Dawn. Henry Ford is in his grotto by the Rouge River. Steam rises from a sunken bird pool, and a robin dances around the stones on the edge. A smile cracks across his gaunt, wiry face as he watches. Behind him, the rush of rapids tinkle in his ear, delighting his senses. Ford had landscape architect Jens Jensen design the rapids at considerable expense to hide an hydroelectric dam, which powered Ford’s home and the staff’s cottages.
For him, it’s home.
All told, Ford spent hundreds of thousands of dollars converting his Fair Lane estate in Dearborn from farmland to woodland – and that’s in 1910s money. But Ford loved nature. He even fancied himself a conservationist of sorts, despite his reputation as the world’s foremost industrialist guru, a resource devouring extraordinaire. He pined for the ideals of his rural childhood with a borderline obsessive lust, and never quite trusted the city.
Life a few miles down the river at Henry Ford’s River Rouge Complex was a bit different from Fair Lane, however. Smoke belched from hundreds of smokestacks; trains and freighters trampled over the landscape; concrete and metal reigned supreme. From above, it looked like a gigantic scar across the earth. The only hint of color was in the rainbow hue of oil slicks and a few slaps of red paint.
Flowers, fish, birds, humans? An afterthought at best. At the River Rouge Complex, life was about churning out cars as fast as possible, as if existence depended on it.
Of course, if you lived in the city of River Rouge, right at the confluence of the Rouge River and the mighty Detroit River, life very well may have depended on Ford’s success. If you want a city of industry, an arsenal of democracy, River Rouge was, and still is, it.
Hard-bitten and battle-tested, River Rouge is the last stop for obese truckers, a haven to sassy waitresses and unrepentant beer drinkers. Houses are packed like sardines on one-way streets. Factories abut homes with the frequency of churches. The main avenue, Jefferson, is lined with brick shops, the old S.S. Kresge store now an Ace Hardware, Murray’s Shoe Store a gas station.
In River Rouge, you don’t apply to Henry Ford Community College after graduating with your shiny diploma from River Rouge High. No, you drop out and apply at United States Steel’s Great Lakes Works, where you can get your steel hot-rolled, cold-rolled, or coated – take your pick.
The Great Lakes Works.
When the wind dies down at night, you can even taste the steel. It’s the smell of progress, of industrial power. Just don’t light your cigarette outside. The town might explode.
Back in the old days, it used to be that one side of the tracks was black, the other side white. Fucked up as it was, it was understood that you didn’t cross the track unless you wanted an ass beating. That changed after the 1967 Detroit riots (or, was it a rebellion?). For the first time, blacks went to the Lancaster Theater and other establishments on Jefferson without apology.
And then the whites left.
Today, River Rouge is majority black, and the population has plummeted from a height of over 20,000 to about 8,000. Sad people walk up and down the streets with nowhere to go, except maybe the bar, or the library to apply for jobs. Empty lots and the occasional boarded up window pockmark the city, but you still see proud, clean streets, people doing their best, hanging out flower pots out on the front porch.
Zenith’s Lunch is one such bright spot. When the mountains rise majestically from the deep blue sea outside this friendly little diner on Jefferson, it’s like watching the lost city of Atlantis emerge from the briny depths. Ah, so this is the soul of River Rouge, you think. This is why people live here.
Many diners promise down home cooking, that great mystery slop momma used to make, but few deliver like Zenith’s. Corn that tastes fresh out of the can? Lukewarm meat that’s simmered for hours? Yep, mom really would be proud. And it’s all strangely, surprisingly good, the true epitome of comfort food. Order one of the daily specials and it’ll arrive to your table in minutes, the total cost maybe $4 or $5.
It’s all insanely, unbelievably cheap. You’ll get beef tips that’ll give you a tip or two. Pork chops that chop back. Food that isn’t afraid of imperfections, but always remembers to be good. This is the stuff hi lo drivers scarf down at lunch between lewd comments on hard swivel chairs.
Then they go and make sure the wheels of industry keep turning.