Michigan Central and the rebirth of Detroit
Rick Novasky has never forgotten the day back in the 1980s when he was working a shift in the ticket office at Detroit’s Michigan Central Station.
“A gentleman walked up to the ticket window with tears rolling down his cheeks,” he says. “I asked him if he needed help. The man just pointed toward the subway where everybody boarded the trains and said, ‘that's where I last saw my oldest brother back in 1943. He turned around, waved to us and then got on his train. We never saw him again. He was killed in the Pacific.’
“That was some 30 years ago,” says Novasky, a tremor in his voice, “and it still hits me even today.”
Michigan Central was once one of the grandest railway stations in the United States - the gateway to a fabulously wealthy city, dominated by the auto industry.
Thousands of workers passed through the building in search of new lives - immigrants from Europe and the Middle East along with black workers, part of the “great migration” northwards, from the prejudice and poverty of the agricultural South.
But Detroit’s days of lavish prosperity are long gone. The station has been closed and abandoned for more than 30 years. Its tower, like the keep of a derelict fortress, is a poignant symbol of a once-great city’s decline.
Now Michigan Central is being given a new life by the industry that created Detroit’s wealth. In 2018 the Ford Motor Company bought the building and began the huge task of refurbishing it as the centrepiece of a new campus, devoted to high-tech vehicles and the future of transportation.
Looming over the Corktown neighbourhood, the terminal is going to be transformed, along with the local area. What does the history of Michigan Central tell us about the rise, fall, and perhaps rise again of Motor City?
Detroit’s new railway terminal opened for business in December 1913 without much fanfare. It was forced into service early because the station it was set to replace was destroyed by a fire.
Michigan Central was designed in the then-popular Beaux Arts style by architects who had previously worked together on New York’s Grand Central Station.
The terminal was dominated by a 15-storey tower. When built, it was the tallest railway station in the world.
It looked out over 18 tracks, raised above street level on a broad viaduct. Only two of those tracks remain, carrying heavy freight trains operated by Canadian Pacific.
Just a short distance away the tracks from Michigan Central enter a tunnel, diving under the Detroit River into Canada.
This was the route taken by many of the famous trains that connected the city with New York - the Twilight Limited, the Mercury and the Wolverine - names redolent of the golden age of rail travel. The Empire State Express connected Detroit and Cleveland with Buffalo and New York. It was inaugurated on 7 December 1941 (the same day as the bombing of Pearl Harbor - unfortunately for the New York Central Railroad’s publicity department).
During World War Two the station was a hive of activity with troops arriving and departing. Former Detroit cop Ray Downing remembers seeing his older brother and uncle off at the terminal and meeting them whenever they came home on leave. “The station was absolutely packed,” he says. “The building was just cavernous - it meant a new world to me every time I went there.”
During the early 1960s Downing was based at a police precinct just around the corner from the station.
It’s the mundane nature of the job he recalls - searching for lost children, dealing with drunks and so on. Despite Detroit’s subsequent reputation for crime and violence, he remembers it fondly. “Even in a neighbourhood with a railway station, it was reasonably peaceful and law-abiding,” he says.
Michigan Central Terminal was the place where workers arrived to take up new jobs in the growing automobile industry.
“It was the Ellis Island of Detroit,” says labour historian and lecturer Steve Babson.
In 1908, Henry Ford’s Piquette Avenue factory began turning out the first of the famous Model-T cars - a stripped down, simplified automobile that ushered in the era of mass motoring.
Before Ford, building a motor car had been a highly skilled job for craftsmen.
But Ford brought in technologies for a mass production process. Huge stamping presses to take sheet metal and turn it into the key body components of a car, small disc grinders powerful enough to remove surplus metal, and even new types of paint.
“The reason the Ford Model-T was black,” says Babson, “was because it was the only paint that would dry fast enough to keep pace with the production process.”
Mass production needed workers, and lots of them. They came from all over the globe.
Many of them arrived from Britain, via Canada. But as early as 1907 the Detroit Board of Commerce asked the immigrant reception centre at Ellis Island in New York harbour to direct skilled workers to the city - immigrants from Italy, Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
Workers came from further afield too. The city came to have one of the largest Chaldean Catholic communities outside Iraq, with the first members arriving in the 1920s.
