Highland Park Guide

When you come to Highland Park and begin to navigate its densely built residential streets, many still lined with trees planted over 80 years ago, you quickly understand that this small city within a city was built for people.

In the city center, traffic carries you along one of the great Michigan roads —Woodward Ave., a National Scenic Byway — through a commercial district that still maintains a rugged early-20th century ambiance. Even the emergence of retail strips with parking lots fronting the avenue, though not ideal for pedestrian access, fails to dull the impact of Highland Park’s traditional main street.

On its outskirts, you pass sprawling industrial parks, where you see trucks hauling goods to and from the city’s many distribution firms.

You see the bustle of activity: people at work, people shopping, properties being prepared for sale and development, and the wheels of commerce turning.

But you also see a city with a deteriorating infrastructure, houses in disrepair, buildings charred by fires, trash piled in alleys and vacant lots. You see the magnificent façade of the McGregor Library plastered with boards and rust. Other classic structures, many of them four or five story apartment buildings built in the city’s golden age in the late 1920s and early 1930s, have suffered the same fate.   

When you visit Highland Park, you will likely see it all, the multiple layers of the American dream, a story spanning centuries, filled with accomplishments and disappointments. It’s a classic tale: the rise and fall — and the planned rise again — of one of the nation’s first great suburban communities.

Rich heritage  

The history of Highland Park runs parallel to that of its much larger neighbor, Detroit — which surrounds it at nearly every stretch of its 3 square mile area — and Hamtramck, its slightly smaller neighbor sharing a border to the southeast.

As Wayne County was being organized into a formal governing body at the end of the 18th century, ribbon farms already were beginning to stretch from the riverfront to baseline road, now known as Eight Mile Road. Townships and villages — many now extinct or annexed by Detroit, Dearborn or the Grosse Pointes — began springing up. In the 1820s, a settlement about six miles north of the river was platted as the village of Woodwardville. The place was named for the man behind this effort, Judge Augustus B. Woodward. Another judge, Benjamin Witherall, attempted to establish another village on the same site about 10 years later.

In the 1870s, a post office known as Whitewood was built in the settlement, which began to be known by the same name. The name of the post office was changed to Highland Park in 1889. It was incorporated the same year as the village of Highland Park — the name comes from a ridge or highland that was once a natural feature of the landscape. The ridge was leveled when Woodward Ave. was built through and expanded to communities north of the city.

Highland Park was still a village in 1909 when Henry Ford moved production facilities for the Model T from Piquette Street in Detroit to a network of buildings stretching from Woodward to Oakland, along Manchester Street. The factory, designed by Detroit architect Albert Kahn, contained the world’s first assembly line. That innovation, which continues to impact the way things are produced and consumed all over the globe, was implemented in 1913.

Highland Park was the first “Ford” town, pre-dating Dearborn’s claim to that same title by nearly two decades. Population swelled, lured by jobs in an industry that promised a living wage — at that time, $5 a day. Henry Ford also helped the city establish its own water plant and reservoir, which remain in operation just outside the city limits near Davison and Dequindre Avenue.  

By the time Highland Park was incorporated as a city in 1918, people were already moving into neighborhoods with street names that reflected the cosmopolitan ambition of the place: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pasadena, Rhode Island. In 1930, over 50,000 people lived in what was the model American suburb. It grew up residentially gorgeous, with Craftsman-, urban Prairie-style and fieldstone houses strewn throughout neighborhoods on each side of Woodward. It prospered because of its relationship to the auto industry; not only did Ford Motor roll out the Model T in Highland Park, but until the late 1980s, Chrysler Corp. based its world headquarters in the city. It was located on Oakland and Davison, the country’s first urban expressway, built in 1942.

Planting seeds

In 1987, when Chrysler was preparing to move to its current location in Auburn Hills, it left behind $5 million in seed money to assist Highland Park in repositioning itself for a post-industrial future. The money helped create the independent, non-profit development agency HP Devco, which provides a variety of technical services to the city. They include grant application writing and administration, and planning and oversight of projects until their completion.

Harriet Saperstein, HP Devco’s past president who worked for the agency since 1990, says that Highland Park is filled with people determined to show off the pride and strength the community never lost.

