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Published: Monday, 4/26/2004

Enclave near Detroit struggles to survive

HIGHLAND PARK, Mich. - Our modern era was born here, in a tiny town where many of the side streets now look like a scene from some post-nuclear hell.

There are abandoned and burned-out buildings; soggy sofas and old tires and all manner of garbage lying on front lawns in this tiny enclave city that was once the place to be. That's on the west side of Woodward Avenue.

Blocks away, over on the east side, a giant abandoned factory stretches for more than a block behind a shopping plaza that recently lost the city's only full-service grocery store. There is no marker, no tour guides to explain it. But you can tell it was once something special, and it was. Ninety years ago, thousands worked here, creating the 20th century. One day in 1913, they took a picture of 12,000 of them surrounding the building, called "the most expensive photo ever made," since they posed on company time.

Ford Motor Co., that is. What was made here was the Model T, the car that put the nation on wheels. Fifteen million Model Ts clattered out of this building.

Now, however, it is abandoned and forgotten. When Detroit was celebrating its 300th anniversary three years ago, nobody said a word about Highland Park, the city where the automotive revolution began. Ford did nothing, despite the pleas of Harriet Saperstein, whose nonprofit economic growth organization, HP Devco, is responsible for what tiny flickers of life exist in a city that by any reasonable measure, should be given up as lost.

Today, the most optimistic thing you can say about Highland Park is that it is in desperate shape. When the last Model T rolled off the line in 1927 it had something like 53,000 residents in three jam-packed square miles. They lived in comfortable-to-elegant wood-frame homes.

The population today is barely 16,000, who are disproportionately old, jobless, poor, and nearly all black. Unemployment was 22.7 percent last month. That was good news; it had been 24 percent.

Nearly half the children in the city live in deep poverty. The city is being run by an emergency financial manager appointed in 2001, after the city could not pay its bills. She found the records were in complete chaos.

Today, on the surface, things look even worse. The epidemic of arson that has devastated many streets seems to have abated. But the city's one Blockbuster Video has closed. The Farmer Jack, which opened to considerable fanfare in front of the old T plant (shoppers entered the store walking under a glass-enclosed Model T) was replaced by a no-frills "Food Basics" store.

How did the city that put America on wheels come to this?

What happened was "that a lot of people made money here and then abandoned Highland Park," said Ms. Saperstein, whose job is to be constantly on the lookout for anything that might bring in jobs.

Ford gradually phased out of the city after the Model T ended production in 1927. But that wasn't the end of Highland Park. For many more years it served as Chrysler's headquarters. But in 1987, Chrysler left. too.

That finished the town. Nearly three-quarters of the city's tax base immediately vanished. To Chrysler's credit, it contributed $5 million to start HP Devco, the cause for which Harriet, the wife of a physics professor, and a few faithful lieutenants have labored for years.

They've had their successes, mainly an industrial park on the east side of town. One employer, Budco, Inc. has created more than 1,000 jobs. But it isn't enough. It is hard to see how the city can ever make it.

Titus McClary believes, however. He was elected mayor last fall, replacing a man who spent much of his time in Tennessee. "I think we've turned the corner," said Mr. McClary, 66, a retired policeman whose mother moved to Highland Park in 1952 because the school system provided free books.

Mr. McClary is happy that the city was allowed to issue $6.3 million in bonds earlier this year. That enabled Highland Park to pay pensions it had gotten behind on, and some other debts.

"Now we just have to get some new business to move to the city." That won't be easy, he concedes, largely because of crime. There isn't much left of the city's police force, but sheriff's deputies now patrol Highland Park's streets.

Harriet Saperstein thinks it would help if the company that started it all would do its part. Repeatedly, she has asked Ford for some help. But Ford said no; they were putting their philanthropic efforts elsewhere. (A Ford spokesman didn't return a call for this column.) "I do believe that Ford has more responsibility to Highland Park than it has shown so far," said Ms. Saperstein. The town sprung up, she notes, because of the automaker, which then left it to rot.

Ford, she believes, needs a better idea.



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