Final Inspection

Packard Plant: From Abandoned to Embraced

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Detroit Free Press photographer Brian Kaufman captures the tragic decline of a historic vehicle assembly plant on the city's east side in a riveting new documentary, "Packard: The Last Shift."

DETROIT – It’s more than bizarre that this town – and many people from around the world – find the Packard plant on the city’s east side so fascinating as an urban wasteland.

Nobody gave a hoot about the property for 30 years while it decayed and crumbled after vehicle production halted in the 1950s. When the aging process was sufficient to make the buildings dangerous, creepy and an unrecognizable shell of its former glory, only then did the Packard plant become interesting.

What is wrong with us, people?

Detroit Free Press photographer Brian Kaufman captures it all beautifully in his new documentary, “Packard: The Last Shift,” which played to a packed house of more than 1,000 people last week at the historic Fillmore Theater a few miles from the plant site.

Shown during the Freep Film Festival, this riveting documentary delivers just about everything you’d expect: people who worked there, historical accounts, funny anecdotes and, of course, grainy old footage and photos of hand-built cars with wooden wheels rolling off assembly lines teeming with manpower.

Anyone from this region who cares about Detroit’s past and future has a stake in the Packard plant.

My connection is my grandfather, Frank Jakee, who started sweeping floors there before World War I, then served in the U.S. Navy, then returned to the plant and worked there through the 1950s. His last position was in procurement, and he reported directly to a vice president. The family owned two Packards at one time.

The documentary includes a hysterical video clip from the 1940s, when neighborhood traffic screeched to a halt while a convoy of unfinished car bodies and motorized carts carrying components lumbered across the street from one assembly building to another. People in their cars were hanging out their windows, honking in disapproval.

Also highlighted was the 1943 promotion of three black employees, which resulted in 25,000 whites walking off the job at the plant in protest. Racial tensions were running high throughout the city as the black population was growing, and the ensuing race riot resulted in 34 deaths.

The movie suggests the Packard incident sparked the fatal violence, but in truth it began on a warm Saturday night on Belle Isle several miles away.

The cast of characters is solid, including employees who toiled away many a year in the plant and professors from neighboring Wayne State University to discuss the social significance, geologic value and evolution of the complex.

There’s 88-year-old Skip Gilson, who worked the last shift assembling Packard motor cars and was present in the theater, as well as modern-day associates from the Albert Kahn architecture firm unearthing hundreds of pages of designs, all done by hand in ink, and talking about how the plant was the first to use reinforced concrete.

The documentary turns 180 degrees in focusing on techno music lovers who staged dozens of rave parties in the bowels of the forsaken plant during the 1990s. Who would ever think a broken-down industrial relic would give rise to a new, wildly popular art form?

It was about the same time graffiti artists – many of them extremely talented – were drawn to the gritty concrete walls, and the plant was featured in movies such as “Transformers.”

The cinematography is brilliant as historical photographs in thriving parts of the building morph into bleak, modern-day images, as if the film maker found the precise spot where the camera originally was placed.

Positively surreal is how Kaufman captures the “greening” of the property, how massive trees have taken root inside and even on parts of the roof, how toxic mushrooms sprout from the saturated wooden floor, how rainwater and melted snow flow endlessly through the buildings, attempting to reclaim what man has abandoned.

It becomes clear why it took four years to make the film.

The legal battles for the 40-acre (16-ha) site, comical and sad at the same time, take center stage unfortunately and at times bog down an otherwise compelling story.

Surely, there are automotive types who want to see more about how the plant functioned in its heyday, how work cells were configured, when the plant reached full capacity, how old-school paint shops used to operate and how smoothly the facility transitioned to and from military production during World War II.

For that, a visit to the historic Packard Proving Grounds 20 miles (32 km) north in suburban Shelby Township certainly is worthwhile.

Automotive historians will find fault in the film for claiming the Packard plant, which opened in 1903, was responsible for creating the middle class. True, Henry Ford’s Piquette Avenue facility a few miles away didn’t open until 1904, and the Model T came several years later.

Packard was a thriving plant at one point and played a role in creating the middle class. But Ford rightfully gets credit for leading the way with a car for the masses and for raising wages at the hulking new Highland Park plant to an astronomical $5 a day, enabling workers to afford the cars they built.

But the film magnificently captures the essence of a strip of land that once was treasured, then neglected, then cherished once again in a sort of post-apocalyptic perversion that defines the term “ruin porn.”

The constant thread running throughout “The Last Shift” is the brazen scrappers who come with blowtorches to disassemble girders and I-beams and massive pipes to be hauled away in shabby trucks for converting to quick cash.

What has happened to the Packard plant is truly idiotic. People with next to nothing risk their lives every day for a chance to pull more steel and iron from a structure that is becoming a skeleton without bones. People will die there. Fires burn there constantly, and neighbors who choose to stay live in fear and disgust.

But everyone loves a happy ending, and the Packard plant just might get one. Peruvian businessman Fernando Palazuelo has purchased the site for $405,000 and says he wants to clean up the land, restore what can be saved and lease space for light-industrial operations.

Anyone driving by the plant today knows his plans are absurdly optimistic, but his pledge to be living in an apartment at the site by year’s end sounds insane.

Palazuelo repeated his intentions during a roundtable discussion after the movie viewing, and the hopeful audience gave him a warm reception. Still unclear is whether the film will be available on DVD or shown elsewhere.

Even in shambles, the Packard plant touches us in a very personal way. My mother still has the scissors my grandfather brought home with “PMC” etched on one of the blades. After World War II, a surplus of gray paint from the plant meant the entire basement of the family home was painted like a battleship every few years.

A piece of equipment fell off a machine once and landed on my grandfather’s head. He was brought home in a company car and refused to see a doctor. He went on to live a long life.

Not sure if the same can be said for the Packard plant. Kaufman’s film captures both hope and despair, and it’s hard to imagine the former prevailing.

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