MADISON, Wis. — Heading west on the Illinois Tollway last week, I passed a familiar landmark, the Chrysler plant in Belvidere. It occurred to me how much this sprawling complex had touched my life, although I'd never had -- or even considered -- a job there.
The closest I got to employment at Belvidere was a summer job for a Chrysler supplier in nearby Byron, Ill. But that relationship typifies a vast region. There's hardly a normal soul within 50 miles -- probably 100 miles -- of the Belvidere plant who has gone untouched by its presence.
Belvidere, along with its big brother a few miles west, Rockford, is one of the westernmost cities strung between Interstates 90 and 70 that compose what we call the Rust Belt. I tend to place the Rust Belt's eastern terminus at Easton, Pa., with Janesville, Wis., as the last stop west.
Rust Belt factories have been an integral part of the
supply chain and the community. But times change.
Heritage and history
Every town along the way has a similar economic heritage, centered around a dominant industry born in the Industrial Revolution: iron, steel, machine tools, railroads, trucks, automobiles, engines, auto parts, tires, refineries, industrial machinery. Every Rust Belt industry has demanded an abundance of strong, silent men (and women) smart enough to balance a ton and a half of loose bar joists chained beneath an overhead crane, but humble enough to survive five decades on the job resigned to never having really clean fingernails.
I come from those people. But I didn't fully appreciate the immense power of the Big Factory in a Rust Belt town until I lived, during college and afterwards, in Rockford and Beloit, Wis. I saw how the presence of the Big Factory was both source and hindrance for community prosperity. I realized how it shaped the dreams of its employees' children, who were expected -- if they worked hard in school -- to go on to something better than their blue-collar parents.
By the same token, the Belvidere plant still serves, for the working stiffs of Boone County and beyond, as the big fallback. If you screw up in school, or your rock band breaks up, Belvidere is there for you, holding out the chance of a decent living. Once hired, at UAW wages, you can support a family (especially if the wife works), buy a double-wide, put the kids in parochial school, maybe even get a boat.
The long reach
But here's the rub: The Belvidere plant has a dark side, its shadow touching every hamlet within its ambit, every school board, every mom-and-pop tool-and-die outfit, every restaurant and watering hole. When things go sour for Chrysler, they go sour for Boone County, for Rockford, for thousands of paycheck-to-paycheck workers in that 100-mile radius, for everyone who's vulnerable to every little tremor in the fortunes of the Big Plant in Belvidere.
When the Belvidere plant goes on annual hiatus to retool for the next year's models, a swath of America holds its breath, wondering if this "temporary" layoff will be two weeks, or two months, or maybe this is the year we all knew would come eventually, when Detroit (or Washington, or God) decides Belvidere just ain't worth the trouble anymore.
When I lived around there, I had neighbors whose lives hung on the day-to-day, year-to-year, life-or-death sustenance and suspense that emanated from that Big Plant in Belvidere.
When I was driving I-90 last week, I passed towns with similar stories. In Beloit, the Fairbanks Morse empire was once so mighty that its semi-pro football team beat the Green Bay Packers. In Kenosha, American Motors once reigned, until it died. In Racine, J.I. Case and Johnson Wax are still there, fundamental and fearsome. Rockford, one of the pillars of the Rust Belt, had a half-dozen smokestack giants -- now, not so much. And in Janesville...
One man's vote
General Motors closed its Janesville plant in 2009. Amazing, really. In 2009, one of Congress's rising stars, Rep. Paul Ryan, was a Janesville guy.
In 2009, Ryan voted against the GM bailout, out of conviction, and out of his own experience as a scion of Janesville's small upper-crust. His principled vote defied a basic political truth: that an honorable Congressman's first job is to keep open, come hell or high water, the Big Factory in his district. He's supposed to fight for his people.
To stand responsibly for a Rust Belt city, a Congressman must understand that the Big Factory is the local economy's lifeblood. It's the cornerstone of the community's middle-class, the glue that holds local society intact, and the mark of aspiration for every kid in every local high school. It is the best hope, and the last resort.
I drove through Janesville, wondering: Why is this man still in office?