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The Highland Park I remember from my childhood had safe, tree-lined streets, wonderful stores, movie theatres, clean playgrounds, and a bustling downtown. The school system was considered one of the nation’s best. This thriving living environment depended almost entirely on the auto industry. Once there were nearly 20,000 manufacturing jobs in Highland Park (Wilson & Gilchrist A1). Now almost all of them have disappeared. What factors led this once prosperous city into receivership and state control? Highland Park, like Detroit, is a victim of suburban sprawl and the auto manufacturers’ decision to decentralize production. Both cities were devastated by the decentralization of the auto plants and the loss of revenue that followed.
While losing its manufacturing jobs, Highland Park was also losing its trees. In her short story, “Stealing Trees,” Lisa Lenzo recalls the days before Dutch elm disease when “elms formed a ceiling of leaves a hundred feet up from Highland Park’s streets.” Within a decade, however, “there wasn’t a branch or leaf left in all of Highland Park’s sky” (2).
In 1913, Henry Ford opened the first moving assembly line plant on Manchester and Woodward. Later, Chrysler Corporation built its world headquarter in Highland Park on Oakland Avenue. The city was also home to the industrial equipment manufacturer, Excello Corporation. Highland Park was an industrial town with a booming economy, attracting workers from all over the world. But in the 1960s, the Ford Motor Company suspended car production in Highland Park, began making farm tractors at the plant, and later abandoned it altogether. Excello Corporation moved its operation and corporate headquarters from Highland Park to Troy in 1973. In the 1990s Chrysler moved its headquarters to Auburn Hills and most of its production elsewhere. When the auto plants moved out, the workers moved to follow the jobs. Highland Park, like Detroit, experienced the uncertainty of capital mobility.
By the end of the 1960s Highland Park was a predominantly Black and poor city. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Highland Park’s population is 93.4% Black, and 4.1% white. The median household income in 2000 was $17,737, the fourth lowest in Michigan. Lenzo’s story reflects Highland Park’s identity as a Black city. The idea that two white boys might still live in Highland Park strikes a Black Detroiter as ludicrous: “‘I don’t think you boys are really from Highland Park,’ [he tells them], ‘I think you’re from one of them suburbs where they let the raggedy white folks live. Taylor, maybe. Or Romulus’”(7). He does not believe that there are any more white people in Highland Park. When he asks if “they let you boys stay in Highland Park,” one responds, “For now I guess” (6).
Philip Levine’s poem “What Work Is” reflects the underlying indifference that would eventually lead industries to abandon Highland Park:
Levine’s speaker acknowledges the futility of waiting in the rain for a job at Ford’s. He understands the politics of getting a factory job in Detroit. He knows that at the end of the line, “a man is waiting who will say, ‘No, / we’re not hiring today, for any / reason he wants’” (18). The industry is as indifferent to people as to places.
Murray Jackson’s poem, “Growing Up Colored” also shows the improbability of getting a job at the auto plants. Levine’s speaker understands the futility of waiting in line all day, but there is a slim chance that some of the white applicants may get in the gate. Jackson, on the other hand, realizes being “colored” requires someone inside the plant to speak on their behalf, or they would not be hired. Henry Ford hired Donald Marshall, a Black policeman, to help select suitable Black workers. Jackson recalls the search of his father and his friend for employment at the Highland Park plant:
If African Americans did not have Marshall to say they were okay, they would not be hired. Once they got the job, however, they had to jabberwock under “the pains of being colored” through the work week (32). Black Men were exploited, given the dirtiest jobs in the plant, and always identified as “colored” workers.
The residents of this once vibrant city struggle to stay afloat amid the abandoned, rotting buildings, burned out storefronts, and decayed apartment buildings. Labor poet Leon Chamberlain describes the abandoned Highland Park Ford plant in his poem “Highland Park”:
This poem is an elegy for the abandoned Ford plant and the workers whose spirits can be felt amid the “ruined wrecked cranes, rusting, / hulked abandoned, misted in fog ” (85).
The Model T Plaza, a strip mall, now sits where, as Lowell Boileau says, “the most famous factory in history once produced 1000 ‘Tin Lizzies’ a day.”
Poet and Writer Zola Masembuko (nee Joan Hooks-Polk), whose work has been published in The Maxis Review and The Rectangle, grew up in Highland Park and now lives in Detroit. She has a B.A in English from Marygrove College.
Photography by Anna Fedor.
Boileau, Lowell. “Home page.” The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit. 28 Dec. 2004. http://detroityes.com/industry/02modelt.htm
Chamberlain, Leon. “Highland Park.” Abandon Automobile: Detroit City Poetry 2001. Eds. Melba Boyd and M.L. Liebler. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2001.
Jackson, Murray. “Growing Up Colored.” Bobweaving Detroit The Selected Poems of Murray Jackson. Eds. Ted Person and Katherine V. Lindberg. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2004.
Lenzo, Lisa. “Stealing Trees.” Within The Lighted City. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1997.
Levine, Philip. “What Work Is.” What Work Is. New York: Knopf, 1992.
Wilson, Janet and Brenda Gilchrist. “Closing May Doom Once-Wealthy Highland Park.” Detroit News 9 September 1992 A1+.