Rising out of the ashes of Poletown
The Volt's assembly plant carries a lot of baggage.
In 1980, GM presented recession-ridden Detroit an offer it couldn't refuse. It would build a new plant to replace two others that it was closing, preserving 6000 jobs along with vital tax revenues, but it needed an appropriate location. The city found a perfect plot along its border with Hamtramck, which was itself reeling from the closure of a Dodge factory. The catch? The land also encompassed much of Poletown, a struggling but proud Polish neighborhood. While most of the 3500 affected residents accepted compensation and left, a vocal minority enlisted the help of Ralph Nader to legally challenge Detroit's right of eminent domain, and a few vowed to physically resist removal. However, the combination of city hall and the world's largest corporation proved impossible to stop, and in July 1981, a wrecking ball crashed into Poletown's Immaculate Conception Church. Today, only an old cemetery hints at what once existed on the 465-acre factory grounds.
The destruction might have been easier to accept had the plant indeed furthered GM's ambitious modernization plan. Instead, expensive robots often malfunctioned and, in one infamous case, ended up painting each other. Even when the bugs had been worked out, mediocrity remained. European bureau chief Georg Kacher visited in 1994 and observed disheveled workers "eating, drinking, and smoking on the job." The finished products -- from the Cadillac Seville to the last Pontiac Bonneville -- mostly underperformed in the marketplace. GM had laid off 2500 workers by 1986, and today the plant employs a sixth of the workforce originally envisioned.
And yet, the scene at the so-called Poletown plant is hardly one of defeat. Following a $336 million investment and several months of employee training, Chevy Volts are now rolling down the same line that builds the hoary but quality-leading Cadillac DTS and Buick Lucerne. The Volt would have to vastly exceed sales expectations to bring the plant up to its capacity of more than 200,000 vehicles per year, but the brightest example of what the "new" GM is capable of may yet outshine this facility's checkered past. - David Zenlea