Facts: The Detroit Science Center once sent Louis Aguilar to Mexico to write a book on the Mummies of Guanajuato. An inaugural Kresge fellow, Louis has spent a number of years writing a book on Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo’s time in Detroit, presented as a play at the Detroit Institute of Arts. He’s also a Detroit native and full-time writer for the Detroit News, who’s been intensely covering the Michigan Central Station for the past three months.
For those of you living under a rock: Ford Motor Company bought the Michigan Central Station (yes, that is the official name). We chit chat with Louis to make sense of it all.
Topics covered: Michigan Central Station, Six figure salaries, Charlie LeDuff.
CVh: Ford actually bought the Train Station. How surprised were you?
LA: After three months of chasing this story, not very. But three months ago this was a holy shit moment.
When Ford had their official debut at the train station, 5,000 plus people showed up to hear Bill Ford unveil the plan and many people there, you could just tell, were having a ‘holy shit’ moment.
One reason is people were digesting the fact the train station is going to be something other than a big empty building. Two—Ford’s plan to turn it into something called the Future of Mobility.
There is a trend. General Electric moved its headquarters from the suburbs to Boston proper. McDonald’s moved its headquarters to Chicago from the suburbs. Zappos moving to downtown Las Vegas and creating a kind of village. You see large corporations making moves to reconnect with cities.
In terms of that building and Ford, certainly no one was talking about this a year ago.
CVh: We can’t expect the neighborhood to change overnight. Can we? Can you sense a change since the news broke?
LA: It’s been changing. People are dramatically increasing asking prices for properties. There’s a lot of layers. We’re talking about people who make six figures salaries and the sheer global force that is Ford—I do think you will see a kind of affluence that doesn’t exist in Detroit and downtown now.
Another thing to consider is the multiplier effect from Ford. Other auto supplies, tech companies, ad agencies—I see spaces like that popping up on Michigan Ave in empty buildings.
CVh: How long before tenants move in?
LA: They want it to be open by 2022. The hope is to have 5,000 workers in the train station—half Ford workers and half tech companies. The lobby will have restaurants, retail. There’s talk of residential on the top floors.
CVh: How do you see this move changing the city in the long–term? What part of the population will it impact most?
LA: It will be a real test to see if this city can truly draw people who make six figure salaries who can live anywhere, and, if people with families will start to move back downtown.
I imagine you’ll see much bigger apartment spaces or houses being proposed for the area.
Also, consider the physical possibility of Corktown changing. Ford is trying to invent new forms of mass mobility—electric and self-driving vehicles, car sharing. Corktown and Michigan Avenue will be the testing grounds. The sheer infrastructural change those types of cars and other transportation may bring, could be profound. It could change the shape of what Michigan Ave.
CVh: You grew up near Corktown. When did your family move to Detroit? How has the area changed since that time? Over your lifetime?
LA: My family moved to Detroit in the late 1920s. My mother grew up in Corktown. She loved it. Her family were grateful for the experience and had wonderful stories to tell about how diverse it was. Detroit was the progressive North for them. The public schools were great. My mother talked about Michigan Ave and downtown being full of theatre and hearing lots of great music. All the music she would hear on the radio—she would get to see those bands play live in the theatre. It was a big, vibrant city for her.
Things changed for them when they built the freeway and things got much more separated. And what’s Ford talking about now? Reconnect it all! Let’s build something else beyond the freeway!
I was one and a half (years old) when the 1967 Rebellion occurred. Like many people of my generation, we just saw a continuing decline of Detroit. I left in the 90s—which was maybe the worst period in a lot of ways in terms of the desolation factor. Until recently, like 10,000 people a year were leaving the city, and we still haven’t gained overall. We’ve slowed the population decline, but there’s still a net loss of people leaving.
CVh: After high school, you left the city to seek opportunities as a journalist in key markets. If you were graduating high school today, do you see yourself sticking around?
LA: I can’t imagine being in high school now. That said, there are a lot of just-got-out-of-college kids who seem very excited about being in Detroit. Would I be excited if I just got out of college to come to Detroit? Yes, it’s still got grit and interesting things happening—I think it would be manageable.
I don’t know if it has the cache of a Brooklyn. Or an Austin. Or a Milwaukee (*laughs*)
CVh: Favorite train station story?
LA: Well, I snuck in there a lot when I was a kid. One of my favorite times sneaking in was with Charlie LeDuff. It must be like ten years ago now, and it was in the winter. There was a hole in the fence in the viaduct that we went through. It was completely dark, and he had a little penlight. We’re on ice with this little penlight, and, at one point, he goes “Oh, man, look there’s a big fucking hole.” I couldn’t see the goddamn hole until we were on our knees, crawling across the ice. And he finally, he shows me, and it is it’s like an eight-foot hole.
We finally get to the main lobby. I hadn’t seen the lobby since I was a kid. The sheer amount of stuff that had been ripped off—the tile, the marble, pieces of the ornate wall. The amount of graffiti. It just pissed me off. It broke your heart.
I remember me and Charlie talking something like “only in Detroit would shit like this happen where something so beautiful is allowed to just rot.” And then there was the basic anger, that I think a lot of people shared, that the train station was owned by a billionaire. The old owner would say he could never find a plan for it, which has merit because it’s a massive project. But for it to fall to that condition, I don’t know what the excuse was for that.
DII: Sun sign?
DII: Inner avatar?
DII: What characteristic do you like most in people?
LA: Honesty and open-minded.
DII: Characteristic you dislike?
LA: Dishonesty and narrow-minded.