The cat stepped out of the building's dim emptiness, stretching skin over ribs, and looked hopefully at its visitors.
"There used to be a hundred of them in here," said Joe Kozma.
No more. The Dodge Main auto plant, a hulking industrial citadel of foundries, assembly buildings and warehouses that once employed 36,000 autoworkers at the end of World War II and sheltered an army of cats, is closed for good.
Dodge Main, where Joe Kozma has spent two-thirds of his life, is now a useless relic. Chrysler Corp. closed the plant in January, sending the last 3,200 workers home because the sedans and station wagons produced on the plant's two assembly lines no longer could compete with smaller Japanese imports, and the plant was too expensive to run.
The price tag on the 166 acres and 1 million square feet of floor space is $1. With no serious buyers in sight, Chrysler has effered to give the plant to local government agencies so it can be razed and the site redeveloped as an industrial park. If the land can be cleared in one year, General Motors is ready to build a new Cadillac assembly plant there, the company says.
Like a pharaoh's tomb rising in the desert, it stands as a silent witness to an earlier time. Dodge Main, where Horace and John Dodge began turning out their $785 passenger car in 1914, joins the huge, empty Uniroyal plant on Detroit's Jefferson Avenue, the Packard works on East Grand Boulevard, the steel plants in Youngstown, Ohio, the rubber tire plants in Akron and a lengthening list of other vast, discarded symbols of a country's industrial youth.
A critical question for old industrial cities is whether these plants will remain as empty eyesores, a heavy drain on local tax resources, or be converted into something useful.
Dodge Main's eight-story assembly buildings and power plant fill up the skyline of Hamtramck, the small factory town on Detroit's East Side with the Polish name that seems to be missing a few letters. For nearly 70 years it was Hamtramck's economic mainspring. The city prospered when the plant ran full speed and suffered during its strikes and shutdowns, says Mayor Robert Kozaren.
The thousands of European immigrants who came to work in Detroit's auto plants in the 1920s and 1930s had no trouble pronouncing the name. "We had machinists and millwrights and carpenters and welders and tool makers. We used to build the whole car," said Kozma, a local labor official who was not quite 20 years old when he came to work at Dodge Main in 1936. There are a lifetime of memories for him in the plant's galleries and corridors, now dark and empty.
The construction of a car began on the ground floor, where huge stamping machines in a row -- the "Valley of the Giants" -- cut fenders, hoods and doors from rolls of sheet steel.
These pieces traveled to the top floor, where the assembly line began, winding down through the lower floors as the hundreds of pieces were welded, screwed and fastened together, sanded and painted.
Each assembly line produced a new car every minute, so the thousands of autoworkers had about that long to complete their individual tasks, over and over again, car after car. On the second floor, the engine met the body and the two were joined. The gasoline tank was filled, the key was turned and the car driven off the line.
It was a family institution, says Kozma. Sons followed fathers into the plant, some of them working there as summer replacements to earn the money for a college education, and autoworkers' children became accountants, lawyers, dentists.
Dodge Main was also a battleground between the United Auto Workers and the auto industry. When the plant's UAW Local 3 celebrated it's 40th anniversary in 1975, the two events highlighted on the cover of the commemorative newspaper were a 1937 sitdown strike, the first by the UAW at the plant, and the most recent strike, in 1973.
The 1937 sitdown strike was a primal test of strength between the company and the newly formed auto union, which was demanding the right to bargain over wage and working conditions for plant employes. On March 8, the local union leaders locked the gates, leaving 1,800 workers inside, occupying the plant, refusing to leave for 15 days until the Michigan governor promised that state police would keep the plant out of operation until the company and union settled their dispute. It ended with a contract from Chrysler recognizing the UAW as the plant's bargaining representative.
Eruptions of labor disputes over the years punctuated the daily assembly line monotony as the plant aged and the makeup of the work force changed. Young blacks from Detroit gradually took the place of the retired Hamtramck workers with European roots, followed by immigrants from Yemen, Lebanon and other Arab countries who came to Detroit in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Along the way, something went wrong. Chrysler officials and UAW members agree.The relationship between older white foreman and younger black and Arab autoworkers could not survive the pressures of Detroit's riot in 1967 and a growing hostility of young assembly line workers to strict authority.
"To us, a lot of the foremen seemed to come to the plant straight from the Army," said Jerry Solomon, who joined Dodge Main nine years ago. "We knew they had the authority and everything. But they'd order you to do it in a way that didn't sit right."
A generation ago, workers tolerated the staggering heat of furnaces and foundries and the unbroken noise of the assembly line as part of the job, and found relief in the rows of beer and whiskey lined up at the B&H lounge across Joseph Campau Avenue. By the mid-1970s, some autoworkers were getting relief on the job and the smell of marijuana in the assembly pits could make a non-smoker high. By then, workmanship in the plant had slipped noticeably, company and union officials agree.
By then, too, the plant was showing its age. More and more parts were now purchased from outside suppliers and assembled at Dodge Main, and the costs of operation swelled far above those at modern, one-story assembly plants.
Alfred Kahn, the Detroit architect who left his mark on the entire auto industry, had built plants like Dodge Main to last forever. Kahn's development of thick, mushroom-shaped concrete columns permitted multi-story factory buildings whose stressed concrete floors could carry tremendous weights.
But Kahn hadn't reckoned with today's prices of electricity and coal. Its walls of windows let in summer heat and winter cold. The power required to lift sheet metal parts eight floors to the start of the assembly line became too expensive. By last year, the utility costs at Dodge Main had reached $14.6 million, more than twice those at Chrysler's modern, one-story assembly plant at Belvidere, Ill.
So Dodge Main was closed. Its corridors are ghostly places now: A tangle of hoses hang from the ceiling like spaghetti. A pair of safety glasses, a shoe, a dirty glove lie on the floor like the debris left by a retreating army. The metal arms that once carried cars along the line hang open and empty. A sign in the paint shop tells an empty room: "No smoking or loafing."
City officials in Detroit and Hamtramck will tear it all down, or dynamite it, if they have to, to overcome Alfred Kahn's concrete columns and floors.
"GM has made a commitment. They'll build if the site is cleared by next July," says Hamtramck mayor Kozaren. An adjoining piece of land in Detroit will be added to the site to create a 500-acre industrial park.
GM would build a modern plant to produce new, lighter-weight Cadillacs, providing jobs for thousands of Detroit and Hamtramck residents. "It's a precedent for other older cities if we can accomplish it," says Detroit Mayor Coleman Young.
"This is a big project for Detroit. For Hamtramck it's the whole ballgame," said Kozaren.