The loss of manufacturing jobs is the central narrative of the upper Midwest portion of the US. This region was once home to blue-collar manufacturing jobs, the majority of which were union, which provided good wages and the opportunity for families to own a home and support their families. This largely ended when factory-after-factory moved overseas, the final nail in the coffin being NAFTA (supported by President Clinton) that turned rust belt cities into mass-unemployment zones.
In Milwaukee, one of the more unfortunate symbols of the city is the A.O. Smith/Tower Automotive site – a sprawling 80-acre complex of mostly vacant buildings in the predominantly African American north side.
This was not always the case. From 1910-1997 A.O Smith employed upwards of 10,000 workers – manufacturing everything from car frames, pipes, hot water heaters, airplane propellers, vats for breweries, and even bomb casings during World War I. And from 1997-2006 Tower Automotive employed smaller, yet sizable, numbers. Now the site is largely a ghost town.
In 2010, hope to reinvigorate the site was dashed with the election of Gov. Scott Walker and his “open for business” mantra. Prior to his election, the Milwaukee city government – under the leadership of Mayor Barrett – had helped convince the Spanish train manufacturing company Talgo to set up shop after the Obama Administration slated hundreds of millions of dollars in stimulus funds to build train lines that would facilitate high-speed trains. However, Walker-being the teabag politician that he is – rejected $810 million dollars in federal funds that would have financed a high-speed rail from Milwaukee to Madison, essentially ending Talgo’s reason for locating to Milwaukee. And in 2012, Talgo closed its Milwaukee train manufacturing operations, leaving only a small maintenance base.
This proved to be yet another devastating blow to the central city where unemployment, especially African American male unemployment (which is estimated at 55%, with some putting the number closer to 65%) is rampant.
In Milwaukee, we feel the effects of unemployment everyday, but others in different regions of the country may not know just how far the Midwest has fallen. This is why Barbara Miner’s new book “Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City” is so important.
Miner tells the story of a declining manufacturing base in Milwaukee, hyper-segregation, right-wing attacks on public schools, and a myriad of social justice movements that have pushed back from the open schools and fair housing marches of the 60s to the more recent Wisconsin Uprising.
Miner’s book is a must-read and I assigned it to my UWM undergraduate class “Art and Social Movements” this past Spring semester. I also invited Barbara to speak to the class and her influence was tangible. When I assigned a final visual project – a public art project where students chose their own topic – many gravitated to the themes that Miner discussed.
Two students – one painter and one photographer – Allison Mollet and Alexander Smith – exceeded all expectations. They projected images of deindustrialization on the building that has become the symbol of deindustrialization in the city – the Tower Automotive site.
On a brisk Friday evening they set up a generator, digital projector, and laptop and projected a series of historical images onto the face of the building as the night slowly turned dark.
Some of photographic images detailed the products that use to be manufactured in the building. Other images were more somber. One series of photos depicted a job fair at the site in the 1980s where 5,000 people turned up for a mere 150 jobs that were offered.
The event was really interesting. A crowd of 20-plus gathered and watched the images. Some cars slowed down and some stopped to inquire. For the two students, they found a new home for their work – they placed art in the most important of locales – the public. And they added meaningful content that can only lead to more dialog, and hopefully change.
Below are more photos from the event: