HIGHLAND PARK -- In this tiny community straddling Woodward Avenue, the managers and workers of the burgeoning auto industry found an urban oasis -- small neighborhoods of tidy bungalows and tree-shaded lanes. Even the street names -- California, Pasadena, Buena Vista -- seemed to reflect their dreams of upward mobility.
As the automotive hub of the globe in the early 20th century, cranking out millions of Model T's, Highland Park could afford to nurture those dreams.
With its move up Woodward from Detroit, the Ford Motor Co. had transformed the sleepy, pastoral farm village into a bustling community. Ford opened its innovative manufacturing complex on Woodward and lured thousands a few years later with the promise of $5 a day in wages.
Bounded mostly by Detroit and a bit of Hamtramck, Highland Park also would become the seat of the Chrysler Corp.
But Highland Park was more than just a company town. It was a model American suburb, home of leafy streets with distinctive bungalows, thriving main streets and community-minded corporations.
The residential streets that fanned across Woodward and other main roads were never more than three blocks long. Never mind that the city was the home of Ford -- the company that put the world on wheels -- the city was designed as a streetcar community, with public transportation never being more than a block and a half away. Residents could hop on a streetcar to downtown and other parts of Detroit, but they could shop, work or play in their own community.
"Back then you had people living and working in Highland Park. You had people living above the main street businesses," said Harriet Saperstein, chairwoman of the Woodward Avenue Action Association and former president of HP Devco, a nonprofit economic development agency. "You talk about the new urbanism. Highland Park had it a long time ago. It truly was a city in itself, with a separate identity from Detroit."
Shops, residents pack Woodward
In its heyday, Highland Park boasted a population of more than 50,000, which swelled every day as thousands of autoworkers streamed to their jobs at the auto plants. Much of the construction -- commercial and residential -- occurred over an 11-year boom from 1914 to 1925.
This legacy includes the Albert Kahn-designed Ford factory and a significant collection of Dutch colonials, Tudor revivals and Arts and Crafts bungalows. Two neighborhoods, Medbury's-Grove Lawn and Highland Heights-Stevens -- with some 700 homes -- are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Woodward and the city's main streets were packed with mom-and-pop shops, banks, restaurants, hotels, theaters, churches and apartment buildings. Its schools boasted high academic standards and a wealth of extracurricular activities.
In 1938, Sears Roebuck and Co. opened in an expansive Art Moderne building on Woodward, across from the Ford plant, which, by then, no longer made cars. Ford continued to assemble tractors there.
"With the variety of stores in place, you didn't have to travel outside Highland Park to do any shopping," said Jerome Drain, who grew up in Highland Park and returned to live there in 1989. "You had Sears, you had major stores, you had restaurants, theaters -- anything you wanted was there. You had all the amenities of a thriving community."
For many, Sears was the Target of its day, a working man's alternative to the downtown J.L. Hudson flagship store. With its central location, Highland Park became the home base of other well-known companies, including Sanders and Highland Appliance.
"Lots of folks called Highland Park the hubcap of the wheel of Detroit," said Katherine Clarkson, a former Highland Park resident and former executive director of Preservation Wayne. "It was the shiny thing in the middle. The workers' wives would come to Sears and the Ford company stores to shop. It was really a busy, vibrant city. It was an affluent community, even though the individual folks were not."
Automotive executives, managers and workers moved into neighborhoods with street names that symbolized Highland Park's cosmopolitan sensibility: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pasadena, Rhode Island.
Automakers contributed to city's fall
The automakers put Highland Park on the map, but they also contributed to its decline.
The ever-growing Ford Motor Co. moved its car operations to its sprawling Rouge complex in Dearborn in the late 1920s. Decades later, Chrysler left.
In between, this once highly integrated community lost thousands of residents. Businesses left or relocated, further eroding its tax base. After more than a half century, Sears closed shop in 1992. The city gained a reputation for blight, crime and poverty.
The human and tax drain contributed to the city's well-publicized money woes, and the state took over its finances in 2002. The state still manages the city's fiscal affairs.Even so, many in this community of 16,000 are optimistic about Highland Park's future.
While vacant lots and abandoned buildings remain, new shopping centers have been built along Woodward. Coca-Cola Co. opened a distribution center in 2006, and Visteon Corp. recently announced plans to build a factory on the former Chrysler site. Efforts continue to preserve and redevelop the Ford plant, a National Historic Landmark, as well as the city's McGregor Library.
"I definitely see positive signs now," said Carl Pettway, who grew up in Highland Park but lives in Detroit. He opened a barber shop, Fade Away, on Woodward several years ago. "People my age who graduated in the 1980s still have relatives here. I hear a lot of people talking about moving back. I'm looking to see big things happen here in Highland Park."
Even an outsider like Mark Hackshaw sees potential.
Hackshaw, a real estate developer and entrepreneur, initially came to the Detroit area from the East Coast to run a car dealership. Instead, he bought the eight-story Medical Arts Building on Woodward and restored it.
"If you look back on the history of Highland Park, it's always had the ability to create things here," said Hackshaw.
"We can't look for someone else to come to Highland Park and save it. We need to do it, and I see it happening. Coca-Cola is here. Visteon Corp. is coming, and new stores are opening. It's going to happen."