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The Old Packard Plant: From the Detroit Stories

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It really rubs me the wrong way that all the stories I see about the death of the automobile industry in Detroit always include pictures of the old Packard plant on the city's east side. While it is an image of urban decay, it has nothing to do with the demise of the industry as we know it today. Packard Motor Company closed the plant in 1956, at a time when the automobile industry was shifting into high gear. A year later the forty-acre facility
was sold for $750,000.

The Packard was considered a symbol of excellence among automobiles of the time. My
buddy Rodney remembers the big hullabaloo when Marilyn Monroe came to Detroit to
pick up her brand new, specially designed Packard as it rolled off the assembly line. Sadly,
because of declining car sales, the car company had been forced to merge with Studebaker in
1952, becoming Studebaker-Packard. Years later, the new company came out with
one of the first of a new generation of sports cars: the Avanti.

My first car was a 1949 Packard, given to me by my father for my 16th birthday in 1958. It
was nicknamed "the bath tub" and called "the elephant" by the media. It was a tank of a
car, that I suspect would still be running today had the mechanically-challenged youngster
remembered to put oil in it. It threw a rod right outside of Mickey's Market, our
neighborhood butcher. I remember all the old timers in Hamp's Barbershop, which
was next door, coming out to watch Rodney and me as we struggled to push the
behemoth aside on Forest, an east-west street that crisscrosses the city.

The hardest thing I ever had to do, up to that point, was tell my father, who'd never had a
vehicle of his own as a kid--who used to ride the rails and hitchhiked from New Jersey to
Alabama when he was courting my mother-- that I had screwed-up and ruined a dream
car. It was gray with wood paneling, and had a back seat the size of a small living room. Al
Capone, I suspect, had a Packard, although, he never got to show it off in Detroit because
of the Purple Gang. Turf! If you know what I mean.

After getting the car out of the street, I walked home, cutting through the alley from
Seyburn to get to our street, Baldwin. Actually, I might have gone down the alley between
the two streets and slipped in our back door. Rodney, the chicken shit, went directly home,
across Forest and over a block to Baldwin, where he probably sat on his porch and told his
grandfather what had happened. Man! I should have gone with him.

"Stopped?!! Stopped where? Did you ever check the oil like I told you?"

My father did not take the news very well. And how in the hell did he know it was the oil? I
never told him. It makes me laugh to think about it now, but at the time, it wasn't very funny.

Gilbert John Fleming Smith, Rodney's grandfather, worked at the old Packard plant, where
he was a Committeeman for the UAW. They called him "Smitty" on the plant floor. To me he
was Mr. Smith, or granddaddy. I remember him wearing a tie all the time, though Rodney
says that wasn't the case. He took the bus to work, because it was easier.
He just walked up to East Grand Blvd. and caught the bus on the corner of Gratiot. The
Packard plant was about two or three stops away.

A Committeeman is a pretty important guy on the floor of a union shop. He had other
duties, but Mr. Smith also had to walk around and talk to the workers and check to see if
they had any grievances. He also ran the numbers for the Purple Gang at Packard, so nobody
messed with Mr. Smith. Rodney later learned just how connected his grandfather was when
years later he met a guy by the name of Sam Twig who had known "Smitty" at the Packard
plant. Twig gave him respect for being the committeeman, but that didn't prevent him from
trying to start up a little something for himself with the numbers. He was told in no uncertain
terms "by white people," Rodney says, that "Smitty was the man at the plant."

Mr. Smith was a hell of a baseball pitcher in his younger days in Tennessee. Born in
1898, he lived on a farm that was down the road from a white man named Dr. Bridges.
Bridges had a son who wanted to be a big league pitcher; aware of young Gilbert's talents,
he asked him to give his boy a few pointers. Mr. Smith taught him to throw a wicked curve
ball. Later Tommy Bridges went on to sign with the Detroit Tigers as a starter. When he
retired from baseball he lived in Grosse Point, an upscale suburb of Detroit. Every year he
gave a picnic to which he invited the boys from Tennessee. Rodney's grandfather was always
among the invited guest, but he never went.

Gilbert Smith was one of the early Black labor leaders in the UAW. In the den of his
northwest Detroit home, Rodney has a slate from a 1952 UAW election that reads: "Elect
Gilbert Smith, District Committeeman Forge and Foundry Day. For strength and unity,
from top to bottom, elect Gilbert Smith, 1952."

Rodney remembers going to those smoke-filled union hall meetings with his grandfather
and his cousin Conrad. As far as Black leadership in the union movement, Rodney
explains, for the times, his grandfather was "one of a very few." And while some may look
askance at his casual association with crime organizations of his day, today we live in
a world where the States have become the biggest exponent of gambling, and federally
supported banks extort from their customers at the same rates as yesterday's loan sharks.
It's still about turf.

I remember Mr. Smith being a quiet man who had words of wisdom that applied to a
variety of situations. For instance, if he asked "How you doing Lester?" and I answered
that I was tired, his retort was, "You can't rest if you don't lie down." He was a good
person to sit on the front porch with and just talk about stuff. "A strong cup up of coffee in
the morning would keep you regular, and only a fool eats greens after eight 'clock at night."
Later in life, when I think about my maternal grandfather who came to live with us when I
was younger, I would regret that I never really got to know him.

Whenever I see a picture of the old Packard plant, I think of all the stories connected with it.
A generation of African Americans, mostly from the South, were able to move into the
middleclass because of it and other facilities now idle. The closing of the plant wasn't the
end of anything. For me, it was the beginning of everything.