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Published: 6/16/2001

Detroit's greatest legacy deserves better

HIGHLAND PARK, Mich. - Next month, Detroit will throw itself a stupendous party to celebrate the city's 300th birthday. Tall ships will sail up the Detroit River; Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac's 1701 landing will be re-enacted, and all sorts of hoopla, from time capsules to family reunions to fireworks, will follow.

But nobody will come to a huge, abandoned old red-brick warehouse that rises behind a new strip mall east of Woodward Avenue in this tiny, severely blighted enclave city embedded in northwest Detroit. Thousands will whiz past it, as they do every day, with barely a glance on their way to the tricentennial festivities.

And nobody will give much thought either to the 2.9 square miles of Highland Park, now desperately poor, perpetually failing to balance its books, and which makes the TV news mostly as the home of spectacular house fires.

Which is too bad. For though that warehouse isn't much to look at now, it was in this building, designed by famed architect Albert Kahn in 1907 as the biggest and best factory in the world, that the place we think of as Detroit was really born.

And this is the town where it happened. This was the home of the Model T. This was where mass production started, where Henry Ford invented an assembly line where, for the first time, parts moved on motorized conveyor belts, dramatically increasing the number of vehicles that could be built and dramatically cutting the cost of each.

That changed the nation, and the world, forever. Suddenly, cars became first affordable, then a necessity. Detroit established itself as the motor capital of the world. A town for its first two centuries, it exploded from 295,000 in 1900 to 1.5 million in 1930.

Highland Park was transformed even more dramatically, going from 417 people to 53,000. The entire city grew up around Ford, and by 1924, 69,000 people worked in this one building. They came from all over the world, in search of a better life and the famous $5 a day. When they weren't on the line, many studied English in special classes set up just outside the plant. The streets filled with pleasant, sturdy, prosperous workers' homes.

Ford stopped making Model T's in 1927, and gradually moved its operations to its huge new industrial complex at the Rouge. By that time, Chrysler's world headquarters had moved to Highland Park, and that automaker became the economic mainstay of the little city of the assembly line for the decades that followed.

But then, in 1987, Chrysler moved to Auburn Hills, taking with it most of Highland Park's tax base. Chrysler did spend $5 million to create HP Devco, Inc., a nonprofit development agency designed to attract new business to the little city.

Harriet Saperstein has spent more than a decade doing just that, as president of HP Devco. She is in part intrigued by the intellectual challenge; if it is possible to revitalize an aged industrial city anywhere, this tiny one ought to be a perfect laboratory.

“We've really had some good things happen,” said Ms. Saperstein. Much of what she's done in Highland Park has been to aggressively woo new business. Budco, Inc., a marketing and mail order house, built a new $12 million world headquarters in Highland Park, and brought 1,039 jobs to the city. A number of businesses have moved into the new Oakland Industrial Park, which is on the old Chrysler site.

Several new bright and cheery strip malls have opened up along what was an extremely blighted section of Woodward Avenue. In one, the “Model T Plaza,” located directly in front of the famous factory, a restored 1912 Model T is displayed in the entrance to a Farmer Jack store, together with huge photographs of the Ford site in its glory days.

“We've taken that $5 million and parlayed it into at least $56 million of development,” said Ms. Saperstein, a sociologist by training.

But she knows that it isn't enough. Highland Park's population is dwindling and aging. The city, which still had 35,000 residents in 1970, is down to 16,746. Nearly all are black; most are very poor. The city spends about $2.5 million more each year than it has taken in. With a hint of frustration, Ms. Saperstein said “If I had $20 million, I could do everything that needs to be done to fix this city up, including tearing down and condemning buildings that need to come down.”

But she knows she's unlikely to meet an angel with pockets that deep. So, she works on it a little at a time. Recently, she and Mayor Linsey Porter made a pitch to Ford Motor Co., which ceased having a presence in the city in the 1970s.

“The names Ford and the community of Highland Park will be intertwined forever,” they wrote, in pleading for a $500,000 grant from the Ford Motor Company fund. “We hope that you will be more willing to demonstrate your respect for the past by helping us move forward to a more positive future.”

But Ford turned them down, saying it was choosing to serve the community in other ways. The historic plant itself is now owned by Martin Ross, a suburban businessman, who is reportedly looking for someone to develop the site.

Mr. Ross also owns a smaller, building on Woodward itself, which, although boarded up, was plainly magnificent once. This was Henry Ford's administration building. Outside, gradually being choked off by weeds, a fading historic marker proclaims this was the birthplace of mass production.

Somehow, Detroit's biggest legacy deserves better.

Jack Lessenberry is The Blade's ombudsman and a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit. E-mail him at OMBLADE@aol.com or call 1-888-746-8610.



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