Zenith | Well, that’s where they make ’em

Chicago Public Radio just broadcast an amazing documentary about the old Zenith manufacturing plant, which closed 10 years ago. They interviewed several former employees and intercut them in a really compelling, evocative way. I was transported to another time and place as I listened. Somehow, I managed to keep enough attention on the road to get home safely. You’ve got to hear this, because it’s not just people talking about where they used to work. They’re talking about who they used to be, and what this country used to do.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of a historic plant closure in Chicago’s western suburbs. For more than 3 decades the Zenith plant in Melrose Park turned out millions of picture tubes. Those tubes were installed in televisions and sent around the world under the slogan “the quality goes in before the name goes on.” But after years of struggle, the company decided to close the plant and lay off the last 1,200 workers making a living there. 10 years ago to the day, employees at the Zenith plant worked their last shift and said goodbye to the massive facility.

This is a documentary produced by Chicago Public Radio’s Ben Calhoun. He spoke to three Zenith employees about their time at the plant, what it meant to them, and their feelings about the decline of American manufacturing.

A few years ago Chicago photographer Ken Burkhart was asked to document the Zenith facility before it was demolished. He spent days exploring the plant with little more than floor plans and a spotlight. He found parts of the enormous building in disrepair and some rooms so intact they looked like they were still in use.

Via City Roomâ„¢ – Metro – A Big Time Hurt: Zenith Closing 10 Years Later

30 years ago or more, I came to Chicago as a wide-eyed teenager by train from Utah with the rest of my high-school church youth group. We were from First Congregational Church in Salt Lake, and we were headed to Waukesha, Wisconsin for an annual meeting called NAPF. The organizers of the trip (youth leaders and so on) had arranged for us to spend the night in suburban Naperville after taking an overnight train to Chicago’s Union Station, and the pastor of the local Congregational church would pick us up, show us around a little, and then take us to the church for a sleepover. The next day, they put us on commuter trains to get into Union Station and then on up to Waukesha.

I don’t remember anything about Naperville, or the church. All I remember was a kind of giddy hysteria; none of us had slept, the train was hours late, and the pastor was unintentially hilarious. As he showed us around downtown Chicago, on foot, and then in his big old station wagon, he’d point at large buildings or industrial plants and declaim loudly “Hey! Have you ever heard of Florsheim Shoes? Well, that’s where they make ’em!” or “Kids! Do you ride a Schwinn bike? Well, that’s where they make ’em!”

We drove endlessly. The pastor was one of those “leadfoot stompers,” the kind of driver that’s always tromping on the gas or punching the brakes, sometimes in quickly alternating succession. We were so tired of traveling, we just leaned against each other in the back like sacks of potatoes, trying not to think about carsickness. Some of the boys leaned more purposefully and furtively on “their” girls. It had been a long night on the train.

At some point, giggling helplessly, we all looked dutifully as yet another large factory building was triumphantly pointed out. I remember seeing a big, familiar lightning-bolt logo. We all chanted along in the infuriating way that only teenagers can, when they think the adult in the car isn’t bright enough to know when they’re being mocked.

“Hey, kids, have you ever heard of Zenith Televisions? Well, that’s where they make ’em!!”

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