I traveled to Lapeer in Michigan recently to visit an old, dear friend. Lapeer happens to be near the motor city of Flint. I was given a tour of Flint by his wife Sue. Flint was getting ready to have a “celebration” of GM’s 100th anniversary (if you can call it a celebration).
I was saddened by the sight. A significant part of the city of Flint was the old Buick City where Buicks were made. As an old Buick owner, I was intrigued by what I saw. The General Motors parade was going to show a 100-year history of GM cars.
Unemployment in Flint is approaching 10%. Now, there are only about 6,000 GM workers in Flint, compared to 100,000 at its height. Unmployment in Michigan exceeds 8%, compared to about 7% for the state of California. There is a net exodus of population from Michigan for other states.
At its peak, Buick City employed over 28,000. The figure varies depending upon who you ask. In 1999, most of this plant was shut down. There is a small force of 1,000 still employed in Flint, but the V6 engine factory of 700 employees is scheduled to close in August, leaving Buick City virtually desolate. In the 1950s, the Detroit area had the highest median income, and highest rate of home ownership, of any major US city. But times are very different now. California's Silicon Valley now enjoys higher income than the Detroit area.
It was an amazing sight to see Buicks dating from 1915 to brand new ones lined up in parking lots, exhibited for visitors. Buick started production in 1904. I didn’t see any earlier models, but I saw the photo of a replica of a 1904 Model B Buick in a news article.
We saw Buicks from models from 1915 onwards. Not every year was covered, but it was a massive display. Buick had used golf legend Tiger Woods to advertise its fleet of cars. The leading truck had a huge picture of Tiger Woods about to strike a ball with his club, along with the picture of a Buick.
Sue made a driving mistake and drove into the closed off streets of the Buick car displays. A GM employee walked up to us. He said that he was part of the last group of 700 employees about to be laid off in August. Sue’s car was foreign and she was trapped not able to figure out where to go. From the passenger seat, I said that I owned a Saturn, a GM car. That apparently caused the GM employee to relax. He walked over to the end of street and lifted one of the barricades and let us out of the area.
We also stopped to eat at a beautifully constructed but empty restaurant, Makuch’s Red Rooster -- “the pinnacle of fine dining." Established in 1959, the once swank restaurant featured flaming desserts and tableside cooking. It entertained GM executives on their heyday. We were the only two customers at our late lunch. The waitress was pleased to get some business. She was unhappy about the plant closings and the loss of business in town. Many houses near Buick City were boarded shut, and mostly in dilapidated condition.
by Vijay Kumar
- Large, roomy Buicks of the 50s, 60s when gas was still cheap. (top)
- 1915 Buick in good condition. owner still drives it. (middle)
- Crumbling buildings of Buick City, now almost completely shut down. Parking lots are desolate, there’s no smoke from the chimneys and no humans – hardly any guards protecting the structures. (bottom)
Vijay Kumar came to the United States in 1960 as an immigrant, worked and attended College. He is a UC Berkeley graduate of Haas School of Business, 1965. After graduation, he passed Actuarial Math and Statistics examinations, but got introduced to the field of software and stayed with it. He worked for IBM, Memorex, BMC and a couple of other companies. He is on the Board of Advisors of Internet Speech, a silicon valley company. He has a son and a daughter. His daughter gave him his first grandchild-a granddaughter at the end of May, 2008. In 1960, he was impressed by speeches by John Kennedy and his election. John Kennedy also came to UC Berkeley in 1962 and gave a moving speech. After getting his citizenship in 1966, he campaigned for Robert Kennedy. Following that, he joined the Democratic Party's Progressive Democratic Caucus