Woman, Inspired

There’s an ancient Hebrew phrase that Harriet Saperstein keeps close to her heart: "You’re not going to finish the task, but you must start."

Right after the Detroit Riot in 1967, when smoke filled the skies of the city, Saperstein stepped out of the classroom as a sociology teacher and went to work to build hope through lumber, steel, corporate philanthropy and citizen participation. Forty years later, she is retiring from planning to return to the college classroom, teaching the red-tape busting skills that made her a champion of city dwellers.  

 "I couldn’t save the world or end racial hatred but I could try to save one community," says Saperstein of HIghland Park, where her tenacity was put to the test amid steady depopulation and disinvestment.
The corner of Woodward Ave. and Manchester — near where the Model T famously rolled off the assembly line beginning in 1910 — flourishes thanks to HP Devco the economic development organization she has run for 17 years. The group helped bring in retailers to provide local people friendly, clean places to buy groceries and a variety of amenities.

Legacy of inspiration
Saperstein, at age 70, takes a moment from the task of packing boxes with 17 years of memorabilia to speak about her legacy. And dream out loud about her next phase of work in the educational community.

"The key to urban development is to move the process forward in a timely manner and working with many different partners," Saperstein says. "You keep looking for new ways to integrate the different interests and benefit the community through making positive institutional changes. You may back off, but you never give up."

In 2006 she helped recruit Coca Cola, Forman Mills, Snethkamp Chrysler-Jeep and the newly formed Wayne County Land Bank to invest in the 2.9 square mile city — which once was one of Michigan's largest suburbs with a population of 60,000. It now has around 16,000 residents. Her work was largely behind the scenes, introducing financial players to one another, supplying the paperwork, faxing and emailing documents so that the projects would get the needed follow-through.
Over her tenure, she helped secure 30 stores and 200 new homes within the Highland Park Town Center. After 10 years working to develop the former Sears department store site on Woodward and experiencing a series of disappointments, she was able to recruit Michael Curis and Mark Thomas of Curis Enterprises to break ground on the "Shops at Woodward Place" this fall. The new retail center will include an Aldi supermarket, the city's Public Safety Headquarters and Communicating Arts Credit Union.
Serving with three mayors and maintaining a legacy of support from each, has earned Saperstein high marks from the current Mayor Titus McClary.  "Harriet came at a time when Highland Park was at the crossroads," McClary said at a recent council meeting. "She came with a mission – to get Highland Park back to respectability. She has done an enormous job." HP Devco Vice President Perrin Emanuel has assumed Saperstein's duties.

To be sure, directing HP Devco at its beginnings had much in common with the Greek god Sisyphus rolling a rock uphill for eternity. Ford Motor Company, the company that built the Model T factory and hired assembly workers for $5 a day had long vacated its pioneering factory. Ex-Cell-O, Holiday Inn, Graybar Electric and others vanished.

The Chrysler Corporation (now DaimlerChrysler) recognized the void it would leave behind when it relocated to Auburn Hills. Chrysler gave $14 million as a parting gift to Highland Park.  This included $5 million to launch HP Devco and provide funds for community investment under its auspices. Chrysler then tore down and remediated the 144-acre headquarters site at a cost of $65 million before selling it to the Stuart Frankel Development Company. Coca-Cola now operates a $5.5 million sales and distribution center and Visteon will construct a $35 million light manufacturing facility there.

"Chrysler resisted the temptation to give the property to Highland Park for a dollar," says Frank Fountain, senior vice president of external affairs for DaimlerChrysler and a strong advocate for HP Devco. "Instead we invested tens of millions of dollars to clean up and prepare for development. The site stands as a shining example of corporate social responsibility and an important source of revenue for the city."  

Community catalyst

What makes Saperstein go? Michael Curis, who inked a multimillion dollar deal with HP Devco, says she loves life and truly enjoys everything she does. "She has a well-balanced, complete life and stays committed to giving back to community."

Saperstein grew up in New York City. She married her husband Alvin, whom she met at age nine. He is now a professor of physics at Wayne State University and an active world researcher on peace and security issues. They celebrated their 50th anniversary last summer, over 40 of those years living in Lafayette Park. Last December, the couple took a three-week bicycle tour of Vietnam, extending their visit to Bangkok and Cambodia.

"We share a commitment to contributing to a better society while respecting each other’s intelligence and independence," Saperstein said of her husband and father of their two adult children, Rina and Shira.  

Sustaining her momentum, through the mountains of paperwork and layers of bureaucracy, takes a close cadre of friends who share the same civic commitment. She counts Eleanor Josaitis, co-founder of Focus: HOPE and Esther Shapiro, retired director of Detroit Consumer Affairs office as friends and mentors.

Saperstein confides she never was able to get her hands around housing improvements in Highland Park except for Manchester Place. Her cadre of community activist friends reminds her to taste the fruits of success rather than stress over the projects that didn’t come through.  

"My excitement now is seeing things I tried to do 30 years ago, and being done better than I envisioned," Saperstein says. She helped propose the Linked Riverfront Parks system while working with the city of Detroit Recreation Department and watches Faye Nelson, current director of the Riverfront Conservancy oversee the TriCentennial Park and a series of investments along the waterfront that are returning the jewels along the riverfront to public access.

Her dream of an interracial, intergenerational linking of hands will come true this summer as part of Hands Along Woodward, a 200th anniversary celebration for the state's M-1 highway, which just happens to be Highland Park's main street.

"Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick in his recent State of the City address commented we should stop pointing fingers and start shaking hands," Saperstein says, "Soon we will do just that."

Maureen McDonald is a Detroit-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Model D.


Manchester Place Homes

Ford's Model T Plant

Bill Snethkamp Chrysler

Harriet Saperstein

Oakland Park on the site of the former Chrysler World Headquarters

CVS at Model T Plaza

Coca Cola Distributors at Oakland Park

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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