It’s arguable that none of the Detroit Three is more “Detroit” at the moment than Chrysler.
Naysayers will point to “the Italians” – that derisive term tossed around briefly in the run-up to the U.S. presidential election – that pull the strings from Turin, but you wouldn’t have felt that sentiment earlier this month as CEO Sergio Marchionne announced a wave of new investments and jobs at Detroit-area plants.
“It is the only domestic auto company that can rightfully wear that banner, ‘imported from Detroit,’” bellowed United Auto Workers vice president General Holiefield at a recent announcement of 1,000 new jobs at the auto maker’s Warren, MI, truck plant and a potential 250 more jobs at its Detroit engine plant.
Sandwiched between Marchionne’s $238 million plan and reporters like myself digging for more information on future product were nuggets of goodwill Chrysler has offered to Metro Detroit.
Marchionne reminded the crowd of past investments in Detroit’s Jefferson North plant, which produces the Jeep Grand Cherokee and a forthcoming Maserati SUV. Chrysler also reactivated another Detroit plant to manufacture the SRT Viper, restoring 150 jobs, and leased office space in the newly christened “Chrysler House” in downtown Detroit.
Chrysler House undoubtedly will attract some of its workers to live downtown in addition to working there. Downtown Detroit is on an upswing right now with competition for residential spaces increasing by the day.
What strikes me, though, is that each of Chrysler’s Detroit plants, all on the city’s east side, sit in the shadow of blighted neighborhoods filled with crumbling houses and empty commercial structures.
Driving to Mack Engine, where Marchionne delivered his good news, all I could think about was how close I was to some of the more heartbreaking symbols of the city we don’t often talk about. Mack Engine isn’t too far from Southeastern High School, one of Michigan’s lowest-ranking high schools that was this year absorbed by a statewide education system targeting low-achieving institutions.
You’re also not that far from the intersection of Mack and Bewick, which has a reputation among Detroiters as being the most notorious – though there’s no solid evidence to support this to be fair. Two of Detroit’s most recent, notable killings – a 7-year-old shot to death in a police raid following a string of other violent events, and an intruder killed by a homeowner who’d been burglarized one too many times – also took place not far from here.
This isn’t any fault of Chrysler. But I do wonder if the auto maker could help stop the bleeding.
With so many old houses and buildings falling apart, Chrysler could perhaps sponsor an outside demolition company to knock down these safety hazards. Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, who sat on the stage with Holiefield while Marchionne made his announcement, has a plan to eradicate several dangerous structures, but it’s moving at a snail’s pace. That extra boost is necessary.
Chrysler – and any auto maker, really – could also take an active role in public education beyond career days and contribute to science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum to spark a fire in students who might go on the wrong path once they leave high school.
This is not to pick on Chrysler, as any company with a large presence in its respective community has a responsibility to give back in some way. But there are other ways for the auto maker to show its respect for Detroit besides building great cars here.