|The birthplace of the automotive assembly line, architecture of Albert Kahn: Highland Park is an early example of concise urban design, buried below a distressing layer of dilapidation and disrepair. Hidden down forlorn streets lie husks of once were exquisite examples of the boon produced by the turn of the 19th century automotive production boom. Transitional homesteads in pleasant juxtapositions largely of the Arts & Crafts movement and Tudor and Romanesque revival styles stand dark within the hurting neighborhoods.Designed as ‘Ford Town’, Highland Park is a mindfully intricate collection of community and commercial properties, and neighborhoods once of varying economic and social classes. Large, wealthy middle-class single family homes built for the upper management of Ford’s Highland Park Plant, the first facility to implement the assembly line and built in 1909, shared corner store with Deco inspired apartment complexes, and the modest, ranch style two-bedrooms of blue collar co-workers. The diversity of homes offered was equally complimented by the selection of retail amenities. Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s ‘Grand Old Mainstreet’, was said to have a shop for everything.
Literally a city within a city, itself surrounded by the city of Detroit; Highland Park at its peak was a predecessor of New Urbanism: the modern praised direction of urban planning, where walkable neighborhoods are made up of an assortment of housing and economical statuses, as well as easy accessibility to daily necessities, art and entertainment. New Urbanism strives to counteract ‘Urban Sprawl’. If Highland Park were to be restored it could be on par with these highly sought out new communities around the country, but with the amazing architectural integrity and level of craftsmanship synonymous with the historical homes that make up its neighborhoods.
Unfortunately Highland Park found itself in economical distress at a time when much of the county was feeling prosperity. The shutting down of the assembly line in the late 1950’s devastated the city as jobs disappeared, quality of life deteriorated. Long before any legislation to impose corporate responsibility were in existence, Ford found little opposition in simply deserting the city it built.
|Luck did not improve for Highland Park. Dutch Elm Disease took the dense old growth that gained it its designation as ‘the City of Trees’, as crime bled into the neighborhoods. Political corruption and societal conflicts further decimated the small independent metropolis. The more recent ritualized burning of vacant homes on ‘Devil’s Night’ each year further physically scars the landscape and emotionally the general sense of well-being, and acts as just one more blight to be visited upon this noteworthy city.Up is Highland Park’s only option. Neighborhood organizations work to cultivate the charred lots, where stood once testaments to the prosperity of industry, into community gardens and farms. Providing fresh, local and affordable produce, and almost equally important positive communal activity. Efforts to rescue these beautiful neighborhoods are also there on a small scale. A city with such a unique and groundbreaking history could aim to follow suit of renaissance areas like Detroit’s Midtown or Riverfront, which are appealing to the growing in surge of young professionals in the metropolitan area. The Michigan Film Tax Incentive could bring Highland Park a new industry as well. Detroit is already leading the state’s embrace of its budding film industry with projects underway to explore re-purposing the vacant automotive complexes into studio lots, and major production films increasing every year.
Though battered; Highland Park still stands, waiting for the future, unable to truly hide its architectural beauty, its strong past, and heart: that is its people.