In 1906 the workforce in Detroit stood at about 80,000. By 1911 it was 175,000 and growing. Over a 30-year period there was a fivefold increase in Detroit’s population - most of that by 1925. The first step many of them made in the city was on the platform at Michigan Central.
World War One saw a significant rise in the arrival of black workers from the American South, as immigration routes from Europe were closed off. Agricultural difficulties after the war only encouraged more southerners - black and white - to leave the land and seek their future in Detroit.
By now Detroit was one of the wealthiest cities in the US. But the good times were brief. The crash of 1929 and the depression of the 1930s hit the city hard.
Recovery was slow and sporadic. Things were only gradually improving by the late 1930s. World War Two pumped a new shot of adrenalin into Detroit’s industrial veins. Most of the auto-makers were turned over to war production and Detroit became the veritable arsenal of democracy.
After the war the motor industry thought it would simply return to the way things were. The US emerged from World War Two as the world’s dominant economic power. But as Babson puts it: “The motor industry’s decline was established by its dominance.”
US manufacturers concentrated on upmarket vehicles, leaving entry-level models to others. Japanese imports - initially of low quality, but quickly improving - took a larger and larger share of the market.
Efforts to counter them produced some disastrous vehicles like the Chevrolet Vega, which rotted from within and the Ford Pinto, which was prone to catch fire in accidents.
Detroit was changing too. In July 1967, tensions caused by racism, unemployment and police brutality ignited into five days of full-scale rioting, after a raid on a drinking club in an African-American neighbourhood.
Forty-three people died - most of whom were African-American - and more than 1,000 were injured. More than 400 buildings were damaged so badly they had to be demolished.
“The heaviest casualty was the city itself,” according to its first black mayor, Coleman Young. “The riot,” he said, “put Detroit on the fast track to economic desolation.”
The more affluent - usually white - residents had already been moving to the suburbs. The riots accelerated this process. An estimated 22,000 people left the city in 1966. Two years later, that figure hit 80,000.
Many of the areas destroyed in the rioting were never rebuilt and the scars remain visible to this day.
In 1988 the dwindling railway service ended. Michigan Central Terminal was closed and abandoned. But worse was to come. The auto industry remained essential for Detroit’s future but it was not faring well. In 2009 both General Motors and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy. And just four years later - in July 2013 - the city itself went the same way, the largest municipality ever to go bankrupt in the US.
Michigan Central in the 1980s, shortly before its closure
“Watch your step and don’t tread on the sheets of plywood - usually there’s a big hole underneath.”
The warning is from Richard Bardelli, the manager of construction for Ford Land. Bardelli was born in Detroit. He has always lived here, and has spent some 30 years driving past the abandoned terminal building wishing something could be done about it. Now he is in charge of making it happen.
Working from the original plans for the terminal, he explains that his first task is to dry the building out and assess the scale of any damage.
Looking up at the tower, he points out darker spots in the stonework that indicate water infiltration. The building has a steel frame but many winters of freezing and thawing mean some of the limestone is coming away. “We will take some of that brick out,” he says cheerily, “check the steel behind it and see what needs to be done.”
Inside the terminal is a lofty hall lit by high steel-framed windows, the glass long since smashed. The walls of cracked plaster are sprinkled with graffiti but there is no missing the almost ecclesiastical grandeur of the place. There is a stillness, a calm, a sense of purpose, despite all the debris and scaffolding.
The ground floor is divided into three main areas - a waiting room (where you can still see the outlines of the heavy wooden seats on the floor), an arcade, and the main concourse. The ticket counter is just off the arcade and, from the concourse, gates lead to subways that took passengers up to the platforms above.
Bardelli is fast becoming as much architectural historian as construction engineer. He points upwards to the ceiling which comprises thousands of small tiles. This technique is called Guastavino vaulting, he says - self-supporting arches made up of layers of terracotta tiles: “There are about 20,000 of them up there. We are going to take down or re-point every piece. Luckily it’s in pretty good shape.” The scale of the restoration work is fast becoming apparent.
