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Hard Times in Paul Ryan's Hometown

GM once guaranteed the people of Janesville, Wisc., a good wage for a hard job. Is the city becoming a symbol of the new austerity that leaves the poor behind?

Janesville Assembly was one of General Motors' oldest plants, employing 4,000 people at its height, turning out classic Chevy and GMC vehicles. In December 2008, the last GM truck rolled off the line.

For a related photo essay by Danny Wilcox Frazier, click here.

DRIVING THROUGH JANESVILLE, WISCONSIN, IN A DOWNPOUR, looking past the wipers and through windows fogged up with cigarette smoke, Main Street appears to be melting away. The rain falls hard and makes a lonesome going-away sound like a river sucking downstream. And the old hotel, without a single light, tells you that the best days around here are gone. I always smoke when I go to funerals. I work in Detroit. And when I look out the windshield or into people's eyes here, I see a little Detroit in the making.

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A sleepy place of 60,483 souls—if the welcome sign on the east side of town is still to be believed—Janesville lies off Interstate 90 between the electric lights of Chicago and the sedate streets of Madison. It is one of those Middle-Western places that outsiders pay no mind. It is where the farm meets the factory, where the soil collides with the smokestack. Except the last GM truck rolled off the line December 23, 2008. Merry Christmas Janesville. Happy New Year.

The Janesville Assembly Plant was everything here, they say. It was a birthright. It was a job for life and it was that way for four generations. This was one of General Motors' oldest factories—opened in 1919. This was one of its biggest—almost 5 million square feet. Nobody in town dared drive anything but a Chevy or a GMC.

Back then GM was the largest industrial corporation in the world, the largest carmaker, the very symbol of American power. Ike's man at the Pentagon—a former GM exec himself—famously said, "What was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa." Kennedy, Johnson, Obama, they all campaigned here. People here can tell you of their grandparents who came from places like Norway and Poland and Alabama to build tractors and even ammunition during the Big War. Then came the Impalas and the Camaros. In the end they were cranking out big machines like the Suburban and the Tahoe, those high-strung, gas-guzzling hounds of the American Good Times.

Today, some $50 billion in bailouts later, GM is on life support and there is a sinking feeling that the country is going down with it. Those grandchildren are considering moving to Texas or Tennessee or Vegas. Who is to blame? Detroit? Wall Street? Management? Labor? NAFTA? Does it matter? Come to Janesville and see what we've thrown away.

For years, the people here heard rumors that the plant was on its way out. But no one ever believed it, really. Something always came along to save it. Gas prices went down or cheap Chinese money floated in. Janesville was too big to ignore. Too big to close.

And then they closed it.

The local UAW union hall is quiet now. A photograph from a 1925 company picnic hangs there. The whole town is assembled near the factory, the women in petticoats, the children in patent leather, the men in woolen bowlers. The caption reads, "Were you there Charlie?"

Todd Brien's name still hangs in the wall cabinet—Recording Secretary, it reads. But that is just a leftover like a coin in a cushion. Brien, 41, moved to Arlington, Texas, to take a temp job in a GM plant down there in April. He left his family up here. He is one of the lucky ones. Most of the other 2,700 still employed after rounds of downsizing had no factory to go to. But now, what with the bankruptcy of GM, he's temporarily laid off from Texas, and back in Janesville to gather his family and head south.

"It was always in the back of my mind around here...They can take it away," Brien says. "Well, they did. Now what? Can't sell my house. Main Street's boarding up. The kids around here are getting into drugs. You wonder when's the last train leaving this station? I just never believed it was going to happen." Today, freight trains leaving from Janesville's loading docks take auctioned bits and pieces of the plant to faraway places: welding robots, milling machines, chop saws, drill presses, pipe threaders, drafting tables, salt and pepper shakers.

Janesville is still a nice place. They still cut the grass along the riverbank. The churches are still full on Sunday. The farmers still get up before dawn. But there are the little telltale signs, the details, the darkening clouds.

This story was first published in Sept. 2009 with the headline "End of the Line."

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