The Greater Detroit area is a place of contradictions. I learned this during my trip to the Further With Ford event last month and was further reminded when a bankruptcy filing was approved last Thursday for the city by its emergency manager and the Governor of Michigan.
On the one hand, Ford Motor Company cannot fill its engineering jobs fast enough and strong sales show that it seems to be recovering from the economic downturn. It has also seen its reputation soar ever since it was the only major U.S. automobile company not to take a government bailout.
But then there is the area around them. As part of the conference, Ford arranged for the attendees to drive F-150 trucks loaded with building material to a Habitat for Humanity project in one of the distressed neighborhoods, Morningside Commons.
That neighborhood was one of the saddest places I’ve ever visited.
About half of the homes in this very middle-class suburban neighborhood were well kept and obviously loved by their residents. The others? Some of the once-beautiful homes were completely burned out and gutted, some merely vacant, and others had boarded up windows and were on the verge of roof collapse. The corner shopping area, pictured above, clearly had once been a thriving center but the local bank branch, a gray-stone building, was empty, and the dry cleaners and other stores were gutted.
There were a few homes for sale. They had steel doors and windows bolted on to prevent trespassing and, presumably, destruction.
In the midst of this, Habitat said it would build its 100th house by the end of the summer. The residents aren’t ready to give up.
Ford seems to be trying to help bring them together and has a long history with the home-building charity, but, obviously, the area has a long way to go.
And yet on the other side of the universe is the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, a museum dedicated not just to the history of Ford but to American ideas and innovation. It’s the site of Maker Faire Detroit next weekend.
I spent an evening in the Henry Ford, expecting to see a shrine to Ford automobiles and instead climbed aboard the actual bus where Rosa Parks made her stand for equal rights, looked over the Kennedy limousine, and toured the Dymaxion House, a home designed by R. Buckminster Fuller to be the wave of the future in the 1940s.
The House was designed to be “the strongest, lightest, and most cost-effective housing” according to the museum, not to mention tornado proof.
Touring the museum, it was easy to forget about the other Detroit. But those that built the industry, from presidents to assembly line workers, started with very little. Perhaps it can be done again and the bankruptcy, which might allow Detroit to get out from debt that prevents the city from spending on the future, has hit bottom and can only get better.