Newspapers and magazines do this thing that drives Detroiters crazy. Doesn’t matter the headline. Maybe Detroit is coming back, maybe crime is falling, maybe a few neighborhoods are seeing a resurgence, maybe it’s all a bit more complicated than a few statistics make it seem. But editors generally use a particular photo to symbolize the city: the gorgeous but abandoned and ill-used Central Depot.
The station feels like a symbol because it is. When it opened in 1913, the grand 18-story office tower, its cavernous waiting room fronted by looming Corinthian columns, was the tallest rail station in the world. Two hundred trains left each day, bound for New York City and Boston and Chicago and West Virginia and Canada. In the station’s heyday, from the 1920s to the ’50s, Detroit was the fourth-most populous city in the US, fed by influxes of immigrants who came to work for the mighty auto industry that called the city home.
Eventually, that industry helped put a stake in the primacy of American rail travel, and thus in the beaux-arts station. By 1967, the owners of the depot had closed its restaurant, main entrance, and large parts of its main waiting room—revenue couldn’t support the maintenance costs. The last Amtrak train pulled away in 1988. That and the general decay of Detroit, which, through years of intense segregation and job loss, saw its population shrink by more than 60 percent between the mid-20th century and the early aughts. Squatters have stripped the abandoned structure of everything worthwhile, graffiti and broken glass litter the floors, and Central Station has become a central figure in the slideshow of Detroit ruin porn.
For locals who have watched businesses slowly up their investments in the city, this feels unfair. “In Detroit, because there’s been some progress, and because part of Detroit’s problem is that it’s a belligerent place, there’s this almost revulsion over this building,” says Erik Gordon, who studies the automotive industry at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “It’s the picture you keep seeing and Detroiters say, ‘Oh, no, no, show a photo of this incubator. Show a photo of our airport—there’s a great airport here. Or show a photo of our new basketball or hockey arenas.’”
Detroiters might soon grow more enthusiastic about photos of Michigan Central. Today Ford officially announced it would purchase and restore the station, transforming it into the centerpiece of a new 2,500-employee autonomous and electric vehicle testing and research center by 2022. (About 2,500 more employees will be added later.)
This is a savvy PR move, sure, but it’s also a major investment with a big message. Sayeth Ford: We’re not Midwestern fuddy-duddies anymore. We’re a forward-thinking, get-around-anyhow-anyway sort of transportation network, in competition with another big Detroit automaker, sure, but also with Uber and Waymo and all the Silicon Valley tech giants.
“Palo Alto is about moving bits. We’re about moving people,” said Jim Hackett, the company’s CEO said during a Tuesday morning press conference, in front of the station’s stained edifice now draped with blue Ford banners. “This can be our Sand Hill Road.”
The purchase and restoration is symbolic on a few levels. It says, first, that Ford is here for Detroit. The 115-year-old company is actually based in Dearborn, up the road, but this will be an important incursion into the revitalizing downtown Corktown area. The purchase feels momentous for long-time (and long-frustrated) Detroit residents.
Should Ford realize its vision, the office will be a big deal. For one thing, the updated station will be the centerpiece of a big, $1 billion Ford Detroit campus. (Some expect the redevelopment of the depot to add mightily to that price tag.) In the past year, the carmaker has also purchased a few more acres of vacant land and empty factories nearby, the bones of what it says will be a 1.2-million-square-foot center, with 300,000 square feet already pledged as community and retail space.
Ford hopes this move will attract high-caliber young employees enthusiastic about living in an up and coming city. Plus, it plans to move workers currently working on urban mobility issues, including autonomous and electric vehicles, to Detroit, which officials say will give them new perspectives.
The move also signals that Ford is here for cities in general. In the last year, the company has launched a series of technology products aimed at city governments that promote big data, and the ‘cloud and mobile solutions that help collect and process all the information into something useful. This approach, says Ford, could fix the ills of modern urban places. (It has also struggled to generate a profit).
Just this month, the company launched what it’s calling “City of Tomorrow Challenges in Miami and Pittsburgh. The goal of these community competitions is to find new solutions and business opportunities within urban transportation networks. New sorts of bus stops, pavement, bike lanes—the company (and its partner cities) say they want to hear it all.
And the purchase says, yes, Ford is willing to invest money in the future of transportation—particularly autonomous vehicles. The automaker has been viewed as a laggard, with little visible public road testing or major engineering talent hirings, even as rivals GM, Tesla, Uber, and Waymo racked up testing miles. But in early 2017, Ford sunk $1 billion in the Pittsburgh-based company Argo AI, a startup stocked with robotics experts that’s working to develop an entire “virtual system” for an eventual Ford self-driving car.
Since it dropped all that dough on Argo, the company has committed to a “slow-er but steady” approach to self-driving cars. As General Motors ramps up for a 2019 deployment of autonomous vehicles, Ford has targeted 2021. The AV train left the station a few years ago, but Ford seems to believe it has found a new way to get onboard.
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