Years ago, I am told, when a resident of Kenosha traveled outside Wisconsin and was asked where he or she lived, when the city was identified, the response was often, “Oh, that’s a big auto town, isn’t it?”
“Yup, that’s the place”, was the proud response.
They have been making cars in Kenosha since the early days of cars. First, it was Ramblers, then Nash Ramblers, then American Motors cars. During its heyday, AMC employed over 17,000 people here. In the 1970’s things started to decline, and Renault, a French carmaker, was here for a while. After that, Renault was sold to Chrysler, who ended auto production here in the 1980’s. Now all that is left is the Daimler Chrysler Engine plant and that may soon change, too. The remaining vestige of Kenosha’s long standing auto industry is scheduled to close because of the auto industry bailout and the sale of Chrysler to Fiat, an Italian auto maker.
Everyone in town is concerned about the proposed closing of the engine plant because even those who are not current or retired auto workers will be affected. There isn’t anyone in town, from merchants to doctors, who won’t feeling this closing if it happens.
I attended a meeting the other night where representatives from the UAW spoke about the situation. I found it interesting that their attitude was not one of anger about the plant closing, for they said if Chrysler is not selling cars, they don’t need engines and there isn’t much the workers here can do about that. What angers them, though, is that these job are not scheduled to disappear – they are scheduled to move to Mexico.
It angers me, too. It is not right. One can argue whether the shift away from auto manufacturing has been good or bad for the city. In the 1970’s and 1980’s when American Motors was headquartered in Detroit, there were many who at that time wanted to say goodbye to the absentee landlords. After they did leave, the land on which the lakeshore auto production plant stood was cleaned up and turned into Harbor Park, a piece of land that now houses residences (where I live), museums, marinas, and parks. I suppose if you had asked the people seen here enjoying the perfect June afternoon we had today, they would agree that the city turned this old industrial site into beautiful public property.
There is no question that this is an auto town. It seems there isn’t a summer evening or weekend without some kind of car show. There’s the big one at Simmons Island or the one in downtown Kenosha. There are smaller ones in fast food parking lots and city parks. There are shows with all kinds of cars and those that specialize in everything from Ramblers and AMC models to Corvettes, muscle cars and who knows what else.
But beyond the love of cars in K-town, the engine plant employs over 800 workers. They should not loose their jobs without very, very good reason, and those jobs certainly should not be exported to Mexico. Our government officials need to know we feel about this, and not just UAW member or people who live in Kenosha. They also need to hear from people all over Wisconsin, the Great Lakes, and the United States. They need to hear from all of us – car lovers and those of us who don’t care whether a car has much more than four tires and an engine and gets us where we want to go.
By the way, if you want to know more about the history of the automobile industry in Kenosha, visit the Kenosha History Center, which just happens to be across the harbor from where the American Motors plant used to be.