The old terminal had a range of public facilities split between the sexes, reflecting the social mores of the time.
“On the women’s side there was a tea room and rest room at the eastern end of the building,” Bardelli says.
“At the western end there was the men’s reading room, tea room and so on. There was a large restaurant and areas for shops.”
The plan is that a good part of the restored building will again be public space. For the moment, though, the building is an empty shell, stripped by vandals of anything that could be removed.
Michigan Central still has a place in many Detroiters’ hearts. As soon as plans were announced to renovate the terminal, local people began to return fixtures and artefacts which had found their way elsewhere.
In one case an anonymous caller rang to say that he had left a large station clock in an abandoned location, and that Ford needed to send somebody over to recover it quickly. That clock was once mounted on the covered roof over the carriage entrance.
This prompted the company to put out a call for any other objects or artefacts to be returned - no questions asked. In came a variety of items - door plates, elevator call buttons, office lamps, ornate staircase finials, even old fire extinguishers.
Every item that has been returned has a story. Joe Mifsud - local businessman and entrepreneur - is co-owner of a new restaurant, The Cork and Gabel on Michigan Avenue. You can see the front of the terminal building from its doorway.
For some years he has been buying lots in the area and on one he found a huge piece of masonry.
“I guessed it was a drinking fountain,” he says. “I knew it had to have come from the station. It just got moved around on a pallet for years as we bought up the rest of the property. It just shuffled from one space to the next.”
When he heard about Ford’s purchase of the building he rang them and they said: “Please, bring it over.”
Mifsud is a local, a third-generation Corktown native. He remembers “skating” on the terminal’s highly polished floor as a boy.
Mifsud began developing businesses in the area some 13 years ago. He accepts that at the time things were pretty grim. When he purchased his restaurant building (it used to be an old doughnut factory), it was abandoned with no doors and windows.
So what prompted him to take the risk? “We're on a major artery, Michigan Avenue,” he says. “It's close to downtown Detroit. I just thought it had to come back. And we're so close to the heart of the city that it would come our way. And thank goodness it did.”
Michigan Central illuminated for Winter Fest celebrations, 2018
Bill Ford, the executive chairman of Ford Motor Company and great-grandson of Henry Ford, remembers the Detroit of his youth: “Everything I did... was in the city - my barber, my doctor, my dentist, [where] I bought my clothes. The city was where everything happened.”
Re-purposing the terminal is in one sense going back to his famous family’s roots. Corktown, not surprisingly, derives its name from the fact that it was settled by Irish immigrants from County Cork. That too is where the Ford family has its origins.
But this is a move driven by judgement as much as sentiment. “The decay of the train station was a symbol for the decay of Detroit,” says Ford. “I would drive by this train station on a very frequent basis and it always really bothered me - there was so much that was positive starting to take place in the city. But this was always sitting there as a reminder, the past was always looming.”
He was determined that if there was ever a chance to do something with the building he would step in. And the profound changes in the automobile industry provided just such an opportunity.
Fewer young people are getting driving licences, patterns of car ownership are changing. Not far ahead the prospect of autonomous vehicles and electric propulsion looms large.
“Our future was looking very different,” he says. “Ford needed to attract talent from all around the world.”
He devised a plan to purchase not just Michigan Central, but other buildings in the Corktown area, and build what he calls “a mobility campus”.
“We are going to create a neighbourhood where we can test out a lot of the new ideas.”
The aim is to develop an attractive environment akin to the high-tech campuses of Silicon Valley in California.
One of Detroit’s leading industry analysts, Michelle Krebs, agrees with Ford that the company’s future cannot simply be in building cars: “In the future the money will be made in the services around the car.”
However, she says that this brings fresh challenges for Ford and its competitors: “Before, they all competed against each other. Now they're competing not just against each other but also against technology companies.”
The new campus will employ 2,500 Ford workers along with a similar number from partner companies. Throughout Corktown there could be several thousand more jobs linked to the project in one way or another.
Pamela Alexander, the director of community development for Ford’s philanthropic arm, the Motor Company Fund, is keen to stress what she says is the company’s long-standing commitment to the area.
