What It Would Mean for One Detroit Native if Ford Bought the Abandoned Michigan Central Station

The story of a Detroit writer who feverishly waits for his childhood neighborhood to come back to life.

byJerry Perez| UPDATED Mar 22, 2018 10:23 AM
What It Would Mean for One Detroit Native if Ford Bought the Abandoned Michigan Central Station

Rumors that Ford Motor Company is looking to buy or lease one of the most iconic abandoned buildings in Detroit, the Michigan Central Station, have made waves across the Motor City. The building, which is also referred to as the Michigan Central Depot, would play a strategic role in the automaker's plans to relocate its autonomous and electric-vehicle teams to downtown Detroit, something that Bill Ford, Ford Executive Chairman, is passionate about.

To say that a tenant with the kind of global presence the Ford Motor Company possesses would make a positive impact in the area is an understatement. Locals have clamored, petitioned, and anxiously awaited for something good to happen to the building. To understand just how much it would mean for Ford to revitalized the station, I caught up with someone who's been linked to it his entire life.

Tom Burns is a Detroit-based writer who grew up in Corktown, the city's oldest neighborhood, and many of his fondest childhood memories involve the station and its trains.

Aerial photo of the abandoned structure., WDET

"I am old enough to actually remember taking the train out of Michigan Central when I was a kid," Burns elaborated to The Drive. "I lived in the area from 1977 until 1999, and my mother continued to live in the Corktown house I grew up in until 2012."

The Michigan Central Station, much like the Ford family, played a great role in shaping the Motor City's history and character. The massive 18-story building sits on 4.9 acres of Corktown, which has already seen its fair share of revitalization over the last few years. The grandiose structure opened its doors to the public in 1913 when it welcomed travelers into its lavish lobby complete with marble pillars and arched windows.

The station was incredibly active during World War I when hundreds of thousands of men from all over Michigan boarded trains headed south where enlistees would get prepped before being shipped off to war. For many of them, it was a one-way trip.

The last train departure from the Michigan Central Station took place on January 5, 1987. Since then, the building has been severely vandalized, used as an icon of "ruin porn," and served as the poster child for a greedy corporation who refuses to sell the property or make any improvements to it. Detroit's infamous billionaire “Matty” Moroun has owned the building since 1995 and has clung on to it like a toddler does a rock from their favorite playground.

The majestic lobby was adorned with massive marble columns., Detroit Public Library

"My old middle school was directly across the street from the station, to the east, so I had a front row seat to watch the building collapse in upon itself for decades," said Burns. "The owners, the Maroun family, bought the station and just let it crumble. Whenever the city would attempt to fine them for blight, they'd complain or swear they had a new tenant lined up or just pay the fine and let it rot."

"They made a big deal about installing some windows and a new elevator in the building last year—so what?" said Burns. "That's after decades of doing nothing with the station. It's like praising a homeowner for finally mowing their lawn after getting 600 tickets and citations from the city," he added.

Burns believes that involving a local company is crucial to the success of the old building, especially given the sad state of affairs with the old Packard assembly plant, which was purchased by a corporation based in the South American country of Peru in 2016, yet nothing has been done with the site.

The current state of the building with new windows., Curbed Detroit

"We (the locals) want them (the Morouns) to sell it and get the property out of their hands. That's one reason why everyone is pretty excited and intrigued by the Ford rumors," said Burns. "For Corktown, Ford would be a dream owner of Michigan Central—heck, I'd even take them as a dream tenant."

"A company like Ford actually has the trust of Detroit. It has long and deep roots with the city. So if Ford took over the Michigan Central Depot, the local community would be beyond energized," added Burns.

Our chat was coming to an end when Burns sneaked in a jab at General Motors, who has gone as far as shipping its Cadillac headquarters out of Detroit to New York City. In other words, the opposite of what Ford is trying to accomplish. 

"GM's Renaissance Center might be the tallest building in the skyline, but, let's be honest, it's a few bland and uninspiring towers. But the Michigan Central Depot...it is probably the most recognizable and beloved structure in Detroit. I can't think of any better 'Made in Detroit' branding than Ford moving into that building."

The Drive reached out to Ford for comment but has yet to hear back.