Lakewood Heights
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The void General Motors left behind

Lakewood Heights residents wonder what will replace everything the assembly plant left behind—though there’s no shortage of ideas.

Story by Sam Worley
October 06, 2023
Photos by Dean Hesse
How we reported this story:

Canopy Atlanta asked over 50 Lakewood Heights residents about the journalism they needed. This story emerged from feedback to “see more information and acknowledgment of the community’s history,” as one respondent told CA.

Another respondent was Duane Brooks, who later joined the Lakewood Heights issue community editorial board to help decide on story topics for this issue. “People still talk about the old GM plant by Lakewood Avenue,” Brooks said during those board meetings. The story explores why.

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Brenda Trammell remembers what Lakewood Heights was like when the General Motors plant was still open. She grew up in the area—she still lives in the South Atlanta home she’s been in since 1962—and went to school at Lakewood Elementary, just down Sawtell Avenue from the factory. A lot of her schoolmates had a parent who worked there.

“Back then, it was a big to-do to work at General Motors—you were considered highfalutin,” says Trammell, now 63 years old. “Some of the students I worked with, they had a parent that worked at the federal penitentiary, and then the other worked at General Motors. It was a very prosperous neighborhood.”

The federal prison is still there. But the GM plant closed in 1990, leaving an 86-acre hole at the corner of Sawtell and McDonough Boulevard. The economic fortunes of the surrounding community took an even bigger hit: The Lakewood Assembly was the area’s largest employer. With 5,700 workers at its 1977 peak, laboring along 9.4 miles of assembly conveyors, the plant was a conspicuous example of 20th-century American manufacturing and the possibility of the kinds of blue-collar union wage work that could build a middle class—including, for a short time, a Black middle class.

“It was so convenient,” Trammell says. “People could walk to work, literally. There was no such thing as carpooling.”

Lakewood Elementary, which has been closed since 2004. Photo by Dean Hesse.

The bones of the sprawling plant remain, surrounded today by chain-link fencing and concrete walls covered in colorful graffiti. But the businesses that Trammell remembers from her youth—and the prosperous neighborhood supported by the GM plant—are gone.

“After General Motors left, everything started shutting down,” she says, recalling the business district centered around the intersection of Lakewood Avenue and Jonesboro Road. “We had a Colonial grocery store, we had Ace Hardware. We had a Rexall drug store.”

Residents are still wondering what will replace everything it left behind—though there’s no shortage of ideas.

Automotive companies started popping up in Atlanta early in the 1900s, though they were small and independent. “At this point, ‘automotive’ is just putting a steam engine or electric battery or an internal combustion engine on something with four wheels,” says Timothy J. Crimmins, a professor emeritus of history at Georgia State University. Mechanizing production and introducing the moving assembly line, Henry Ford consolidated the industry—and expanded nationally. In 1915, Ford, headquartered in Detroit, opened its first southeastern operation on Ponce de Leon Avenue, in the building that’s now the Ford Factory Lofts.

GM followed in 1928 with the Lakewood Assembly, adding a second plant in Doraville 20 years later. Parts were shipped in, painted, and assembled at these facilities. “Most people think cars are painted, but cars are not painted,” says Mary Stokes, whose husband, Charles F. Stokes, worked at Lakewood for 29 years. “The parts are painted, and then all of them are assembled into an automobile.” Charles, who died in 1994, made sure the job was done right—“no dots or blemishes,” Mary says.

The former General Motors Lakewood assembly plant site. Photo by Dean Hesse.

In 1970, Lakewood became the world producer of the Chevrolet Grand Prix before switching to the Chevette; in the 1980s, the plant reconfigured to manufacture the Chevy Caprice, some of which were sold as taxis, police cars, and other government vehicles.

In the first few decades of the plant’s existence, Crimmins says, “there would have been a white workforce in the factory, and housing set up nearby for white workers.” Black workers were afforded only the most menial jobs: “the sweeping up jobs, the dirty jobs,” recalled the labor lawyer Joe Jacobs, in a 1991 oral history interview. “I don’t even think they let them oil the machinery in the plant.” The neighborhood that grew up around it, with its now historic bungalows, was originally meant for white workers, too.

The civil rights movement opened the door for Black workers to access better, higher-paying union jobs in the manufacturing sector. A 2021 working paper from the Institute for New Economic Thinking describes how, during the 1960s and 1970s, “millions of African Americans with no more than high-school education were able to secure unionized blue-collar employment with good wages and benefits at the major mass-producing corporations.”

