Highland Park's new fire station is a dramatic juxtaposition of new and old Detroit

You can't really begin to appreciate just how much Highland Park is in need of a new fire station until you see the space out of which they're currently operating. When I contacted Highland Park Fire Chief Derek Hillman about doing a short story on the new headquarters, he insisted that I see it in person. We met at the Highland Park City Hall and Chief Hillman took me on a ride in his cruiser to see the current, previous, and future fire stations.
 
The fire department is currently located in a "temporary" location in the back corner of a massive industrial park on the outskirts of Highland Park. "How temporary is 'temporary'?" Hillman answered without missing a beat: "Eight years." The space is basically an open warehouse: cold (literally – it doesn't get above 45 degrees in the winter) and barren. Mobile trailers house its offices and bathrooms, while the firefighters constructed a sort of plywood barracks for themselves. It looks like a shantytown inside a bunker. "And this is better than the building we moved out of," Hillman said. And what's wrong with the old building? That's where we're headed next.
 
For a city of only 12,000 people, Highland Park has 150 fires per year. For a single fire, the department brings only six or seven men – the City of Detroit brings three times that. Some of the men make only $10 an hour. Chief Hillman knew the working conditions were abysmal, so when a FEMA grant became available for fire departments in the U.S., as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, he applied. CHMP Architects in Grand Blanc donated time and expertise to draft an architectural design for the grant application. Out of 1,200 applicants nationwide, Highland Park received $2.6 million in federal grant money for a new station – one of only five departments in Michigan to receive anything.
 
The new building, more than halfway complete, is 14,000 square feet and is located directly across from the old fire station. As we pulled up, Chief Hillman pointed at a two-story structure in which the upper floor has totally collapsed and the back wall fallen off. "That's the old fire station."
 
While the old Highland Park police station, built in 1917, was torn down to make way for this new fire station, the old fire station – a building so structurally damaged from neglect and exposure preservation likely isn't feasible – will continue to stand, a hulking shell, until the city can reach an agreement with the State of Michigan Historic Preservation Office to tear it down.
 
The new facility is like a dream for the men who've been working out of a shoddily slapped-together "temporary" location for nearly the last decade. They'll have proper offices and sleeping facilities, even a full gym for the men to work out. It stands in stark contrast to the sagging building it faces, a dramatic juxtaposition that mirrors the current state of the city itself – the new colliding with the old; better things rising from the ashes.
 
Source: Derek Hillman, Highland Park Fire Chief
Writer: Nicole Rupersburg

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Nicole Rupersburg is a former Detroiter now in Las Vegas who regularly writes about food, drink, and urban innovators. You can follow her on Instagram @eatsdrinksandleaves and Twitter @ruperstarski.
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