“People here refused to give up. The energy of Highland Park is in its core residents,” Saperstein says. “They took it upon themselves to keep this city afloat — by serving on city commissions, by steering various committees and taking part in community-wide cleanups.”

Saperstein retired as president in March, turning the leadership reins over to Perrin T. Emanuel.

Jerome Drain, who heads the city’s Operation Weed and Seed program, says that a cleanup of Auburndale Street in a neighborhood west of Hamilton Avenue filled 94 dumpsters. But more cleanups are needed throughout the city, which has 15 planned for this spring and summer.

Drain grew up on Highland Park’s north end, spent some time in military service in Texas then came back to live in the city. He recently bought a house on Monterey Street in the city’s south end. The house has three levels, four bedrooms, a library, a fireplace, a breakfast nook and a two-car garage. He paid $15,000 for the house, but has put about $50,000 more into it.

“And I’m doing it all myself,” Drain says. “It’s definitely a project, but it’s all worth it because I believe in Highland Park. This is home to me.”

Saperstein says that part of Highland Park’s appeal is that it “remains a village.

“People leave, but they come back,” she says. “There are unbelievable opportunities here to buy residential properties in need of sweat equity. What Jerome has done needs to be repeated again and again throughout the city.”

Aggressive recruiting

Largely because of Devco’s efforts, Highland Park has aggressively pursued major tenants for retailing and industry, and is working on improving its housing stock. Look for the fruits of the agency’s labor at Oakland Park, the site of the former Chrysler HQ. You’ll see a $1.5 million network of roads within the complex leading to Coca-Cola’s Metro Detroit Sales and Distribution Center. Continue driving north on Oakland Ave. across the Davison and see more results of good planning and follow through. On the northeast corner is Budco, a marketing services company that moved its world headquarters to Highland Park in 2000. About 1,000 people work for Budco, the city’s largest employer.

In the center of town is the Highland Park Town Center, a $60 million mixed-use residential and commercial development. Devco helped secure an additional $240 million in investment dollars that went toward the project.

Devco also brought together a task force to demolish a massive abandoned building that once contained the Sears department store on Woodward — across the street from the site of the former Ford Model T facility — and other deteriorating structures on scattered sites across the city. A $6 million retail development on the former Sears site, called the Shops at Woodward Place, is expected to begin construction this summer. Aldi Foods, an international grocery chain, will anchor the 40,000 square feet retail center.  

Investing in community life

Saperstein says that the proper way of looking at Highland Park is by seeing it as a piece of silver or gold that needs to be polished.

“It’s a gem of a place, a family community, a city of opportunity,” Saperstein says. “But people here will not deny the fact that Highland Park needs a lot of help. We need millions of dollars to demolish more buildings throughout the city. We need to fix up more houses in disrepair.”

Saperstein talks about residential opportunities in Highland Park’s two historic neighborhoods: on Eason, Louise and Moss, between Woodward and Hamilton, on the city’s north end; and on streets like Farrand Park and McLean on the southeast side of the city.

But she also steers visitors to neighborhoods that she says need even more love and care. The far northwest corner of the city  — between Hamilton and Rosa Parks Boulevard, south of McNichols — has character galore. The houses are modest but comfy-looking, there are churches, schools and playgrounds to anchor the neighborhood, and Hamilton has historically served as the city’s secondary shopping strip.

But the isolated area is downtrodden, suffering from decades of poverty and neglect.

“Highland Park has been supported for years by people who have given it their all,” Saperstein says. “Frankly, it’s time for younger people to come in and give the neighborhoods new energy. We need more urban pioneers, people who are eager to help turn around a community. This is how Highland Park has survived, because of the spirit of people who invest themselves in community life.”

Business energy

You see the evidence of that spirit in unique small businesses — like the Black Whole Collective on Woodward, or ACME Photoworks on Victor Street — that dot the city’s commercial landscape.

And you feel the energy when you talk to city officials, business leaders and potential investors at a meet-and-greet affair held recently at Detroit’s St. Regis Hotel.

Members of Highland Park’s city council — President Dr. Ameenah Omar and President Pro Tem Isabella Thompson, among others — attended the event, put on by the Highland Park Business Association (HPBA).