James Stephens was one of those workers. He moved from Alabama in 1959, because “you could make a little more money in Atlanta,” he says. Now 82 years old and living in northwest Atlanta, Stephens got a job at the Lakewood Assembly in 1965; in his recollection, Black people had only begun working on the assembly line two years earlier, in 1963. “My first job was dropping the motor into the chassis,” he says. “I could look up the motor line and see something that was wrong and call the supervisor, and they could get over there and change it before it got to me.” He eventually worked his way up to the maintenance department, where workers made three or four dollars more an hour than their counterparts on the assembly line. “We were the ones that kept this plant running,” Stephens says.

The automotive business was an especially important avenue to prosperity for the Black working class; by the early 1980s, Black workers made up 9.2 percent of the total national workforce, but 14.2 percent of the auto industry.

The benefits resounded beyond Lakewood Heights, says Mary Stokes: “A lot of people lived in the neighborhood, but a lot of people who worked at General Motors didn’t live in the community”—commuting in from places like Henry, Butts, or Douglas counties, or Decatur, where Stokes lived with her husband.

The former Lakewood Assembly side, from Sawtell Avenue. Photo by Dean Hesse.

“The pay was good. The benefits were excellent,” Stokes says. And conditions within the plant were pretty placid, too: “The Blacks and the whites worked together. When you’re on an assembly line, you cannot make errors. Whether you white, Black, or whatever, you better do your job and do it right.”

But the shared prosperity was short-lived, as the old industrial economy began declining in the 1980s and ’90s. The disproportionately Black workers in that economy lost out, with fewer avenues open to them in what the authors of the working paper describe as the “rising sectors of the New Economy related to the microelectronics revolution,” like the manufacture of computer microprocessors. For the auto industry, says professor Crimmins, “the great disruptors of the post-1970s were the dramatic increases in foreign manufacturing and imports.”

The Lakewood Assembly, which had come to be considered outdated despite upgrades, was the first auto plant in Atlanta to go. Its closure followed years of uncertainty: 1,600 employees were laid off in 1988, a little over two years before the plant shut its doors for good, letting go of its remaining 2,200 workers.

In August 1990, the Atlanta Constitution reported that, after 62 years and more than seven million automobiles, the last car rolled off the Lakewood line: a gray Chevrolet Caprice Brougham, raffled off to one of the newly unemployed workers. General Motors, though, wouldn’t call it a shutdown, the paper reported: “GM has refused to say it is closing the plants, instead calling the procedure ‘indefinite idling.’ That lessens the company’s obligations to workers left jobless.”

“When General Motors moved, it affected everything. It affected the grocery store, the restaurants. Nobody would frequent these places any more.”

Brenda Trammell

The plant has idled, indefinitely, in the 33 years since, though some film and television studios have used it to shoot scenes. On one hand, the decline of the auto industry didn’t devastate Atlanta like it did other cities, says Crimmins, pointing to the metro area’s many sources of economic strength—transportation, services, regional and national office headquarters. “If you take a look at cities like Pittsburgh and Detroit, which were such powerhouses in manufacturing in the first half of the 20th century, those cities have seen declines in their population, whereas Atlanta’s metropolitan region has just mushroomed,” he says. “The economy is much more diversified.”

But if the industry’s struggles weren’t existential for the city at large, they presented deeper challenges in Lakewood Heights, whose development was inextricably bound to GM. “You’d be surprised, an assembly plant, how much money it put in the community, the city, and all that,” Stephens says. “We had people driving five or six hours from South Carolina to Lakewood to work there. They would get four hours’ sleep. They would catch a ride and sleep some on the way to work and some back home.”

“When General Motors moved, it affected everything,” says Brenda Trammell. “It affected the grocery store, the restaurants. Nobody would frequent these places any more.”

Some former workers moved closer to Doraville to find work at the GM plant there, which remained open until 2008; Ford’s Atlanta operation, which had moved from Ponce to Hapeville in 1947, also shuttered in the 2000s. Stephens transferred to Ohio to work at a GM factory in the Dayton area, before he finally retired in 2006.

Lakewood Heights declined following the departure of its major employer, Trammell says: “Because people had moved out and people were not moving in, that’s when you had a lot of vacant houses. It was a drug era. That was the deterioration of Lakewood.”

