For Wayne Thrift, the journey to this Sun Belt city began on a dismal, drizzly Wednesday last week when he walked out of his gray stone row house across from Mikulski's Bakery in Baltimore.
Thrift headed out past the endless row houses and drab little mom-and-pop stores, leaving behind family, friends and the aged General Motors assembly plant across town that is the only work place he has ever known.
Two days and 1,200 miles later, he pulled into Shreveport, where the camellias are in bloom and a massive, new GM plant offers him the job he was sure to lose in Baltimore.
"Back there, the work, the opportunities are over," said the shy, softspoken Thrift. "Here, I'm gonna better myself."
Wayne Thrift, 27, hopeful, homesick and a little bit jittery, is a man like thousands of others who have abandoned the big, Northeastern cities and their dwindling job opportunities for work and futures in the booming South and Southwest. He is one of the first in a group of 200 Baltimore auto workers who will migrate in the next few months to this city of 200,000 in northwestern Louisiana.
For Thrift it is a journey reminiscent of one taken by his parents a generation ago. In 1956, Ralph and Elsie Thrift piled their kids, their clothes and their dishes into an old Ford and left Shelby, N.C., where they could no longer make it on the $40 a week they earned baking bread at the Boss Bakery and picking peaches on a farm. They came to Baltimore and Thrift's father went to work along with other recent arrivals from the South and Appalachia at the Bethlehem steel plant at Sparrows Point.
"You know, my Dad had a wife and three kids and he had to do something to feed them," Wayne Thrift mused after his first day on the job here earlier this week. "It's funny. My people moved for a job back then, and now I'm moving for the same reason."
This time, though, the move is in the opposite direction. Once part of a tide of migrants that helped build up the cities of the Northeast, Thrift is now part of one that's emptying them. In the last decade, according to Census Bureau figures, the industrial Northeast lost 0.2 percent of its population, while the South grew by a dramatic 19 percent, and a major reason for the shift has been jobs.
Back in Baltimore, the 46-year-old GM plant, where Thrift spent the last nine years on the assembly line, once employed more than 7,000 workers. Shrinking auto sales forced more than 2,000 layoffs last year, and this August the last GM truck to be built in Baltimore will roll off the line and a massive remodeling program will begin. After this $200-million plant expansion, only front-wheel drive, fuel-efficient cars will be built there. But even then, the plant will employ only about 5,000 workers.
Under a national union agreement, GM offered 200 jobs in the new Louisiana plant to the men and women who now work on the Baltimore truck line and those who have been laid off the car line. By the end of February more than 500 had signed up for the chance to go to a city that most had never heard of.
But it was not just the prospect of job security that drew them here -- a place, according to one worker's wife, that is like "another world."
Most of the men who came this week driving raggedy, rickety pickup trucks or vinyl-topped Oldsmobiles or rented Ryder trucks came with a dream.
For Thrift it is a house. He talks about buying a "brick house for under $50,000" as if he were discussing the purchase of a palace. "I was looking at three-bedroom bricks here for $40,000," he said with reverence."Who the hell could have afforded brick in the Baltimore suburbs? You couldn't touch one for under $70,000."
For Joseph Goetz, who traveled here in a rented truck last week with his wife, his daughter, his baby son and all his worldy goods, the vision is of a farm. "I saw a five-acre farm in Maryland for $90,000. A man with a wife and two kids can't make that. But here, it's within my reach," he said as he sat bare chested on his front stoop in the warm Shreveport night. "This is the modern day promised land. If I can come down here and get some property, that's something I can leave my kids."
And Billy Hamm, a salaried employe who works on truck quality control, decided to make the move, too, in part because he was afraid he'd have to go "back on the line" in the renovated Baltimore plant, and in part because of a quiet sort of ambition. Hamm, who worked his way up from janitor to a management slot in 15 years with General Motors, knows he will be getting in on the ground floor of this sprawling, new facility. "It's a big move, a little higher salary, a little prestige. It makes me feel like I've accomplished something with my life, you know, being part of a management team."
But for all the high hopes, there has also been fear.
Before Thrift and his wife drove down to Shreveport last month to look around, Gayle Thrift said she prayed, "Lord, if you're opening a door for us, please let Wayne be the one to love it down there. I thought he might go down and go chicken, but doggone, if he didn't love it."
It was Gayle Thrift, however, who burst into tears in Melva Sasser's real estate office in Shreveport after looking at a lot of houses she thought were "enormous" in neighborhoods she didn't like. "I wanted my little house, my little row house," Gayle Thrift recalled this week in her cozy, overstuffed living room in Baltimore's Patterson Park neighborhood, which she'll leave in July to join her husband. "I knew I wanted to see my little brother grow up here, that Wayne and I would miss our families. But if he's happy, I know I'll adjust."
Indeed, as the men arrived this week, they became instant Sun Belt worshippers. To hear them tell it, the weather here is always sunnier, the work better, the taxes lower, the houses cheaper, the pace calmer, the folks friendlier and the women prettier than they were up North.
Still, there is much they may find to remind them of Baltimore. Daniel Zink, a GM trainer who moved here because he wanted to "take a chance," said Shreveport "looks like Baltimore before Mayor Schaefer got ahold of it," referring to the glittery, urban renewed Inner Harbor that has been William Donald Schaefer's pride and joy.
And even Shreveport's biggest boosters, like Chamber of Commerce chief William Peatross, acknowledge that the city's dilapidated downtown is just beginning to make the turnaround from the late 1960s when the giant oil and gas companies abandoned the city for Houston. Since then, though, the business and political establishment has lured industrial plums such as the GM plant to town and placed a brand new convention and civic center here on the banks of the Red River.
"We like to think we're very metropolitan," real estate agent Sasser said confidentially. "But we're really just a little old small town."
According to preliminary census figures, the city has grown in the last decade. But crime has increased, too, and good housing stock has dwindled. Lest there be any doubt that this is still the Deep South, a Confederate flag flies in front of the city's ornate old courthouse, and blacks, who recently gained their first political recognition, still live mainly in their own separate neighborhoods.
Though the city has brought much new industry to the area since the early '70s, more than 23,000 men and women jumped at the chance to apply and then stood in line for hours when GM announced it was taking applications for about 1,200 jobs. At nearly $11 an hour, those assembly line jobs have a strong allure in this southern city.
Perhaps that's why one Baltimore migrant found his new Louisian license tags practically thrown in his face by a government employe when she found out who he was. "Certainly . . . when you have 200 people coming from Baltimore for these jobs, they're bound to be greeted with not the best of emotions," said Peatross. "But these people will be a boon to the housing market and they'll bring in new ideas."
As first impressions go, the Baltimore migrants found Shreveport to their liking this past week. "One neighbor invited us in for coffee the first day we got here," Wayne Thrift related with amazement. "She treated us like she knew us forever."
And the future -- their houses, their jobs, their children's education -- will have to be left to chance.
"The realtors and all came to the union hall up here in Baltimore and flashed all these beautiful pictures on a screen, you know, houses, and rose gardens and parks and fishing, and then they gave us brochures," said Janice Friend, who will soon move to Shreveport with her husband, Eddie. "But have you ever looked at a brochure for a vacation, and then you get there and it's not like that at all," she said quietly.
"Well, that's how I feel about this. Only this isn't a vacation. It's life."