Corktown neighbors brace for Ford arrival

Nora Naughton
The Detroit News
John Muster, 60, of Commerce Twp., owns Quality Meats and Culinary Specialties on Dix Street. "This is something that will help small businesses flourish," he said about Ford's purchase of the old train depot.

Detroit — Corktown residents old and new are still making sense of a deal to sell the neighborhood's most iconic ruin to Ford Motor Co.

"It's kind of hard to fathom how this will change the neighborhood," said Ryan Cooley, a real estate developer who ventured into Corktown at a particularly bleak moment for the neighborhood with the opening of Slows BBQ in 2005, within eyeshot of the blighted Michigan Central Depot.

"When we first got there, we played bocce ball in front of the train station, and we had to mow the grass ourselves to play. It's going to be a lot different now."

Months-old rumors that Ford Motor Co. would purchase the long-vacant depot were finally made official when Matthew Moroun, heir to his father's transportation and logistics businesses, promised Monday that the Blue Oval would adorn the train station in the building's next life.

"I know this is going to have an impact — it already has in a way," said John Muster, a Detroit native who owns Quality Meats and Culinary Specialties on Dix Street. "This is something that will help small businesses flourish."

Muster left Detroit years ago, and lives in Commerce now. But he watched his suburban-bred daughter and her friends retake the city during the recession, and he said it gave him hope for the future.

"When the economy took a turn and Detroit emptied out, I knew after it hit a certain level people who knew how to develop would take over and tip the scales again," Muster said. "Then I watched these kids coming down here and I knew it would happen."

His daughter, Nicole Muster, grew up in the Livonia area and moved to Detroit in 2008. Her first apartment was in Corktown, as was her first job at Mercury Burger and Bar on Michigan Avenue in the shadow of Michigan Central Depot.

She remembers those first couple years tending bar at the Mercury as a little lonely.

Nicole Muster, 30, a suburbanite who moved to Corktown a decade ago, has witnessed the neighborhood's revival.

"I remember praying for the Slows overflow to come across the street," Muster said while eating lunch at the Mercury with her father just hours after the Moroun family announcement at the historic train station. "Now Mercury is a daily destination."

The 30-year-old suburbanite-turned-Detroiter is part of the demographic Ford is hoping to capture with its move to the city’s oldest neighborhood: a small grassroots off-shoot of Detroit’s revival buoyed by a hip restaurant scene and funky independent retailers. 

The Blue Oval is gearing up to navigate the industry's next tech-driven century from the city where its founder set out 113 years ago to put the world on wheels, and the Dearborn-based automaker is hoping that Corktown’s local hipster cred and Detroit’s nationwide revival cred will help attract young talent with  skills in mobile technology, software development and cloud infrastructure.

Some of that has already begun after Ford moved its autonomous and electrification business teams to a repurposed factory at Michigan Avenue and Rosa Parks Boulevard last month.

Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. has said he wants to take part in Detroit’s comeback, and doing so from the neighborhood named for his ancestral Irish home is especially fitting.

“I’ve seen Detroit at its best, and I’ve seen it at its worst,” Ford said in December when the carmaker announced it purchased its first Corktown property. “We want to be part of it.”

But the Ford scion’s gesture is not welcomed by all.

“It’s nothing more than the continuing gentrification of Detroit,” said Lee Payne, 32, who has spent his entire life in Detroit. “This is pushing black bodies out of Detroit … pushing a corporate agenda as opposed to taking care of (Detroit) citizens.”

Payne isn’t even glad to see the historic building saved.

“It should have been torn down a long time ago,” he said. “It was a public danger.”

Twitter: @noranaughton