It is investing in training and affordable housing. A newsletter goes out to all local households. “Ford was listening to the community,” she says, “even before the announcement of the terminal project.”
Ford mounted a Halloween party at the station last year (this is a city, she points out, where in many areas it is not safe for kids to go out and trick-or-treat). There was also a Winter Fest over nine evenings with refreshments and a light show on the terminal building.
Ford is making all the right noises. But change inevitably means disruption and there are all sorts of concerns among the local community.
Tricia Talley is is uneasy with the phrase “rebirth of Detroit”. There were always people here, she says. “The ‘rebirth’ is mainly about white people coming back to the centre of the city.”
As president of the North Corktown Neighbourhood Association (NCNA), she was initially excited at news of the Ford project. But she remains concerned that not enough jobs will go to Corktown residents - “the people who stayed and weathered the storm”.
Talley first came to the area in 2006. At that time much of North Corktown was empty. As gentrification slowly got under way, young white people began moving in - “urban pioneers” as she calls them, just a touch ironically. “We even got bike lanes,” she says.
Tricia Talley and Rhonda Greene, Corktown residents
The trendy new hotel restaurant in which she’s sitting is itself a small example of the change in the neighbourhood. A decade or so ago the building was a dive, renting out rooms in three-hour blocks and infamously providing vending machines dispensing lighters, condoms and women’s underwear.
Sitting with Talley is Rhonda Greene, another Corktown resident on the NCNA’s board. She says she also has mixed feelings about the project. “If that building comes back to life,” she tells me, “then the Corktown area too will come back to life. We wanted the city’s attention,” she says. However, she worries that Ford’s “louder voice” may drown out those of local people.
Both women agree that there must be no false dawn. But as Greene notes sadly, “we are used to being disappointed.”
House prices are certainly going up. Local estate agents Ryan Cooley and Lauren Bruyninga have been watching the changes to the area for more than a decade. Cooley says about 80% of their business is now residential property. In 2008 the average sales price was about $35,000. In 2018, it was $250,000.
Bruyninga says when she first came to Detroit, “people would come downtown to work and then five o’clock would happen, and the whole city would be dead - I mean desolate, scary, quiet. But now you see the downtown is developed - it’s pushing to the outskirts - and hopefully it will push out to the neighbourhoods as well.”
Local councillor Raquel Castaneda-Lopez represents District 6, encompassing Corktown, North Corktown and the surrounding neighbourhoods that will be affected by the Ford project.
Castaneda-Lopez was happy that Ford bought Michigan Central because the property had been blighted for many years.
But she worries about over-reliance upon Ford. “Part of the reason Detroit is in the condition it is,” she explains, “is because we depended solely upon the automobile industry to build us up. And then as the auto industry moved out and left the city there was a lot of decay.”
She resists the notion that Ford is “saving” Corktown, pointing to the small-business owners on Michigan Avenue’s commercial quarter who stuck it out and contributed to the area’s resurgence.
“Ultimately,” she says, “it's the small businesses that tend to employ locally and have a more significant impact on local economies.”
Ford is receiving large tax incentives from Detroit in return for investing locally. The figures are complicated but some estimates say the company is getting an initial package of tax breaks of up to $207m, in return for investing $738m across its five Corktown sites.
“We really are doing this for our future,” Bill Ford insists. “This isn't a tax play. If we had never showed up those revenues would never have come to these neighbourhoods. Anywhere we go and build a facility, the local community works with us. That's true in America. That's true anywhere in the world.”
Ten minutes by car from Michigan Central, the Detroit Institute of Arts provides a similar parable of the city’s rise and fall.
Housed in a grand building on Woodward Avenue (just across the road from an equally grand public library), the institute, like Michigan Central, evokes the high point of Detroit’s success.
It has one of the most extensive art collections in the United States - one that would grace any capital city in the world. But then at one time Detroit was richer than any capital city.
Highlights of the institute include a variety of Dutch Masters including a Rembrandt. But one of its most famous treasures is inextricably linked to the auto industry.
The Detroit Industry Murals were painted between 1932 and 1933 by the great Mexican artist Diego Rivera (husband to the artist Frida Kahlo).
These massive artworks were commissioned directly for the institute, and they depict car manufacturing at the Ford company’s River Rouge plant.
