Harvesting the organs of Ypsilanti’s Visteon plant

The Detroit News’s Charlie LeDuff visits the Ford Visteon plant in Ypsilanti, and watches as it gets torn apart and auctioned in an article entitled, “Selling off America’s manufacturing might, a factory at a time.” Here’s how the article begins:

Ypsilanti — You can now watch the liquidation of the American Dream in real time.

Any given week, the guts of a whole factory are auctioned off. Its contents are sold piece by piece and taken away for scrap or antiques or resale to foreign companies. Men with blowtorches and trucks haul off tool-and-die machines, aluminum siding, hoists, drinking fountains, salt and pepper shakers, anything that might be of some value. It is the removal of the country’s mechanical heart right before your eyes. It is breathtaking.

“Everyone in our generation from the Midwest ought to see this,” said Cooper Suter, a 44-year-old unemployed carpenter from Toledo who has turned to scrapping factories to make ends meet. “It kind of sums up life in the Rust Belt.”

More than a dozen factory auctions have been held over the past six months in Michigan alone. On a recent morning, Suter and his sidekick, Rick Phillips, a 25-year-old former steelyard worker, were mining the last remnants of the Automotive Components Holdings plant, which made alternators and windshield wiper motors for Visteon and Ford. Men like Suter call themselves the cockroaches, the crumb snatchers, the last people in the factory before the metal scrappers come.

ACH is a temporary company owned by Ford Motor Co. whose sole purpose is to sell or shut down 17 former Visteon Corp. plants. In its heyday, the factory employed 3,800 people….

Ypsilanti is not the most besieged city in Michigan, but is an auto town, and its problems mirror those of the larger industrial Midwest. Just four square miles and 35 miles west of Detroit, it has lost more than 25 percent of its population since 1970. Schools have closed, as did its two other auto-related plants. Outside the Visteon plant, located on Factory Street in Ypsilanti alongside Interstate 94 and Ford Lake, the building that housed the UAW Local 849 is for sale…

I’ve got some issues with the piece. I don’t like, for instance, how the accompanying black and white images, shown over plaintive fiddle music, make Ypsi look like a ghost town, avoiding bright well-kept stores like The Rocket, to focus on empty storefronts and dilapidated buildings. Still, it’s a good piece, and I’d highly recommend reading the article and watching the accompanying multimedia piece.

One issue that I had with the Governor’s visit yesterday was how willing everyone seemed to be to “get beyond manufacturing.” I believe it was the Mayor who said proudly that Ypsi was putting its manufacturing past behind it, and evolving into an “arts, culture, and entertainment” destination. Personally, for Ypsi, I think maybe that’s a good thing, but, I still can’t help but think that, as a nation, we’re cutting our own throats when we collectively embrace this idea that we’ve moved beyond manufacturing. It seems to me that it’s not in our best long term interests to be dependant on the Chinese for everything we need to live…. And I don’t know what the solution is. I just know that, at some point, we’re going to pay a price for this.

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  1. Amanda
    Posted April 11, 2009 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    i agree that the black and white video and images chosen paint an inaccurate picture of ypsilanti, though the point made is salient…

    any idea how to know when any remaining auctions there are happening or how people can get inside to see the place?

  2. Walter Street
    Posted April 11, 2009 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    agree completely, very sad to see the plant close and the midwest struggle to make hard commodities. I’d feel a bit like a vulture, but I would love to know where you could purchase a piece of ford history from the plant.

  3. BrianR
    Posted April 11, 2009 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    The auction already happened. Details can be found HERE.

  4. Rob
    Posted April 11, 2009 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Having witnessed the large injection molding machines I used to set up and run being dismantled and stuffed into shipping containers headed to their new home somewhere in China– The same machines that Ford pretty much insisted my former employer purchase with much arm-twisting because we needed to “make” these expensive upgrades or else Ford was (the rumor goes) going to job our work out to a Mexican plant that was using a series of machines that was a generation behind the ones that we were using (???)currently……. Skip ahead a few years, our shop closes and those beautiful forced upon us machines now reside in Asia. I guess you can see that I still feel an ember glow about this….
    I just don’t get this “hate” thing that our country has against manufacturing or really anything tinted blue-collar or “dirty” — Even within my own family I’ve had my elementary aged sister ask me to change out of my work clothes before I picked her up from school one day… It makes me scratch my head….. I guess we’re all supposed to Doctors and lawyers and such– Never mind that the cost of joining that club just keeps getting further and further out of reach of all but the very few…… Flying off on tangents now, but the future I see for the majority of the citizens of this country is getting dimmer every year, an Oligarchy of the rich is what I see– where those that have “made it” rule the rest of us from their gated communities, ala Haiti or some such. To get somewhat back on track, I remember when making things used to be a point of pride, and Ypsilanti proudly had a (gasp!) factory on their city seal…..

  5. native1
    Posted April 12, 2009 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    I hope everyone realizes the importance of buying American cars now.

