Television crews from as far away as the Netherlands and Japan had come to film this moment, when the oldest plant of the nation’s largest automaker turned out its last.
Janesville, Wis., lies three-fourths of the way from Chicago to Madison along Interstate 90. The county seat of 63,500 people is the home town of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R) — an old United Auto Workers town in a state led by a new generation of conservative, Gov. Scott Walker (R). It is a Democratic town still, though the economic blow that befell Janesville is the kind of reversal of fortune that drove many working-class Americans to support Donald Trump for president.
The assembly plant began turning out Chevrolets on Valentine’s Day 1923, and, for 8½ decades, the factory, like a mighty wizard, ordered the city’s rhythms. The radio station synchronized its news broadcasts to the shift change. Grocery prices went up along with GM raises. People timed their trips across town to the daily movements of freight trains hauling in parts and hauling away finished cars, trucks and SUVs.
And so, when the plant stopped in the midst of the Great Recession, the people of Janesville — even as they began to reinvent themselves and their town — clung to a faith that GM would reopen the plant so their future could be like their past. Over time, though, people began to confront a question they had not considered before: What choices to make when there were no more good choices left?