They use to hoot and holler, sweat and cuss, smoke and drink. But when they were on shift, they didn’t dare move from their spot, talk, or even so much as smile, in case the foreman was watching. They’d guide that big black body of steel in place when the great metal hook lowered it on down, and fasten, drill, and weld with robotic intensity. Man did they stink, their clothes covered in grease and grime and sweat and spittle, but those metal Ford Motor Company badges were as clean as could be.
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Light streamed in through the immense glass roof above. A chill breeze blew in through the cracked windows. Two young “urban explorers” in Converse sneakers peered into the plant, but they couldn’t see anything that cold, cloudy January afternoon besides their own breath rising against the hazy glass. Cars streamed along nearby Woodward Avenue, oblivious to their presence.
In 1927, the last Model T rolled off the line at the immense Highland Park Ford Plant, the birthplace of the assembly line and the $5 a day wage. Over the course of 17 short years, the time it took build a Model T at the plant had been reduced from 728 minutes to an astonishing 10 seconds at peak efficiency. It was quite an accomplishment, and Henry Ford had needed his company to churn out Model Ts that fast: by the early 1920s, practically half the cars on road were Model Ts! Demand was astronomical. Smoke spewed from the five towering smokestacks facing Woodward 24 hours a day, illuminated at night by huge, red, glowing letters that simply read FORD.
The work was grueling and monotonous, but the pay was good. Tens of thousands of men – full-blooded white Americans, Old World immigrants, blacks – proudly worked at the Highland Park Ford Plant. They bought their first homes, newfangled radios, Model Ts, and unknowingly joined the middle class.
However, the only foreman you’re likely to see around these days at the Highland Park Ford Plant is Forman Mills, a discount clothing warehouse located in one of the old sheds. After the Model T was discontinued, the the plant was used to manufacture Ford tractors until 1973, when Ford Motor Company finally closed up shop and sold the complex off to HPF Associates, an investment group with few viable plans for the site. The plant that had made Henry Ford famous was carelessly tossed aside like so much trash.
In 1997, a good chunk of the Highland Park Ford Plant facing Woodward was demolished to make room for the Model T Plaza Shopping Center. Intended to echo in some way the lost grandeur of the Highland Park Ford Plant – which was originally designed by legendary Detroit architect Albert Kahn – the strip mall has a concrete and brick facade with triangular light green roofs that are supposed to mimic Kahn’s iconic glass roofs . Customers from the surrounding impoverished neighborhoods shuffle in and out of stores like Glory Super Market, where you can buy 10 bags Bugles for $10, and Hollywood Video, which may or may not have a copy of Robo Cop available for rental. The endless procession of men in bowler hats that once descended on Woodward and Manchester like locusts is but a distant memory, nearly forgotten.
You can’t help but ask: Did it all really happen here, under the long shadows and crumbling bricks? Is this the city that helped put the world on wheels? How come no one seems to care? The only indication a revolution happened here at the Highland Park Ford Plant is a small sign outside the old four-story office building. It reads:
“Here at his Highland Park Plant, Henry Ford in 1913 began the mass production of automobiles on a moving assembly line. By 1915 Ford built a million Model Ts. In 1925 over 9,000 were assembled in a single day. Mass production soon moved from here to all phases of American industry and set the pattern of abundance for 20th Century living.”
The Model T – that little Tin Lizzie – was a 2-speed, 20 horsepower dynamo of vanadium steel, an engineering marvel. The world fell in love with the car’s dependability, straightforward design, and affordable price. Judging by the condition Highland Park is in today, down to a population of 11,000 from a high of 52,000, abundance must’ve hopped in the front seat of one of those Model Ts and drove right out of town. Ford Motor Company sure as hell is long, long gone.