Less than a mile from downtown Detroit is a monument to the Motor City’s past.
Michigan Central Station (MCS, or Michigan Central Depot) stands tall as a monument to the time when Detroit was one of America’s most important economic centers; stares down sadly at a city that has declined precipitously the past few decades; and is an enduring symbol of hope at what the city could become should its citizens succeed in redefining their home.
One reason why Detroit quickly became the Motor City during the early 20th century was that the infrastructure for such an industry was already in place. Outside of Chicago, Detroit was one of the most important railroad centers in the United States. The station opened in 1913, replacing another that had burned down that year. Once a thriving terminus, over the years traffic declined as Americans fell in love with the automobile. In fact, the MCS has not had a train arrive or depart since the late 1980s and the Beaux-Arts architectural masterpiece has fallen into rapid decline. Could it change?
Visiting the MCS now is a surreal experience. Many of the windows are boarded up. Nearby homes are abandoned; the lucky ones have become artists’ canvases. Empty lots host wildflowers that one would expect to see in the Michigan countryside. While nearby Corktown, home to old Tigers’ Stadium, has slowly come back to life along with other areas of the city, the MCS still stands empty, full of promise but lacking tenants.
Local businessman Manuel (“Matty”) Maroun currently owns the MCS. His company, CenTra, Inc., also owns the Ambassador Bridge, the link between Michigan and Ontario. CenTra and Maroun also have opposed a proposed publicly-owned new bridge that will reach completion in 2016 and compete with the Ambassador. So Maroun and company have suffered their share of public relations blues in the Detroit area, but now a web site tries to engage locals by crowdsourcing ideas to bring the MCS back to life.
The website Talk to the Station is an attempt by Maroun and company to engage locals and have them contribute ideas to give the MCS a new lease on life. Social media fiends can contribute ideas via Facebook, and ideas can be sent by text as well. Judging by the responses and the amount of “likes” they are receiving, the effort is a flop. The most popular suggestion has been to turn the station into a women’s roller derby sports complex. Far behind the pack is the though to revive the MCS as a . . . rail station. Overall the site is more of a mockery than a genuine attempt to inspire local stakeholders.
Other ideas have trickled in recently. Our editor, Nick Aster, hinted that Chrysler move back to the Motor City. Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley has a great idea that would catalyze synergy with the region’s leading universities: turn the station into a high-tech college that would help Detroit reinvent itself. The idea has a strong foundation: Wayne State University has sparked the growth of TechTown, a research and development hub that has a waiting list for space. Rail could link a revived MCS with local universities that could combine their strengths and launch laboratories from everything to biotechnology, next generation internet services, social innovation and even urban agriculture.
When I visited Detroit for a conference in late September, I saw a city with many scars and yet huge potential. The city’s population has cratered the past decade, and the state of Michigan is close to usurping local officials and installing an emergency manager to oversee Detroit’s finances. But for the gutsy and creative types, many of whom I met during my trip, the Motor City offers huge opportunities. Converting the Michigan Central Station into a corporate or education center–and not a casino, please–would nudge Detroit into a more prosperous direction.
Photos courtesy Leon Kaye.