Trying to sum up the significance of Ford’s plans for the Michigan Central Station, a quote by Winston Churchill seems apt.
“Now, this is not the end,” Churchill said of an early Allied victory in World War II. “It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
That’s what Ford taking on the old train station means for Detroit. Years of hard work lie ahead for the city to truly come back. But Ford’s act of faith in Detroit’s future with the enormous investment it will bring signals a new era.
Victory no longer seems so remote. The issue is no longer in doubt.
Let’s take a moment to be clear about what Ford’s historic move won’t do. It doesn’t, by itself, solve Detroit’s underlying challenges of race and poverty. It will not, by itself, do anything for still-lagging neighborhoods far from Corktown. Indeed, the prosperity heading Corktown’s way seems probable, at least for a time, to exacerbate complaints of gentrification in the city.
But even admitting all that, Ford’s purchase of the train station shines as a turnaround of miraculous dimensions. There’s no other way to say it: This Ford deal for the train station is the Big One. The one event in the city’s comeback story that outranks all that has gone before.
From this point forward, having solved the toughest of all Detroit’s redevelopment puzzles, no longer will the city’s recovery efforts look like Hail Mary passes, as desperation plays to stave off defeat.
With Ford on board, with the train station coming back to life, progress in Detroit development will become the norm, not the exception. Exciting new projects will come to look routine, not surprising. From now on, redevelopment will occur as the natural and expected outcome in a city once again on the move.
Other cities have revived their aging train stations as retail centers or tourist draws — Washington, D.C.’s Union Station comes to mind, as well as depots in Cincinnati and Leipzig, Germany. But I know of no city that took its most prominent eyesore, its international symbol of Rust Belt decline — the ruin porn of all ruin porn — and turned it into the preeminent symbol of their city’s future progress.
That’s what we’re doing now in Detroit. And there’s no name more powerfully suited to the task than that of Ford.
Detroit’s history is peopled with great names, from Judge Woodward and Chief Pontiac to Walter Reuther and Coleman A. Young. But no name looms in the annals of this city like that of Ford.
From the $5-a-day wage that Henry Ford offered in 1914, a move that helped triple the city’s population in 20 years, to Ford’s astonishing feats of production during the Arsenal of Democracy years in World War II, to the introduction of the first Mustang, the building of the Renaissance Center, the decades of community largess — the Fords have been there for Detroit.
And now Ford comes through again. And it comes through in the best possible place by rescuing the most difficult building to signal to the world that Detroit is once again open for business.
President John F. Kennedy once said we choose to send astronauts to the moon not because it is easy but because it is hard. It demands the best that is in us, our deepest reserves of spirit and innovation.
That’s the type of challenge the Michigan Central Station has presented. The Moroun family, which held title to the depot for a quarter century before selling it to Ford, saw a raft of proposed uses for the depot fall apart one by one, defeated by the staggering costs and other difficulties.
But Ford, having worked since last October to study the depot, having put in six months of due diligence, is moving ahead with full confidence. As improbable as a depot renovation looked even a few months ago, nobody would bet against Ford in this effort.
And that Ford is choosing to put its future mobility team there — the skunk works that will help create transportation in the self-driving and electronic vehicle future we’re entering — is perhaps the most delectable topping of all.
Henry Ford once created the modern age with his Model T and the $5-a-day wage. Now, another generation of his company will help reinvent the future again from its new home in Corktown. The train station transforms almost overnight from a symbol of ruin to a spring robin of the future.
For years, doubters and scoffers have derided as romantic or deluded the folks who fought for Detroit’s future. But it turns out the Detroit believers were right all along. And the train station is proof of that — a fitting end to the long beginning of Detroit’s comeback.
Contact John Gallagher: 313-222-5173 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jgallagherfreep.
Detroit Free Press, June 15, 2018