We are all Highland Parkers

What most of Highland Park looks like, basically, is some little town overrun by the Nazis in World War II. Not the strip on Woodward that is all most suburbanites and many Detroiters ever see. I mean the residential streets.

Turn west on Glendale, say, and drive around them, if you can screw up your puny courage to do so. These were solid middle-class neighborhoods just like Huntington Woods in our grandparents’ day. Soggy old sofas and old tires and car parts and all manner of rubbish litter lawns and streets.

Many houses are burned out. Some still inhabited ones don’t seem to have been painted for decades. Today, it looks like a place from which most of the people seem to have been evacuated. The survivors are in miserable shape, by any standards common to the modern developed world. Nearly half of their children live below the poverty line. Unemployment is at Great Depression levels — 22 percent — which is good news in a ghastly way; it has been higher.

The showcase window of Highland Park, Woodward Avenue, the only street in Michigan to be designated a “National Scenic Byway,” doesn’t look so good either.

Three years ago, Harriet Saperstein, who runs HP Devco, the economic development organization that has fought gallantly to breathe some life back into the little city, pointed out the old, long-abandoned Ford Administration building. It was surrounded by scrub trees behind a faded historical marker, but there was one good sign.

“See, none of the windows are broken,” she said. “When windows are left broken in a building like that, things deteriorate pretty quickly.”

There are lots of broken windows in Henry Ford’s old building today. The Blockbuster Video across the street is gone, and the full-service Farmer Jack pulled out earlier this year, to be replaced by a no-frills “Food Basics” store.

Right behind it stretches the immense, long-deserted factory which, from 1908 to 1927, built 15 million Model T Fords and put America on wheels.

This is what we’ve let happen to the town that is, literally, the cradle of our modern civilization, the birthplace of the mass-produced automobile. Nobody else in the civilized world would have let this happen. Nobody but our country, which thinks it has a right to tell others how to live.

If they could see this, residents of Falluja, Najaf, or the dustier backwaters of Iraq would be appalled. They would be incredulous when they realized that this was allowed to happen in the richest nation in the world.

“What uncultured barbarians,” they would think. They’d be right too. When the Berlin Wall came down, West Germany, which looked economically pretty much like Birmingham, embraced East Germany, which — in terms of poverty and pollution — pretty much looked like a mammoth Highland Park.

The West spent trillions to rebuild the East. We don’t, however, go in for cleaning up our messes. Highland Park represents everything wrong with the best economic and political system the world has ever known.

Ford Motor Co., by the way, created this city, which was a farming community before the big factory came, and the population zoomed from 4,120 to an astonishing 46,599 between 1910 to 1920. Eventually, Henry Ford built his city on the Rouge, and gradually phased out of Highland Park.

Chrysler had arrived by then. Yet there was a gradual decline. The housing stock aged; the city became poorer and blacker, and then — one day in 1987 — Chrysler announced that it was leaving too.

Ford did nothing for Highland Park when it left, or, indeed, ever since. Chrysler, to its credit, coughed up $5 million to help start HP Devco. Harriet and her wily band, including top aides Perrin Emanuel and Anne Zobel, have had their successes, including luring Budco, which provides more than 1,000 jobs.

But that hasn’t been enough. Basically, the bottom fell out when Chrysler left. Seventy percent of tax revenues vanished overnight. Land was polluted from decades of industrial use. And if the big car corporations behaved irresponsibly toward the city they used, the politicians left behind didn’t do any better.

Three years ago, the city was taken over by an emergency financial manager, Ramona Henderson-Pearson, who remains in charge. According to a document prepared in February, she found money missing and records in chaos.

Yet Titus McClary, Highland Park’s new mayor, is optimistic, and a huge improvement on his predecessor, Linsey Porter, who whined and spent his time going to school in Tennessee.

“I think we’ve turned a corner,” says McClary, 66, whose mother moved to Highland Park in 1952 because the schools provided free books. He was happy because the city was allowed to issue some bonds in January and could start paying pensions on time again. But he knows the depth of the challenge.

For years, Harriet Saperstein has tried to get Ford Motor Co. to help the birthplace of its assembly line. And for years, Ford has said, “Sorry, not interested.” (A spokeswoman returned my call after two days; she wanted to know if I’d come to a meeting, then said she’d call back. She didn’t.)

What tiny fraction, I wondered idly, of the money we spend killing people in Iraq would suffice to make Highland Park livable again? (Less than a day’s worth would do more than nicely.)

And so why doesn’t our society do something about this? The answer, other than selfishness and insanely atomized governmental institutions, was probably put best by one Stephen Goodfellow on a residents’ Web site:

“What kind of society could allow such a perverse stark contrast to exist? Where is the justice, where is the compassion? You know the reason. It is ugly, it is rarely ever mentioned on the local news. It is not discussed much, because it is so obvious. It is racism. Racism in all its complexity, in its many guises.”

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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