Saturday, November 29, 2008

Doomed Detroit Depot

Detroit's Michigan Central Station was one of America's greatest train stations as well as one of the Motor City's grandest structures. In its heyday, it served crack trains of the New York Central, Baltimore & Ohio and Canadian Pacific railroads, among them the Ambassador, Cincinattian, Detroiter, Mercury and Twilight Limited.

Like most other urban terminals, Michigan Central's fortunes declined with the waning of passenger rail service during the 1950s and 1960s. When Amtrak began operations in 1971, it fielded only two daily departures to Chicago. Finally, in 1988, Amtrak gave up and exited for a new, smaller facility.

But Michigan Central did not share in the good fortune of depots in other large midwestern cities. While union stations in St. Louis, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Cincinnati were successfully converted to other uses and, in the latter three cases, still provide scaled-down passenger rail facilities, Michigan Central's last 20 years have been a gradual descent into hell. A collection of photographs by Joe Braun documents the extent of the deterioration.

It's a sad sight and not for the feint of heart. Seeing Joe's photos was disturbing for me because I have long held a warm spot in my heart for Michigan Central because it bookended my first overnight train trip, aboard New York Central's Wolverine, to attend my cousin's Bar Mitzvah in 1960. Even at the tender age of six, it seemed a majestic place that served as a fitting counterpoint to New York's Grand Central Terminal, where I had left the night before.

As Joe points out in his essay, Michigan Central was hurt by its location, a few miles south of downtown Detroit, and the lack of adequate parking. But its real enemy was the city it served, Detroit, the home of the industry that nearly killed passenger rail and caused severe harm to virtually every American city.

As everyone knows, the Big Three motor vehicle manufacturers - GM, Ford and Chrysler - are headquartered in Detroit or its suburbs. These companies were the engine that drove not only Detroit's economy, but also that of the the entire state of Michigan and, indeed, a good segment of the U.S. economy.

Americans flocked to automobiles, especially after World War II, and as they did passenger rail travel declined markedly. Consumer-friendly mortgage practices made home ownership a realizable dream for members of the growing middle class. Developers purchased farmland on the outskirts of cities and built tract houses upon it. Suburbia was born, and soon after superhighways, shopping malls and office parks followed.

New living and transportation patterns came, too. In cities that did not have strong public transportation, the movement of businesses to the suburbs became particularly acute. They lacked the infrastructure to handle the influx of tens of thousands of automobiles coming into downtown areas on a daily basis. Businesses realized they could move out to the suburbs where land was cheaper. They erected new corporate headquarters that spread out over several acres on plots containing large parking lots and lavishly landscaped grounds.

No city was more affected by this trend than Detroit. Even thought it ranked as the nation's fourth largest city in 1950 with a population of 1.8 million, it lacked a modern public transportation system; it's commuter rail network was minimal, at best. Its problems were exacerbated by the 1967 race riot, which accelerated the movement of white families to the suburbs.

Today, Detroit's population is around half of what it was in 1950, and most of those who remain lack the means to leave. Yet, it sits at the heart of a huge metropolitan area with a population of nearly 4.5 million people. Where did everyone go? To the suburbs, of course.

Detroit is America's greatest failure in social engineering. It created an industry that turned a city on itself. Ironically, that industry now appears to be failing, too, a victim of its deaf ear to the needs of the market it helped create. The Big 3 have come begging to Washington for a $25 billion bailout. I can think of a better place to put that money.


  1. i personally lived in detriot most of my life and to call it a faliure is just horrible. i love michigan and i love detriot its been going thru some trouble but that doesn't mean its a faliure.

  2. Detroit biggest issue is race. plain and simple it will always come down to that in one way or another. If you look just behind the train station you will find a newly constructed viborant neighborhood with its own supermarket. however you would never know that by seeing stories in the local and national media. how Ironic is it that the whole train station property is owned by one of the richest persons in America, who lives right in our own backyard. Detroit needs to be wayne,oakland and Macomb counties put together, set up with buroughs like New York city. Where all the tax revenue is shared. Having a booming downtown and mass transit. I think with the right leaders and motivation it could happen.

  3. Notice in the above piece, the author mentions the 1967 riots but you never hear about the race riots of 1943. Notice that Date 1943. Our country was in the middle of WW2 and Detroit, which is the arsenal of Democracy has the time to have a freaking race riot....are you flipping kidding me. Like I said Before. This towns/regions lack of world class status has been
    severed at the knees by race tentions.

  4. A slight correction to the article: Michigan Central Station is more west of downtown Detroit than it is south as the article states.

    I worked in downtown Detroit in the 1970s and lived in the city from birth to I was 30. I loved the city. It was energizing to work there then even though it was well on its way to being on life support. The reason Detroit failed is horrible politics, locally and nationally. Houses started to be boarded up as a result of HUD allowing people who could not afford to care for their own homes to live in them. By the time they moved out, the homes were trashed and boarded up because they couldn't be sold.

    Many people blame Coleman Young, but it started before him. The riots, the reduction in the power of the police authority because of alleged abuses of SWAT teams, great benefits for welfare that encouraged people to stay on it, and a host of other things contributed to the problems beyond race issues. After all, it's a union town and the unions have caused its demise. They demanded wages that took them right out of the international market at the same time the auto companies got fat and lazy so they didn't see the Japanese car invasion coming. That fact still amazes me. They ignored their declining market share for a couple of decades!

    Because the wages in the town were based on elevated union wages, ALL wages in the area were higher than other urban centers in the country. I remember when our city workers were the highest paid in the nation. When corporations left the city due to high taxes, parking fees, no commuting system, busing of school kids out of their own neighborhoods, and city income taxes, the city never cut back its wage structure because everyone assumed the city would be reborn -- it was too important to fail, right? Wrong!

    Now they are honestly thinking of creating farms throughout the city because there are huge tracts of land where vital neighborhoods used to be. Nothing will revive it. It's gone. Who in their right mind would move into a city with high crime rates and absolutely terrible schools? The riff-raff who can't afford to leave it only sucks the life out of the rest of the Michigan economy, an economy that already has enough problems without Detroit bleeding it to death.

    I remember Michigan Central Station in the 1950s and 60s when it was vibrant. I remember downtown when you could walk the streets without fear. We had world class restaurants, stores and events. Now, I don't care if I ever go downtown again. It's too depressing because I remember its past.

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