For a city defined by old-guard manufacturers, the fast-approaching end of General Motors' assembly plant in Southeast Baltimore is highly symbolic.
But it's no turning point. The transition from old to new is over, even if the pain is not.
A steady loss of manufacturing jobs since the 1970s has forced the region to transform from blue-collar hub to service-sector center, a place where the largest employer is the Johns Hopkins Institutions instead of Bethlehem Steel.
That sea change in a generation has affected nearly everyone because it accelerated the city's decline, pushed people and jobs into the suburbs, put a premium on college degrees and redefined the political landscape statewide.
For better and for worse, Baltimore was an early adopter in the race away from industry, propelled by factors ranging from the price of land to the cost of labor. Manufacturing accounts for a little more than 6 percent of employment in the Baltimore area, compared with almost 12 percent nationwide.
"Maryland has half the concentration of manufacturing and twice the concentration of professional services," said Richard P. Clinch, director of economic research for the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute. "We are a new-economy state."
That has been good for many people. Maryland's median household income - about $57,000 - is one of the highest in the country. Unemployment, though high in the city, is low in the suburbs. The region has benefited from its prime spot in Washington's shadow, reaping a disproportionate share of federal government jobs, contracts and grants.
But the shift to a knowledge economy is bad news for people without a college degree. Manufacturing jobs have offered solidly middle-class lives for people with a high-school education.
In 1970, manufacturers employed about 200,000 people in the Baltimore region, according to federal statistics. Thirty years later, that number had shrunk in half.
The service sector jobs replacing them - from retail to tourism to call centers - don't offer nearly the same pay or benefits for people with a dearth of diplomas.
"It means we're seeing a hollowing out of the middle class," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.
That's contributed to an odd labor market in Baltimore: high-paying jobs splitting DNA, low-paying jobs flipping burgers, and not a lot in between, Clinch said.
Bill Barry, director of labor studies at the Community College of Baltimore County, thinks the city's crime problems are related to the pullout of manufacturing. He knew the GM plant would close, but that didn't make yesterday's announcement any less painful to hear.
"Places like this are Baltimore City's best drug prevention program because it provides an opportunity for young people to go to work and have decent income," Barry said. "And [these employers] are slowly disappearing."
Though the city appears to be on an upswing now, it has suffered for years from population and job loss - and manufacturing's decline played a role in both. The suburbs benefited, attracting people and many of the jobs in the growing service sector - along with an increasing amount of political power.
Those affluent suburbs played a major role in electing Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. as the state's first Republican governor in 36 years in 2002. Fewer manufacturing jobs also has eroded the power of unions, which have helped keep Maryland predictably Democratic for decades.
"The de-industrialization explains much of the shift of politics in Maryland," said Anirban Basu, chief executive of Sage Policy Group, a Baltimore economic and policy consulting firm.
Against this backdrop of seismic shifts, smaller changes have redefined what it means to work in today's economy.
Baltimore was hit by a wave of consolidations in banking, insurance and financial services in the 1990s, a reminder that job security isn't a given in professional fields. And manufacturing is looking less and less blue around the collar as it goes high-tech to improve productivity.
"There's some pretty vibrant manufacturing companies here," said Mike Galiazzo, executive director for the Regional Manufacturing Institute, who grew up in Dundalk when almost everyone there worked at GM or Sparrows Point.
Baltimore-based Under Armour Performance Apparel, one of the fastest-growing private companies in the country, makes sports clothing engineered to wick away sweat. There's a booming cluster of defense manufacturing, from Northrop Grumman's radars to AAI Corp.'s pilotless aircraft. MedImmune, part of the state's growing biotech industry, is looking to expand its 250-employee plant in Frederick.
And though GM's 69-year-old facility on Broening Highway in Baltimore is outdated, the company's 3-year-old Allison transmission plant in White Marsh is heavily computerized.
"We're losing the old GM, but we've got a piece of the new one," Galiazzo said.
Sun staff writer Tricia Bishop contributed to this article.
BY THE NUMBERS
More than 7,000 -- Employees in the mid-1970s
1,100 -- Employees now
200,000 Cars produced in 1990
41,536 -- Cars produced to date in 2004
95 cents -- Average hourly wage in 1937
$27 -- Average hourly wage in 2004