A factory that shaped their lives in Dundalk

Longpoint Road is a quiet street of bungalows, some with carports, on a peninsula that reaches to Dundalk's Bear Creek. It's a place where families have for years gathered for cookouts, where John Eltringham would lend his electric cement mixer to a neighbor.

It's also just a 10-minute drive from Baltimore's General Motors plant - where people such as Eltringham made a living.

With the plant set to shut down today after seven decades of production, Longpoint Road offers a look at how the ups and downs of a major industrial employer can be reflected in the past, present and future of one suburban block. And while the GM closing is hardly welcome news, the effect on places like Longpoint Road appears muted in comparison with the damage done to communities by past industrial shutdowns or cutbacks.

The street is still home to Eltringham, who came from Scranton, Pa., a year before World War II with his possessions in a shopping bag. He worked 18 years on the GM assembly line and retired in 1981 as the plant's chief of security.

Billy Joe Stillwell also lived on the block for more than three decades, but he left in 1985 while still working at GM. He became one of the many GM workers who commuted from the suburbs, in his case from a nine-acre farm in Harford County.

Gene Hockenbrock will retire today after 33 years at GM. His 30-year-old son, Brian, lives across Longpoint Road. After a decade on the auto plant assembly line, he'll be looking for work.

"I went to GM for the money and benefits, not to follow in my father's footsteps," said Brian Hockenbrock, who got married last month. He says he will continue college and hopes to earn a degree in chemical engineering before his GM pay runs out.

'Kind of storybook'

Eltringham, 81, recalls helping more than a dozen people on Longpoint Road land jobs at the plant.

"Life on this block was kind of storybook to me, someone who came from abject poverty in coal-mining country," he said. "It was close here. People helped one another because we all came from, or worked in, similar situations."

As in many neighborhoods in eastern Baltimore County, homes on Longpoint Road were built for defense plant workers and veterans returning from World War II. The street offered young couples affordable homes near the water and blue-collar employment opportunities.

To the southeast, there is the craggy outline of the old Sparrows Point steel mill. Waterfront cranes rise like great metal insects at the nearby marine terminals, and tractor-trailers clunk and hiss on their early morning runs.

John Minadakis, owner of Jimmy's Famous Seafood Restaurant not far from GM, has witnessed the decline in the area's manufacturing.

His late father, Dimitrios, ran the Chevrolet Inn closer to the plant in the late 1960s. Several years later, he closed the inn and opened Jimmy's.

"As a kid, I loved hearing the stories of the auto makers," Minadakis said. "After a shift ended, they would be in the bar five and six deep. Today, I'm lucky if one or two stop in for a beer."

The GM plant is the last manufacturing colossus to close in the Baltimore region. The auto factory follows Glenn L. Martin, Bethlehem Steel, two shipyards, Western Electric and smaller companies that eliminated tens of thousands of good-paying jobs when they closed or greatly scaled back operations.

Attempting to reverse that decline and decay, Baltimore County officials have been working on an $800 million revitalization of Dundalk, Essex and Middle River. There will be bayfront mansions, new housing developments and a soon-to-be-completed highway that is expected to attract new homeowners and high-tech companies, the latter bringing thousands of jobs.

When residents of Longpoint Road drive north on Dundalk Avenue one day, they will enjoy a $2 million streetscape along the area's main drag if the plan comes to fruition.

Softened impact

In decades past, when more blue-collar workers lived close to their factories, Highlandtown, Middle River and Dundalk started to decline when major industries closed or downsized. However, the impact on the immediate area by the GM closing is softened, economic development officials say, because many workers, retirees and widows now live in outlying counties, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

"These GM workers and retirees are far less concentrated than two or three generations ago," said David S. Iannucci, executive director of Baltimore County's Department of Economic Development. "While [GM closing] is a terrible tragedy for the 1,100 GM employees left without work and a great loss to the area's blue-collar history, the plant closing won't be as traumatic like in the past because people are scattered."

There will be ripple effects - from the corner gas station to subcontractors who did business with GM. However, Iannucci said that when Bethlehem Steel Corp. declared bankruptcy two years ago, more than 60 percent of the workers lived outside Baltimore County. "We expect that will be the case with General Motors," he said.

Stillwell, 57, said he touched two rich worlds by living on Longpoint Road and on his farm in Jarrettsville.

"Growing up in Dundalk was close-knit, everybody knew one another and we all helped each other on the block," said Stillwell, who retired in 1996. "And because of the good salary and benefits, I could move to a bigger place, to more open spaces."

A piece of his heart will always be in Dundalk, said Stillwell, adding that a visit to the GM plant a couple of weeks ago left him sad. "To me, it was a monument, gave me a good life," he said. "Everybody who lived on Longpoint pretty much felt the same way, whether they worked at GM or the steel plant or Lever Brothers."

Moving to homes outside the blue-collar perimeter of the city and county meant "they had made it," said Bill Barry, director of labor studies at the Essex campus of the Community College of Baltimore County.

"In the 1970s, you really started seeing workers migrate to the outer counties because the standard of living was raised, one that the unions fought hard for," Barry said. "They were able to move from the rowhouses to a home with a yard, patio, garage."

Some remain content on Longpoint Road.

Gene Hockenbrock lives two houses down from his father-in-law, Edgar Hamilton, who retired in 1988. Hockenbrock, like many former colleagues, worries whether their generous pensions and benefits will stay intact, considering GM's rocky financial status.

"I guess my wife and I will stay here, I don't know," Hockenbrock said. "It's a good place to live, lot of good memories."

Patricia Gratz moved to Longpoint Road with her husband, Paul, a member of the Sparrows Point Police Department, in 1971. Her husband died last year, but she decided to stay in the neighborhood while commuting to a job at Fort Meade. "It was a nice life on this street, where people looked out for one another," she said.

Neighborhood ties

Longpoint Road and the GM plant were close not only geographically but also in spirit, Eltringham said.

Stillwell and more than a dozen other GM workers got their jobs under a time-honored system under which relatives or neighbors were recommend for employment by a respected GM manager. On Longpoint Road, that person was John Eltringham, who was hired at GM for 43 cents an hour and ended up working there for four decades.

Eltringham has lived on Longpoint Road for 53 years. His wife died last June. They raised four children there.

He can look to his neighbors, who work in hospital administration and other nonmanufacturing jobs and see a future for the street. But he can't help thinking sometimes about the past and the auto plant.

"After all those years retired, I still dream about being at work there," Eltringham said. "The plant closing - it's so emotional I feel like I want to cry."