A part of the Revs Program's grant to Stanford's documentary MFA film program, students Lauren DeFilippo and Henry Wiener focused on a manufacturing town in Lockport, NY. Read about their experience and view the trailer of their film below. The full version is headed to film festivals this year and will be available for viewing here on the Revs website in 12 months.
If Lockport, NY is supposed to be an example of a blue collar town hit hard by the economic downturn, you couldn't tell it from Building 7.
Lauren DeFilippo and I filmed at the General Motors Components Manufacturing plant last summer. A long, wide flight of stairs led up to the factory floor, which was a buzz of activity. Humming motors, clanging metal presses, and workers whizzing by on bikes, trolleys, and forklifts told of the serious business going on here. Radiators and thermostats of all shapes and sizes were constructed, cleaned, and stacked at an impressive rate. We expected to find old, hardened workers, toiling away, zombie-like, at long assembly lines. Instead, the workers were a surprising mix of young and old, male and female, working in small groups, and they smiled and laughed as they worked.
But the fervor of activity at Building 7 belied what we saw elsewhere: emptiness and abandonment. As the name "Building 7" suggests, there are many other buildings, but they're largely empty now.
The hundreds of cars in the parking lot might have been impressive enough, but the parking lot stretched for a mile, and these cars only took up a small fraction of the space. Large areas of the parking lot have grown over with weeds, clearly un-used for years. The factory once employed 12,000 workers -- now only 1,200. Looking at it today, one can only wonder at how immense it must have seemed in it's heyday.
Driving through downtown Lockport tells a similar story: not gone, but reduced. Main Street is pretty and quaint and the beautiful canal flows right through the center. But every third building seems to be closed, and for sale. Large facilities (the skating rink, the train depot) are abandoned and crumbling. On many nice neighborhood streets, beautiful houses stand next to boarded-up, formerly beautiful homes.
We interviewed a variety of people from Lockport associated with the GM plant and the auto-industry: long time workers (now retirees), current workers, cafeteria workers, and United Auto Workers reps. As a whole, their outlook is positive and optimistic. Their opinion is that Lockport is on the rebound, that manufacturing is picking up in America, and the resurgence of the American auto industry means a resurgence for Lockport. No one is planning on leaving, and no one thinks the plant will close (a far cry from 2006 when about 700 residents left the city en-masse, when GM was bankrupt, and the factory seemed on the brink of closure).
Their optimism is contagious -- almost. Listening to Gordie Fletcher, the local UAW President, talk buoyantly about the recent uptick in hiring, and the new work contracts the factory is on the brink of obtaining, it's hard to believe otherwise. But a dark cloud hangs palpably over much of the city. Casual conversations with residents inevitably lead to a discussion of the lack of new businesses, retail stores, or jobs. Lockport is still a depressed area, where landing a $35,000 a year factory job is highly prized. When watching the auto-industry collapse in the mid to late 2000s, many Americans thought we should let these industries fail. Count me among those who didn't fully understood that letting the auto industry fail meant letting towns like Lockport fail.
We'll let our subjects tell their side of the story, positive and negative, but its hard to imagine our film portraying Lockport's future as anything but a question mark.End