your book "Janesville: An American Story," you lay out this really devastating picture of what happens when an auto plant leaves a community. Can you just describe what that aftermath was like in Janesville?

GOLDSTEIN: There are a couple of really profound effects when that kind of mass layoff happens. There are job effects.

CHANG: Sure.

GOLDSTEIN: And it's not just GMers losing work. Because the plant exists, there are lots of local supplier companies...

CHANG: Right.

GOLDSTEIN: ...That provide goods and services to the General Motors plant, and...

CHANG: And those jobs become in jeopardy.

GOLDSTEIN: And those jobs largely disappear as well. In Janesville, there was a seat-making factory that had nearly 800 workers who manufactured seats. It was called just-in-time production. That means that they were delivering the seats three hours before they were bolted into GM vehicles.

So there are these supplier companies that disappear. And then there's, like, another ring of jobs that go away because there are fewer people with the ability to spend money to go out to eat. I know of a woman who ran a day care center that closed down because parents out of work didn't need to have somebody else looking for the little kids.

CHANG: And among these far-reaching ripple effects - I'm curious because Janesville had a real sense of identity from being a GM town. Was there a psychological toll on top of all these job losses that you saw, a real psychological toll in the community because the identity was basically eviscerated?

GOLDSTEIN: That's exactly right. So when GM went away, one of the things that I detected - and I should say I didn't arrive in town to begin getting to know people there until 2 1/2 years after the plant closed. And even though it was a while later, I immediately started hearing people saying to me, well, it's just a matter of time until the plant comes back.

There was a huge amount of denial that lasted a lot longer than you might expect, and it was understandable because a plant that began making tractors right after World War I and started turning out Chevies in 1923 - over all those decades, that plant had products that came and products that left and new products that came to replace it. So it was hard to imagine that the future wouldn't be like the past with a new product that would arrive.

CHANG: You know, much of your book - it discusses the hardest, most crushing aspects of the aftermath in Janesville. But I'm curious. What was the brightest spot you found in watching this town recover?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, I think that Janesville has a very long community spirit and that part of that showed up when all this job loss happened in a huge amount of fundraising to provide services for people who were falling out of the middle class. I mean, one of the things I learned is that falling out of the middle class is very different than having been poor all along, and people take great pains to hide from their neighbors that they're hurting financially. And, you know, you ask about what was bright. There was a huge amount of effort - just homegrown effort to raise money, hold fundraisers for these little, grassroots nonprofits.

CHANG: Yeah, we're all in this together.

GOLDSTEIN: Exactly, and we can chart our own futures.

CHANG: So it has been 10 years since GM left Janesville. How have you seen this town recover and possibly thrive in the years that have passed?

GOLDSTEIN: The big news in town is that after many years in which the plant was in a limbo status - it was on standby, and almost a year ago, the plant was sold. And it's now being demolished. I was just back in town last month, and it actually was kind of heartbreaking to see this huge 4.8-million-square-foot factory being reduced to rubble. But the hopeful part of that is that the new owner, which is a company that specializes in distressed industrial properties, is going to try starting sometime next year to find new businesses to attract for small parcels of the land. So the future is really unknown...

CHANG: Oh, yeah, yeah.

GOLDSTEIN: ...But might be on the upswing.

CHANG: That's Washington Post staff writer Amy Goldstein. Thank you very much.

GOLDSTEIN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.