There are two main frescoes on the north and south walls. One shows the assembly of V8 engine blocks, while the other depicts completed transmissions rolling along the production line.
Henry Ford’s son, Edsel (Bill’s grandfather) contributed $20,000 to help defray the costs of the project. He is depicted at the right-hand side of one of the panels.
Few cities in modern times have seen a downturn in fortune as spectacular as Detroit. Urban blight and decay are not unusual. But the scale and scope of what happened to Detroit are.
Well within living memory, the population of the city has collapsed. From more than 1.8 million in 1950, it stood at a little over 700,000 by 2010. And with the collapse in population came a collapse in local tax income. Increasingly the city could not pay for itself or the basic services that its remaining residents needed.
In 2013 the emergency manager appointed to run the city’s affairs was looking for assets that could be liquidated, and floated the idea of selling many of the institute’s artworks - “just like the furniture out of an office building”, according to local art historian Jeffrey Abt.
Eventually, what Abt describes as a “grand bargain” was reached and the 2,800 artworks earmarked for sale (worth a total of between $750-$800m) remain in the institute’s collection.
While a price can be put on artworks, it is almost impossible to calculate the human cost of Detroit’s decline.
It was in effect depopulated. Tens of thousands of buildings were empty and abandoned. Detroit became a city with a failing heart and a poor, mainly black, population. It was surrounded by more affluent, often white suburbs, with little interest in the goings-on at City Hall.
This was the city I first visited some 20 years ago.
I know enough history to know that nothing is final... [Detroit] will go through its ups and downs
Downtown was bleak and forbidding. It is the only city I have ever seen with abandoned skyscrapers. At night it was dark and dangerous. In the neighbourhoods surrounding the city, many streets looked like war-zones.
Every third or fourth house was either burnt out or an empty lot. Those that remained were dilapidated and forlorn. Whole blocks of streets had been abandoned, and grass was growing through the foundations creating urban prairies.
There wasn’t much in the way of a tourist industry in Detroit. Visitors might come to see the home of the Motown music phenomenon. Otherwise, it seemed that there was only abandonment and ruins - grand names from the past such as the once swanky Book-Cadillac Hotel, or slowly collapsing factories like the Packard Plant and the Fisher Body Plant 21.
Lowell Boileau - artist, enthusiast for Detroit’s future and my guide on successive visits to the city, established a website to commemorate many of these great old buildings. He called it The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit. Over them all - sentinel-like - stood the crumbling edifice of the Michigan Central terminal.
Boileau says he was delighted by Ford’s purchase of the station. Downtown Detroit had been undergoing a resurgence, but there was still “this huge ruin of a building, made worse by the fact that there were no other buildings around it - a symbol of the city’s failure”.
Detroit was a city beyond crisis. Even today there are still vast numbers of empty lots and abandoned areas.
Lowell is sanguine about the city’s long-term prospects.
“I don't know what the future will hold,” he says. “But this is the pounding heart of Detroit, the historical centre of the city and you have to have a healthy heart before those limbs out there can prosper.
“Visitors now come to Detroit and suddenly they are not seeing abandoned buildings in the centre of the city. They're seeing a vibrant happening place, with these beautiful 1920s-era buildings glistening again.”
Boileau rhapsodises about his home city: “I know that Jerusalem has been destroyed many times. I know Rome has been sacked. I know cities go through cycles and Detroit has similarly gone through that.
“I know enough history,” he says, “to know that nothing is final. It will go through its ups and downs.”
When the final train left and the station closed its doors in 1988 the local newspaper - the Detroit Free Press - tried to put this sombre moment into a wider context. “The shutdown of Michigan Central,” it declared, “should be the occasion of serious reflection about what we once were; what we have lost; and what, given sufficient will, we could regain.”
So, might the trains ever come back to Michigan Central one day? Bill Ford does not rule this out completely.
“Right now, the tracks stop about a mile short of the terminal. But yes, I would love the trains to come back.
“Obviously,” he adds, “that's not within Ford's control but we're already starting to talk to some of the regional transportation people about just that. It's very early days, but I think it would be wonderful.”