  6. Elvis Costello
    Posted April 13, 2009 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    My Grandfather (line worker), Uncle(pipefitter and Supervisor), Dad(electrician) and I (for a short time) all worked in the Ypsi Ford Plant. My Dad retired, my Uncle moved on to the Saline Plant. He took me through about a week before he transferred. I couldn’t believe it. The “Old Building”, which housed the Press Room, where they pressed Starter housings from blocks of steel, was empty, like an abandoned house at Fayette State Park. Your chest would pound from the sound of the 30-50-80 ton presses dropping. I just went on a tour of the Rawsonville Plant and it’s much the same. 50% empty, with whole rooms marked, “Ship to Ford of Mexico”. They put a buttload of money into an advanced Fuel Lab not 10 years ago, and now the whole building is empty.
    Here’s the thing…From NAFTA, to CAFTA to free trade with the Chinese, to a proposed free trade with the Colombians, these have been the death knell to American Maufacturing and the middle class. I don’t believe that these were unintended consequences. They were part of a plan to make the rich richer on the backs of those who built this country.
    The death of american maufacturing also gives us a larger, permanent economic underclass, who once had an opportunity to better themselves economically through jobs at “Fords” or GM, or steel mills (and provide health insurance, retirement, etc…. Those days are gone and I believe that we are much the worse.
    This is and has been a race to the bottom, and both Democrats and Republicans have been eager to reap campaign contributions, sit in their offices and watch the jobs fly.

  7. West Cross
    Posted April 13, 2009 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    I love art, culture and entertainment, but it’s not exactly self-sustaining. You have got to have some money coming from somewhere.
    The options are getting pretty thin around these parts.

  8. Burt Reynolds
    Posted April 13, 2009 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    “I love art, culture and entertainment, but it’s not exactly self-sustaining. You have got to have some money coming from somewhere.
    The options are getting pretty thin around these parts.”

    I agree with West Cross. Ypsilanti, as much as locals disagree, needs to start embracing big business empires like Ann Arbor does. I get all the hometown pride in Mom and Pop shops, and the grittiness of Ypsi locals love, but at some point it becomes a hinderance. I feel that time is now. Otherwise, we are going to read an article in 10 years saying how we have lost 50% of the population.

  9. kjc
    Posted April 13, 2009 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    “Ypsilanti, as much as locals disagree, needs to start embracing big business empires like Ann Arbor does. I get all the hometown pride in Mom and Pop shops, and the grittiness of Ypsi locals love, but at some point it becomes a hinderance.”

    Does this mean we’re getting a Noodles and Company?

  10. Posted April 13, 2009 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    I’ll agree that we need industry. I’m not sure, however, how you go from that to saying that we need more franchises and chains. Union factories paid a good wage, and, as others have pointed out, helped to create the middle class, which I think was one of our greatest contributions to civilization. And, with all due respect to the folks at Big Lots and WalMart, what they’re offering isn’t even remotely the same.

  11. Burt Reynolds
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Good point Mark. Kind of a big leap I made. Maybe I was drinking. Wait a minute, yep…..yep….I was defiinately drinking. Either way, I do feel some large chains are needed. Not necessarily something like Walmart, just something bright and shiny might help, in addition to industry.

  12. Posted April 14, 2009 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    I love the old stories about the plant. One hopes that someone is out there in the community, collecting oral histories from folks. It would be a shame to lose everything to history.

  13. Allen
    Posted July 22, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    I was working there the day Charles LeDuff was smuggled in by Cooper Sueter, the gentleman you see at the beginning of the slide show and also the narrator. Mr. Sueter was one of the buyers at the auction when he signed in Mr. LeDuff and his associate claiming they were there to help load purchased items. I never met Mr. LeDuff before so I would not have known him on sight and we were instructed to allow the customers to sign in anyone they needed for help. Little did we know it was going to end up being a piece in the newspaper. I agree that the piece was well put together and made a good point but the way the information was obtained was ambush reporting and to add the scenes of old buildings around Ypsilanti just to add flavor to the story was also dirty pool. Maybe they out to get together with Michael Moore and make a 2 hour docu-drama about Ypsilanti. Needless to say, Mr. Cooper was banned from participating in any future ACH auctions and Mr. LeDuff’s editor was contacted and I cannot say what was in the conversation but it wasn’t to Mr LeDuff’s liking I am sure. After this article ran I researched some of Charles LeDuff’s other reports and you can feel and actually see the cheap editing to make the story look worse than it really was.

  14. Michelle Phiffer
    Posted December 19, 2016 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    My grandfather and grandmother worked at the Ford “generator” plant, and my Mother and my Father, and my two brothers a cousin and myself. It hurts to lose generations of jobs. We cannot be a nation of consumers alone. Someone has got to produce something or we will collapse. I can see it coming. Everyone wants a job but no one wants to work any more. I can see it coming and it’s scary.

4 Trackbacks

  1. […] written of Detroiters forced by circumstances to catch and eat raccoons. He’s written of our local manufacturing infrastructure being auctioned off to China and Mexico. And, perhaps most notably, he’s the journalist who broke the story of the Detroiters who […]

  2. […] The underlying subtext, of course, is that this my very well be something that may soon become commonplace across America — dirty young men, in the dark of night, tearing down the historic buildings that once signified American prosperity, selling the metal for pennies a pound to dealers, who in turn ship it off to China, where it’s reborn as goods which can then be sold back to us. It brings to mind the scene here in Ypsi a few years ago, when all the equipment from the old Visteon plant was sold at auction to companies outside the United Sta…. […]

  3. By State of the City 2013: Shaping Ypsilanti on March 6, 2013 at 10:04 am

    […] the end of 2013. A zoning ordinance rewrite will start in September using the updated master plan. (Our discussion on the closing of the Visteon plant and Michigan’s shift away from manufacturin….)The rest of my state of the city will discuss Ypsilanti’s unique attractions and recent […]

  4. […] as we face escalating legacy costs (mainly in the form of municipal retiree health benefits), decreasing tax revenues (resulting in large part due to the well-documented crimes of the financial industry, and the […]

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