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Henry Ford

This isn't your grandpa's Ford Motor Company

Why the automaker's potential expansion in Corktown is a big deal

I imagine everyone is excited about Ford Motor Company potentially extending its reach into a trendy urban neighborhood except the founder himself.

The second-biggest real estate news story in Detroit (only second to that interesting-looking house in Grixdale Farms) at the moment concerns a potential development at the long-vacant Michigan Central Station in Corktown. The aforementioned Dearborn automaker is said to be interested in – depending on who you read – purchasing the entire property or perhaps leasing a portion of it.

It’s a big gamble for Detroit’s de facto symbol of decline, and I’m old enough to remember bigger ambitions for this property which has been empty for almost as long as I’ve been alive. (Remember when the Detroit Police Department wanted to move its headquarters there?) Certainly we’re all excited about it, and I know there are some property owners in Corktown probably practicing their Uncle Scrooge dives. But I’d like to call attention to why this is notable for Ford.

Though Ford was born in the Motor City, and has had significant presence in and out of the city for its entire existence, it’s by and large a suburban company – at the wishes of its founder Henry Ford. Henry Ford was a lot of things: Inventor, innovator, instinctive. But you could never call him an urbanist.

I’ve talked about Henry Ford’s dislike for cities (and at times, the people who inhabit them) a few times over the years for various publications, and now I’m thinking about it again. The Motor City grew up around Ford’s company and the other Detroit automakers. Metro Detroit grew up around Henry Ford’s personal taste.

Ford was born and raised in then-rural Dearborn; it wasn’t even called Dearborn , and such a thing as a “suburb” didn’t quite exist around Detroit. Throughout his adult life, he yearned for a simpler, greener life as Detroit became more urbanized. (Greenfield Village, with its idyllic recreations of small-town America, is essentially a shrine to Ford’s vision for how he wanted to see America.) But the growth of his company was at odds with the life he wanted to create for himself.

In the book “Dreaming Suburbia,” author Amy Maria Kenyon notes that as black autoworkers flooded Detroit from segregated southern states looking for work, they were often placed in bottom-of-the-barrel jobs in Ford’s factories. They were low on the totem pole in Detroit, but still earning more than a sharecropper below the Mason-Dixon. Black autoworkers were also locked out of white unions, and Ford leveraged that to taunt white unions – which he despised – with the threat of integration.

But also because of Ford’s dislike of unions, he used decentralization as a tactic. Rather than grow unionized plants in the city, Ford expanded his company’s presence in the suburbs. As Kenyon writes:

Henry Ford was a lot of things: Inventor, innovator, instinctive. But you could never call him an urbanist.

“By 1920, southeast Michigan was at the heart of the U.S. auto industry, and the auto industry was at the heart of the organization of living and working space for the whole area…If Ford’s employment practices contributed to the continued migration of southern black families to Detroit, his antiurbanism suggested the larger, future mappings of race and suburbanization in the Motor City. Stating that ‘the real United States lies outside the cities,’ Ford remained a steadfast suburbanite.

When he headed for his native Dearborn in the woods just outside Detroit, Ford removed more than house and family. He dragged a significant portion of the auto industry behind him. With the opening of the Rouge plant in 1920, the largest industrial complex in the world located itself in suburbia. The decentralization of production away from the urban center was an early factor in Detroit, one that underlined and complicated the relation between city and suburb and the role and race in metropolitan space.”

You know how the rest of this story goes: White autoworkers and the support companies around them continued to segregate themselves, whether in the suburbs or otherwise, while black autoworkers lived in restricted neighborhoods or cities created “for them” – sarcastic quotes here – like Inkster. The common narrative of strained white-black relations is often told through white flight in the 1940s, but it’s obvious it was aided and abetted way before then.

All this makes it all the more interesting that Ford Motor Company, no longer under Henry Ford’s direction, appears to be reversing course. It’s far, far too late to undo the damage caused way back when, and no one is suggesting that stuffing a few mobility geeks in Moroun’s train station is going to solve Metro Detroit’s race problem forevermore. But it does suggest that this isn’t your grandfather’s Ford Motor Company. And that should be recognized.

(To be explored in a later topic: Making sure women and employees of color are offered the same opportunities for advancement in this could-be, could-be-not development.)