I had a lot of conversations as I traveled around for this new Forefront feature for Next City (you once knew it as Next American City) about the art of making things, and how it has come in and out of favor as part of a city's self-identity. Here's how my story opens (and yes, the pun in the lead character's name is just an amazing coincidence):
He might appear mild-mannered, what with his collared shirts, thin-rimmed spectacles and white hair. But John Workman is sort of a superhero.
A pilot who owns World War II-era planes, Workman leads flyover shows that awe citizens in his town of Muskegon, Mich., on the Lake Michigan coast. He volunteers to fly sick children in west Michigan across the country, for free, so they can get life-saving medical treatment. And, in dim rooms shot through with sparks, employees of the company he co-owns work with molten steel at temperatures of 2,900 degrees.
This last bit might be Workman’s most impressive feat: He is a 21st-century American manufacturer.
With gorgeous beaches and a tradition of thriving industry (its timber rebuilt Chicago after the 1871 fire), Muskegon is both a place of play and a place of work. But about a decade ago, the city considered cutting its losses and reorienting itself entirely for tourists. Muskegon’s community developers came together to debate the point, because it didn’t look like manufacturing jobs would ever come back to the United States, let alone the Rust Belt. It was tempting to see Muskegon’s history of making things, from beds to heaters to porcelain enamel, as just that — history.
But they didn’t do it.
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