Documentary on Detroit train station premieres Sunday

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

If Detroit is America's comeback city, Michigan Central Depot is arguably its most prominent symbol of the boom, bust and rebirth of the Motor City.

The documentary "Detroit: Comeback City" debuts at 9 p.m. Sunday on the History channel. It tries to explain how much the long-blighted building means to a changing city that once housed nearly 2 million people, and to Ford Motor Co., the company that plans to revitalize the station that hasn't been used in decades.

"The history of the train station is the history of Detroit," Steve Gillon, resident historian at the TV network, said after screening of the documentary Friday in Detroit. "And the history of Detroit is the history of America."

The documentary is the brain-child of Ford communications chief Mark Truby. He and others started shopping around the idea around four months ago, when news began to circulate that Ford had interest in the building. 

History picked it up, got actor J.K. Simmons to narrate the film, and began working to track down local historians and Detroiters with ties to the station.

All told, the 45-minute documentary spans more than a century: Detroit's boom years, from the 18-story station's grand opening in 1914, and the inception of Ford's moving assembly line a year prior; the city's hand in World War II as the Arsenal of Democracy and the following boom; the 1967 riots and the succeeding years that saw the auto companies, white residents and Detroit's middle class evacuate the city; the bankruptcy that made Detroit the punchline of a joke around the country, but gave the city a fresh slate; and the private investment that followed and brought a tax base back into the city.

It concludes finishes with Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. explaining his vision — but briefly. Bill Ford said Ford's acquisition of and plans for the station weren't only about the Blue Oval. The History documentary shows that. 

Most of the film relies on various historians to paint the picture of Detroit's rise and fall, as well as interviews with Detroit residents with ties to the train station. One particularly emotional segment brought into the building a man who said his father used to work at the station.

He was quiet mostly, gazing upward and gasping. The building wasn't in that bad of shape, he remarked on screen. Just a little beat up.

Ford plans to resurrect the building by 2022. The company plans to use it to anchor a 1.2-million-square-foot campus in Corktown for 2,500 of its own employees focused on the next generation of transportation, and 2,500 partner employees from technology companies that would work with Ford to develop electric and autonomous vehicles.

Gregory Sumner, professor and chair of the history department at the University of Detroit Mercy, said he liked the angle History took.

"It was not a Ford infomercial," Sumner, who was interviewed for the documentary, said. "It really pulled no punches, and emphasized the boom and bust of this city."

Sumner, who moved to the area in 1993, said the documentary has a different mood than those done on Detroit in years past. The narrative has flipped, he said. Ten years ago, when History was working on a documentary about Motown, Sumner was also interviewed. The outlook was much more bleak then, he said.

"I'm hearing much less about ruins and failure now," he said.

After premiering Sunday night, "Detroit: Comeback City" it will be available on-demand through cable providers, the History channel website and the History watch app.

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau