When I was a kid there were four breweries near my hometown of East Orange, NJ. Rheingold was in Orange, and was a 15-minute walk my house. I often passed it walking to the Y on Saturday mornings. Pabst, in Newark, was a 15-minute bike ride away, and on the way to my grandparents’ house in Newark. Ballantine, also in Newark, was a 20-minute drive away, and we passed through its huge complex whenever we went to the Newark Drive-In. Anheuser-Busch, with its huge animated flying eagle sign, was the one we saw the least. It was only 18 minutes away, but we only saw it when we went to Newark Airport, and that wasn’t all that frequently.
Of those four breweries from my childhood, all but one were gone by 1987, taking hundreds of jobs with them. Ballantine, once bigger than Anheuser-Busch, closed its plant and sold its brands in 1972. Rheingold, a local favorite since the 1800s, folded in 1976. And Pabst closed its Newark brewery in 1986; leaving only Anheuser-Busch brewing in Essex County.
And we won’t even talk about the Schaefer, Piels, Ruppert, and additional Rheingold breweries across the river in New York City.
What caused the closing of 75% of the breweries in North Jersey?
I’ll tell you one thing for sure…it wasn’t “immigrants taking the jobs from ‘real’ Americans.” In fact, most of those breweries were founded by immigrants. It also wasn’t the jobs being shipped south of the border, to where cerveza could be made more cheaply. So then what was it?
One thing was the inability of what had been strong regional brands like Rheingold and Ballantine to compete with expanding national brands from Pabst, Anheuser-Busch, and Miller. Another…and perhaps the biggest thing…was modernization. When Pabst closed its Newark plant in 1986, they moved production to a much larger, and more efficient, facility in Northeastern Pennsylvania; a plant that was able to brew many different brands of beer with fewer people.
Now let’s move up to Central New York, where I live now, and let’s talk about modernization again. There’s a chocolate plant in Fulton that closed as a result of that. Once again, it wasn’t immigrants taking jobs away from “real” Americans; and it wasn’t the plant being moved south of the border, closer to where the cocoa beans came from. It was that there was a larger, more efficient, centrally located facility out in the Midwest.
The big air conditioning company in DeWitt…that we stole from Newark back in the 1930s? They did move south…closer to where their customers were. After all, why build air conditioners in Upstate New York and ship them to North Carolina, when you can build them in North Carolina to begin with? No immigrants involved here.
Then there are mergers and acquisitions…always big job killers. When the fire engine company in Florida bought the one in Central New York, all they really wanted was the customer list and the intellectual property. They didn’t need a factory up here; they already had excess capacity in a very efficient facility down there. Do you see any immigrants taking jobs away in this scenario?
Oh…and the big plant nearby that made soda ash for over 100 years using the Solvay Process. Those jobs abruptly disappeared in 1985 when a natural source for soda ash was found out west…where it could be mined much more cheaply. Who was to blame for those jobs disappearing, and can anyone bring them back?
No. No matter what anyone says, those jobs, like Little Sheba, are gone, and ain’t coming back. But maybe, just maybe, rather than trying to bring back the “good old days” that never were, there’s something new and better on the horizon that takes a bit of imagination to see and bring about…imagination that we haven’t been using because we still want to do things the old ways, and are unwilling to adapt to new realities.
And because it’s easier to blame someone else than to make those changes.