The Auto Industry's Forgotten Legacy: Diversity

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A row of restaurants in Detroit's Greek Town neighborhood.

Walk through Detroit's Hamtramck neighborhood on any given day and you'll smell the intoxicating aroma of Polish sausages and perogis wafting down the street. In nearby Greektown, flaming cheese lights up cheery restaurant windows, and in Dearborn, Middle Eastern bakeries entice with flaky desserts dripping in honey. These are everyday reminders that the Motor City boasts one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the country — thanks in large part to the U.S. automakers. Say what you will about the troubled corporate giants, but one accomplishment is undeniable: they gave countless immigrant families a sweet taste of the American dream.

"Detroit is truly a huge melting pot," says Alee Darwish, 53, a retired assembly line worker employed by Ford Motor Company for 32 years. "The car companies were no doubt responsible for that." Like other Lebanese who flocked to the area in the early 1900's, Darwish's father immigrated to the U.S. seeking a job at Henry Ford's Model T plant, as the pioneering automobile entrepreneur was offering a large $5 a day. Following in his footsteps, both his sons ended up as career hourly employees at Ford, applying sealer to the seams of metal on the assembly line. "I worked hard, saved my money, and eventually opened a Coney Island diner and a pizzeria on the side while I worked full-time at the plant," says a proud Darwish, now married with two children. "Ford was good to us." (See pictures from Detroit in decline.)

Metro Detroit's ethnic communities are wide and diverse. The city's population increased more than six-fold during the early 20th century industrial boom, fed largely by an influx of Irish, Germans, Scots, Poles, Italians, Greeks, Serbians, Turks, Armenians, Jews, Arabs and Lebanese. In fact, "it is home to the largest concentration of Arab Americans in North America," says Warren David, founder of and president of David Communications, a public relations firm specializing in Arab-American and Islamic markets. "Many initially streamed in from Syria for economic reasons. The silk industry had collapsed there, and the U.S. car companies were actively recruiting for their factories," he explains. "In the 1940s wave called the 'Brain Drain,' Arabs came in search of better education. The third wave started in the late 1960's, where refugees fled here for political reasons or to escape homeland wars. Their villages were bombed out, and many already had relatives in Detroit. It was a safe haven."

"Working and living here made sense economically, and it gave us a better education and more stability that I would have had in Palestine," says Hasan Newash, a Jerusalem native who arrived in Michigan for college in 1960, fell into a summer engineering internship at Chrysler, and never left. Newash still bridles at the problems of Arab assimilation in America. "We're labeled terrorists." But, he says, the car companies were very fair, even encouraging, to new immigrants. In fact, some employers went as far as to protect them. "When the FBI was rooting out Palestinian 'activists' during the Nixon era, they were seeking me out for no reason," Newash states. "They followed my children down the street and even called my boss at Chrysler for information about me. He absolutely refused to cooperate with them. The company really valued and protected their employees." (See the 50 worst cars of all time.)

Bill Zimmel agrees. The 95-year-old automotive veteran, who worked at Ford beginning in 1934 for 42 years, claims that Henry Ford was a paternalistic man. "Back then, companies really took care of their employees. Henry Ford had a relationship with the hospital so that his workers could have health care. He set up English classes for foreigners, and started a trade school to train uneducated workers into higher positions," he recalls. Zimmel, the son of Jewish immigrants, started on the production line making automotive parts, attended Ford's night school to become an electrician, and quickly rose through the ranks to become an electrical instructor. "I'm not sure what I would have become if I didn't get a job at Ford. I took the best I could get at the time and I grew into other things, one that I feel helped a lot of people. It was better than becoming a shoe salesman," he says with a chuckle.

In recent decades, African-Americans from the South, as well as Asians, Indians, and Pacific Islanders, added to the Motor City migration. All contribute greatly to the automotive community and the area's diverse cultural fabric. Ik Hyoun Kim, a Korea native who started with Chrysler's IT department in 1984, notes, "I could have provided a stable life for my family in Korea in my line of work, but the opportunities for my children's education were far better in the U.S." One of his two sons landed at Harvard University, to many immigrants the ultimate achievement of the American dream.

How does Detroit's immigrant autoworkers feel about the federal bailouts? Like most people in the Motor City, protective. "Why did the government bail out the banks and not the car companies?" asks Jerry Lelito, a General Motors plant manager for 23 years. "Those bankers make huge windfalls, and the executives walk away with golden parachutes. These are hardworking American workers who make up the industrial core in this country. So many other industries depend on the existence of the U.S. auto industry." Warren David adds that while the younger immigrant generations are not as directly affected (many have received better educations and went on to become lawyers, doctors, and other professionals) their occupations are still being indirectly — and heavily — hit. "Michigan's entire economy has been going down," he says. "The auto industry hits everyone here, no matter what you do for a living. Anyone who tells you they haven't been affected is lying."

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