‘That Same Feeling’: Painful Memories in Kenosha Come Rushing Back

KENOSHA, Wis. — Anguished residents wondered if their city would ever recover. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson came to town and called for justice. An outraged Wisconsin governor vowed to make things right.

It was 1988, and a grievous blow had struck Kenosha: Chrysler was shuttering its car assembly plant in the heart of the city, making 5,500 good jobs disappear. Ten percent of the city’s work force was gone, and an industry that had powered the town into middle-class prosperity for decades went quiet.

“Everybody thought Kenosha was going to die,” said Jerry Costabile, 58, a charter fishing captain, whose house faces an empty lot where the old car plant once stood. “There was going to be nothing left.”

That was the second-worst week in Kenosha history, Mr. Costabile said. This past week, he said, was the worst.

Kenosha is now facing an even deeper existential crisis, set in motion last Sunday when a white police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, seven times. Since then, demonstrators have marched through city streets and clashed with the police. After dark, rioters have smashed street lamps, broken windows and burned small businesses in residential neighborhoods. Two people were killed by gunfire on Tuesday night as protesters skirmished with counterprotesters, and a 17-year-old from Illinois armed with a military-style rifle has been charged with homicide.

As in 1988, Kenosha is now drawing the sudden sympathies of visitors. Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, and Mr. Jackson, both arrived in town on Thursday.

“It’s about wrong and right,” Mr. Jackson said, calling for the firing of the officer who shot Mr. Blake.

I was a child in Kenosha when the car plant closed. But I remember the aching fear that it sent rippling through town and into my tiny elementary school, where classmates spoke anxiously of relatives who were Chrysler workers. Everybody, it seemed, had a father or a cousin or a neighbor who was abruptly losing a job, their futures and livelihoods uncertain.

This week, I have seen my hometown become a wounded place once again.

Mr. Blake’s shooting has registered near-universal horror by residents, who say they do not understand what prompted a police officer to shoot a man seven times during a dispute. They are also incensed and terrified by the destruction that has followed.

“We don’t want the city destroyed,” said Dejon Andino-Smith, 29, who has been protesting alongside Black Lives Matter marchers and also guarding Black-owned businesses from damage.

Now the city’s churches bolt their doors each afternoon. Schools and day cares have closed. At night, frightened residents listen to police scanner traffic on their cellphones and sleep on living-room sofas, keeping guns within arm’s reach in case they are needed for protection.

Plywood covers windows and doors on laundromats, tattoo shops, cafes and gas stations, even on blocks many miles away from where the unrest has taken place. Some sheets of wood have been painted over with brightly colored murals and “Kenosha Strong” messages.

Others carry pleas to be spared. “Kids live upstairs,” someone spray-painted in orange on plywood covering the Olive Tree, a diner downtown.

The physical scars from 1988 have not gone away, either.

The 107-acre site where the assembly plant once stood is still a gaping hole on a busy avenue in the center of the city. For decades, the plant stood empty and decaying; in 2012, it was finally demolished, leaving a sea of ugly debris. The Wisconsin Historical Society put up a plaque on the lot years ago, which recounts the history of automobile production in Kenosha and the day the last car rolled off the assembly line in December 1988. The sign is visible now through a chain-link fence and a snarl of weeds.

Across the street from the lot, Pete Carlson, 32, lives with his wife and three children in a house with a garden and a jungle gym. He remembers the sound of crushed concrete being trucked away for months on end.

“There was just nonstop pounding,” Mr. Carlson said as he watered tomato plants. “They were out there all day, every day.”

Mr. Carlson, who works in the city’s wastewater department, is hopeful that plans for the site — he has heard of a retention pond, a walking path, maybe a dog park — will eventually come to fruition.

“We’ve been waiting quite a while,” he said.

Throughout Kenosha, some of the same fears from 1988 have set in again. Will anybody want to move here after the dust settles? How will the economy recover?

“Everything that’s happened this week, it just leaves the city in a state of dismay and worry,” Daniel Serrano, 29, said.

Mr. Serrano, whose father has been patrolling Kenosha’s streets as a National Guardsman, said he believed that the shooting of Mr. Blake was not justified.

But he considers the looting and fires that destroyed dozens of buildings — by agitators from outside Kenosha, he believes — unjustified as well.

“You can’t fight evil with evil,” Mr. Serrano said. “Vengeance is for God, not for people.”

Manuela Hamilton, 58, a laboratory technician, vividly recalled the trauma of 1988. Her brother-in-law lost his job. So did cousins and friends. “It brought us all into a depression,” she said.

Ms. Hamilton nodded in the direction of her next-door neighbor’s house. “His uncle was laid off, and he never worked again,” she said.

When she goes to work now, she and her colleagues talk constantly about the chaos that has erupted this past week. It is depressing to watch, she said, just like in 1988.

“It’s that same feeling — I don’t know if Kenosha is a good place to live in anymore,” she said.

Back in 1988, one of the last employees to clock out at the plant was Joe Sielski, 70, who remembers the gut-wrenching sense of worry. He was devastated, unsure how his young family would go on and fearful for the future of the city.

“We definitely thought Kenosha was going to be a ghost town,” he said.

This past week, as Kenosha faces another trauma, his two sons have been on the front lines. One works for the Police Department. The other is a firefighter who helped extinguish the flames in a row of burning buildings on Monday night.

“Back then, I was worried about my family and providing for them,” Mr. Sielski said. “Now I’m worried about my family and their safety.”

Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.


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