Lakewood Heights. Photo by Dean Hesse.

But the plant didn’t just leave economic distress in its wake—it also left a proud history. The building where Trammell went to school, Lakewood Elementary, served as the organizing base for an important sit-down strike in 1936, the precursor to a series of nationwide labor actions that would establish the United Auto Workers as a force to be reckoned with. As a 2016 article in the UAW’s Solidarity magazine put it: “It was in Atlanta where GM workers first used the sit-down strategy and built the momentum for the first major dispute in U.S. auto history.” This culminated in a 44-day strike in Flint, Michigan, that led GM to recognize the UAW as its negotiating partner.

(As John Ruch wrote for Saporta Report, “The UAW history is particularly relevant—which is to say, potentially embarrassing and threatening—today as the state of Georgia bends over backwards to lure a new generation of electric car manufacturers.” One of those, Rivian, is set to open a $5 billion plant east of Atlanta, buoyed by generous tax breaks—and, Ruch notes, “the unspoken attraction of non-union labor” in the South, where laws are less favorable to unions than in old-line labor strongholds like Michigan.

Unionization in the ongoing shift to electric vehicles is a key issue in the UAW’s present-day strike against three major automakers, which also has roots in Atlanta: The “stand-up strike” tactic the UAW is now employing is an explicit call-back to the sit-down strikes of the 1930s. In a video released September 13, shortly before the 2023 strike began, UAW president Shawn Fain paid tribute to the legacy of the Flint workers: “In 1937, they occupied General Motors plants and set off an organizing firestorm in our country.”)

Shuttered since 2004, the historic Colonial Revival–style building that housed Lakewood Elementary was in the news in 2022, as Atlanta Public Schools, its owner, reversed plans to demolish it following pushback from the City and from preservationists. Its ultimate disposition remains an open question. Omar Ali, a Lakewood Heights developer, has expressed interest in turning it into housing.

Trammell could see it being available specifically for unhoused people, she says: “If they could open up the school and get some of those homeless people that are hanging around up in Lakewood Heights, sleeping on the sidewalks—I just don’t want to see it torn down.”

The school, like the neighborhood that surrounds it, could benefit from thoughtful development. Full of historic cottages and bungalows, old brick commercial buildings, and assorted churches, Lakewood Heights is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, with the 2002 eligibility form citing the significance of the GM plant in the neighborhood’s development. That rich past is part of what attracted residents like Zachary Murray, who moved to Atlanta from Oakland in 2020. As chair of the Lakewood Heights Community Association, he helped convene a series of community meetings earlier this year to “capture a vision of what we want the neighborhood to be,” Murray says. “In particular, the commercial corridor at Jonesboro and Lakewood Avenue is not particularly thriving right now. It doesn’t meet the needs of all the residents.”

Dozens attended, with a variety of suggestions for neighborhood improvement: grocery stores, better pedestrian infrastructure, walkable access to South Bend Park, after-school activities, better public education, and restaurants. “Generally, folks want to see the things in this community that a lot of neighborhoods in Atlanta have,” Murray says.

Originally from Brooklyn, Lakewood Heights resident Duane Brooks moved to Atlanta in the 1990s and also has connections to the auto industry—he worked for a while as a forklift operator at Ford’s Hapeville plant. “I think we need incubation for tech and jobs, and job training, and green spaces, and safe food places,” Brooks says. “There’s nothing good in the convenience stores to eat. There’s no fresh meat, no fresh fruit, there’s probably not no fresh bread in there either. You’ll be lucky to find water and coconut water.”

As for the old plant itself? After sitting empty for decades, there’s been some movement: In 2022, real estate firm Origin Investments and developer Kaplan Residential purchased the site for $31.5 million, announcing plans to create the “largest mixed-use development” near the southern corridor of the Atlanta BeltLine: 2,000 multifamily residences, commercial space, a village center, several parks. Builders planned to break ground by the end of 2022; reps for Origin and Kaplan didn’t respond to requests for comment on the progress of the project.

Brooks still hopes, in any case, for some galvanizing force to fill the void left by the Lakewood Assembly—something he’s been thinking about since the plant closed. “Like with any relationship that goes sour, once you realize it’s real, you gotta prepare,” he says. “Or you’re gonna be sitting in the house alone in the dark with no furniture.”

Editor: Christina Lee

Fact Checker: Muriel Vega

Canopy Atlanta Reader: Mariann Martin

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