There was friendly chat around the table about the city’s historical importance and the people who once made it shine so brightly. They talked with pride of Highland Park being a city of firsts in civil rights — in the 1960s Highland Park elected the state’s first black mayor, Robert Blackwell; it’s current mayor, Titus McClary, was one of the first black police officers hired by the city. They talked of the various works in progress to make it a desirable location for commercial and residential investment.

Investing in Highland Park, says Council President Omar, presents “a unique opportunity to be on the ground floor of a city that’s strategically located for business. We’re between I-75 and the John Lodge freeways, with Woodward coming right through the middle. This is the best kept secret in southeast Michigan.”  

One of the potential investors present was Jerome Barney, who represented a Detroit-based production group that wants to make independent feature films using Highland Park locations.

One of the others present was Mark Hackshaw, a Hamtramck-based entrepreneur who owns several properties in Highland Park. Hackshaw thinks using homegrown acting, musical and technical talent for film projects can inject lifeblood into the city.

“Highland Park is just waiting to be discovered,” says Hackshaw, who is the president of the HPBA and owns the Medical Arts Building on Woodward near Davison, as well as several other properties in Highland Park that he says total over $5 million in real estate holdings. “I’ll tell you why. You can get something here for a cost that you can’t find anywhere else in the country. There are buildings that need a lot of work, but as far as how they were built, they’re equal to the buildings in New York City at only a fraction of the price.”

In March, Highland Park scored another victory. Stuart Frankel Development Co. announced plans to build a 200,000-square-foot distribution building in the Oakland Park industrial complex, using $5 million in federal new markets tax credits through Wayne County.

This kind development enthusiasm is infectious, says HP Devco’s Saperstein, and exactly what Highland Park needs to attract investors and developers, retailers and homeowners.

“You have to look at Highland Park using the eyes of the future, not the present,” Saperstein says. “You can do a lot in a small city in a short period of time. The opportunities are everywhere. We just need people to see the real value of this place. I’ve seen the changes that have recently taken place, and I know there is no limit to what else can be done.”

Directions to Highland Park

From the East:
Take I-94 West toward Detroit and merge onto I-696 West via Exit 229 toward Lansing. Merge onto I-75 South via Exit 18 toward Detroit/Toledo and take the Davison Fwy West via Exit 56B and take the exit toward Oakland Ave. Turn slight left onto East Davison and continue to Woodward Ave. Arrive in Highland Park.

From the North:
Take I-75 South. Then take the Davison Fwy West via Exit 56B 56B and take the exit toward Oakland Ave. Turn slight left onto East Davison and continue to Woodward Ave. Arrive in Highland Park.

From the West:
Take I-96 East toward Detroit and take Exit 186B for Davison Ave. Merge onto Davison West and take the exit toward M-1/Woodward. Stay straight to go onto Davison Service Drive to Woodward Ave. Arrive in Highland Park.

From the South:
Take I-94 East toward Detroit and take Exit 215B for M-10 North on the left. Merge onto John C Lodge Fwy/MI -10 North. Take the Davison Ave East exit and merge onto MI-8 East/Davison Fwy E. Take the exit toward M-1/Woodward. Stay straight to go onto Davison Service Drive to Woodward Ave. Arrive in Highland Park.

Take I-75 North toward Detroit and merge onto I-96 West via Exit 48 on the left toward Lansing. Then merge onto I-94 East toward Port Huron and take Exit 215B for M-10 North on the left. Merge onto John C Lodge Fwy/MI -10 North. Take the Davison Ave East exit and merge onto MI-8 East/Davison Fwy E. Take the exit toward M-1/Woodward. Stay straight to go onto Davison Service Drive to Woodward Ave. Arrive in Highland Park.


Arts and Craft Style Home

McGregor Library

A Typical 1920's Era Home

Ford Model T Plant and Former Headquarters

A Home on one of the State Streets

Coca Cola Distribution Center on the Former Site of Chrysler's World Headquarters

Homes in the Manchester Place Neighborhood

Budco World Headquarters

Benjamin Manor Homes

In Fill Housing near McNichols and Brush

Aziza at The Black Whole Collective and and BlackShu Records

Bill Snethkamp Chrysler, a longtime Highland Park Business

Model T Plaza on the Site of the Former Ford Model T Plant

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.