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.