A celebration, not an implosion, at Michigan Central Depot

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Let's be realistic: The only buoyant crowd you'd have ever expected at the train station would have been for its demolition.

Tuesday, though, was something different — a celebration, not an implosion. After years spent hidden behind chain-link fencing and silly windows, the Michigan Central Depot had the first of what will likely be a series of coming-out parties.

Or come-on-in parties: The follow-up to the Ford Corktown Community Celebration will be free tours from 1-6 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

But it all started Tuesday with string music, the Detroit Children's Choir, a poet, assorted politicians, Bill Ford Jr. and rapper Big Sean, 30, who is 2 months too young to have ever caught a train in Corktown but clearly understood the majesty of the moment.

Ford capped reservations at 5,000, and some of those people obviously opted out on a morning that began as overcast and breezy. But thousands came, sitting in a few sets of bleachers or more likely standing, and there was a recurring sentiment regardless of age.

The train station? The poster child of ruin porn, getting a chance to be relevant instead of repellent? No way.

"I never would have believed it until I saw it with my own eyes," said Chuck McDougall, 58, of Garden City. After all the ludicrous proposals for the building over the years — a casino, for instance, or a police station — this time it's Ford, with an investment and a plan.

"This time," he said, "it's for real."

McDougall, who directs disaster services for the Salvation Army, was on the clock. Ford Motor Co. had asked the Army to show up with a couple of trucks and more than a couple cases of water.

He arrived with 2,500 bottles Monday, then decided that if the depot was as meaningful to everyone else as it was to him, he'd better upgrade. He wound up stocking 6,000, handed out with smiles by Ford volunteers in blue T-shirts.

Among the hundreds of others on hand from from Ford was Melissa Mrov, 46, of Grosse Pointe Farms, who works in program management for future models.

"I've been fascinated with this building since I was a kid," she said.

She knows her grandparents took her inside once, though she was too young to remember it and they couldn't have known the experience had an expiration date. She also knows she was fortunate: She'd won a drawing for a seat on one of seven motor coaches that carried Ford employees to the event.

Anyone who couldn't find an angle to the stage could watch on video screens. Greeted by tardy sunshine, there were the usual assortment of swells at the podium — Gov. Rick Snyder, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, Mayor Mike Duggan — and in the audience, at least one man with swollen ankles.

He introduced himself as Walter, and didn't want to give his last name. He said his arthritis is punishing enough that he wouldn't ordinarily attend a rally. He wasn't on the pass list; he'd need to stand outside the boundary, where the screens were visible and the sound ample.

But his grandfather was a railroad porter, he said and the job was what brought the extended family north from Alabama back when Alabama was no place for a black family to be. Watching the ceremony felt like paying respects.

Inside the barricades, former Detroit City Councilwoman Sheila Cockrell was remembering a piece of her childhood, walking to the station with her grandfather to pick up the Sunday edition of the Detroit Times.

"It's the resurrection of the city," said Cockrell, 70, now the executive director of the advocacy group CitizenDetroit.

Like Cockrell, Carol Galle of Royal Oak was looking both forward and backward. "It's perfect for our community," she said — and she had an idea to make it just a bit better.

She owns Special D Events, and as a meeting and party planner, she'd love to see an extension of the Henry Ford Museum in the train station lobby. "My clients," she predicted, "would come here in a heartbeat."

At least one Ford employee shared her reverence for the building and its possibilities.

“I’d never seen anything so majestic," he said, recalling his first visit inside the depot decades ago. 

He was Bill Ford Jr., whose idea it was to buy and resurrect the station. 

He wore sunglasses — a concession to his vision, he said, but maybe also what you need when the future is suddenly so unexpectedly bright.

A large crowd listens to Ford chairman Bill Ford Jr.'s remarks at the Michigan Central Depot.