After 41 years as a toolmaker at the Revere Copper and Brass Co., George Turgyan did not expect to spend this summer on his front porch watching children race bicycles down tree-shaded Keppen Avenue.
Even on that "big day" two years ago when presidential candidate Ronald Reagan came to his neighborhood for a Labor Day picnic with unemployed auto and steel workers, Turgyan still felt secure in his job and hopeful that better times were ahead.
Today, his job is gone and his optimism is fading. In this small corner of the ravaged industrial Midwest, Labor Day came as a particularly bittersweet reminder of the expectations of those here who voted for Reagan and the sobering realities of the last two years.
On Keppen Avenue, the street that candidate Reagan selected to symbolize his empathy for the plight of working Americans, a visitor is now drawn into soul-searching conversations about how times have grown more difficult.
National polls showed in 1980 that large numbers of blue-collar workers like Turgyan abandoned the Democratic Party to vote for Reagan.
But surveys now indicate rising disillusionment among those affected by longterm joblessness.
"The blue-collar worker is what Reagan was talking about, and a lot of them were still working when he was here," said longtime Keppen Avenue resident Veryle Garrison, 61. "But he would get a different reception today. He promised more work, and look what's happened."
"The majority of people here would say they are worse off than they were two years ago," said Turgyan, 60, who was unexpectedly forced into early retirement when his plant was partially closed. "I'm afraid the economy is going to get worse. Who's going to employ the young people? And with the cuts in social programs, who's going to take care of the older people?"
These questions were echoed along the two blocks where Reagan had campaigned. At the same time, some residents held Reagan blameless for the deteriorating economy. "I would get out there with gloves and a bat to defend him," said Carl Hungo, 42, a welder. "The guy is just trying to do a job."
Many of the families settled here after World War II and, with few interruptions, enjoyed a 30-year surge in prosperity built around Michigan's auto industry. They share common eastern European heritage, and it was a neighborhood like Keppen Avenue that Reagan addressed in Liberty City, N.J., just before coming to Allen Park in 1980.
"We are talking about doing away with Jimmy Carter's view of a no-growth policy, an ever-shrinking economic pie with smaller pieces for each of us," Reagan said then. "That's no answer. We can have a bigger pie with bigger slices for every one of us. I believe that together you and I can bake that bigger pie. We can make that dream that brought so many of us or our parents and grandparents to this land live once more.
"A home is part of that dream," Reagan said. "A job, savings and hope for our children is part of that dream. . . . A decent neighborhood is part of that dream."
Reagan captured the imagination of Keppen Avenue, and he defeated Carter in the town of Allen Park (pop. 34,196) by 9,390 to 7,465. There remains a reservoir of respect here for Reagan's appealing personal style, but today those aspects of the "dream" he mentioned are instead often a source of anxiety.
Turgyan, of Hungarian descent who has lived on Keppen Avenue for 32 years, recalls it was "quite a big day" when Reagan stepped out of his limousine carrying kielbasa for a backyard cookout at the home of Emil and Mary Petri, just down the street. At the time, "it seemed like we were sliding and I thought changing the president would improve things," he said. "I thought the working man deserved a break."
"My father was a Democrat who voted against Hoover and told all his friends," Turgyan recalled. "We were confirmed Democrats." His vote for Reagan "was the first time in my life I voted for a Republican, and I am beginning to regret it."
One reason was the layoff notice he got about a year after Reagan's visit. "Our plant had been in operation for 80 years," he said, "and I was the top seniority person in my department." Later, the layoff became a forced early retirement.
But Turgyan said his "disappointment" with Reagan goes beyond his plight. He also worries about his children. In his living room, a copy of the Cleveland Plain Dealer was spread on the floor. His daughter, he explained, was combing the want ads, searching for work outside the state.
Like others near retirement on Keppen Avenue, Turgyan is also anxious about the future of Social Security. "I'll be eligible in two years," he said. "I wonder if there will be anything there for me."
Down the street, hard times have had the opposite effect for Art Garrison, 64, a bus driver. "I've worked the same job 43 years. I would like to retire now, but I can't afford to," he said. His wife, Veryle, recalled that when Reagan came to Allen Park and talked about reviving the economy, "we trusted him. We thought he knew what he was talking about. Now we have some doubts."
"We're not any better off than we were two years ago, and a lot of families are worse off. We have a son with three children and they are much worse off than they were two years ago. Parents carry that worry, too," she said.
"A lot of older people are helping their kids," Art Garrison said. "The children just can't make it."
"My sons have all been laid off," said Waller Rozanski, 54, a Keppen Avenue resident for 30 years who now works as a pressman at the Detroit Free Press. "One son is an architect and he got laid off. Another got a degree at the University of Michigan and he can't get work. A lot of people have lost their butts and their savings. I have a boy that came home; he couldn't cut it on the outside."
Dennis Campbell, 38, a supervisor at a General Motors diesel engine plant, said he had hoped Reagan would become a president with the stature of John F. Kennedy. "What we're all looking for is a hero," he said. "I was expecting something in that image, that everyone one was going to go back to work."
Art Garrison also had high hopes, reaching back to his memory of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. "When he came in, he made promises and he did it," Garrison said. "I thought Reagan would do things like Roosevelt, and Roosevelt did turn it around."
In his Labor Day speech two years ago Reagan promised to "roll back the crushing burden of taxation," and he delivered with a three-year 25 percent across-the-board income tax cut, of which 15 percent has gone into effect. But the near-unanimous view from Keppen Avenue is that it might as well never have happened, at least so far.
While Reagan was cutting taxes in Washington, recession-hit Michigan was raising them. In May, two months before the July installment of Reagan's tax cut showed up in paychecks, a six-month temporary state income tax boost was put into effect. Then came new state taxes on cigarettes, and the Social Security tax hike previously set by Congress. Soon to come will be new federal taxes on cigarettes and telephone use.
"I sure as hell didn't feel it," Rozanski said of the federal tax cut. "You have a tax cut in one hand, and they take it away. They take twice as much back." Another lament echoed on Keppen Avenue is that the tax cuts "favored the people with more money than the little guy," in Turgyan's words.
But this does not mean that the criticism of Reagan as a "rich man's president" holds water among all the workers who voted for him. With some exceptions, they believe Reagan has a difficult job and should be free to choose his lifestyle.
"Kennedy has money, too," said Veryle Garrison. "Where would the country be without rich people? Where would Dearborn be without the rich Fords?" Most people on Keppen Avenue said they have read about declining inflation but have not felt it yet in their pocketbooks. What they have felt is unemployment. It has idled older workers near retirement and prevented their children from getting a first job. Even the middle-class households that once felt insulated from Michigan's spreading economic cancer now find it undermining their sense of well-being.
Mary Burja, who has lived on the street for 25 years, recalls the day when a laid-off auto worker showed up at her door offering to fix broken television sets for a fraction of a repair man's fee. "I couldn't believe it," she said, "but I guess a half a loaf is better than none."
Veryle Garrison works for a beauty supply company, and has discovered many "bootleg beauticians," women who work in their homes to make extra cash. There are more customers, too, because more women are going to work to make ends meet.