The Packard Automotive Plant, once one of the largest in the world and supplied by many businesses along the Mt. Elliott Corridor, now sits abandoned, evidence of the deindustrialization that hastened Detroit's decline.

Downzoning on the Mt. Elliott Industrial Corridor

The journey north along Mt. Elliott St. in Northeast Detroit depicts somber remnants of a thriving past.  It takes you along a desolate street with few stores; the only buildings are small warehouses, repair shops, junkyards, and a few small parts stores.  Traveling along the corridor, empty lots and abandoned buildings line the streets, remnants of a once-bustling business district.  Many of the buildings— both abandoned and those that are still in use— are covered in graffiti, with weeds growing up around the storefronts and the windows of empty buildings broken or missing and boarded up.  The Grand Trunk Rail Line, established in the area in the 1870s by P.W. Norris, which brings freight to the area, now carries much less freight traffic than it did at the height of the auto industry.

For much of the 20th century, the Mt. Elliott corridor was full of thriving industry.  The Grand Trunk brought raw materials to the small businesses along Mt. Elliott and Sherwood, which runs parallel to Mt. Elliott along the tracks.  Most of the businesses were feeder plants that supplied parts and steel to Detroit auto factories like the Packard Plant, River Rouge facility, and the Highland Park Plant.  In the late 1970s, however, the auto industry began to move south to take advantage of the lower labor costs ensured by right-to-work laws in those states, and these feeder plants became less necessary.  Much like the rest of the city, the businesses experienced a general decline that matched that of the car companies.  Many areas were designated as partially contaminated brownfields, and taxes were lowered on the land.  As a response, Mt. Elliott was downzoned from “heavy” to “restricted” industrial, and many of the businesses that could move in were ones that required little startup capital and were not heavily industrialized— the junkyards and repair shops that are there now.

We spoke to two Detroit residents about the changes that Northeast Detroit has experienced in the past few decades.   Rory Bolger, who works in the Detroit City Planning Commission, gave us some background on what caused the decline of Detroit industry and the loss of industry along the Mt. Elliott corridor, focusing on the 1970s-present.  Ron Nemerski, who has lived in the same Nortown house his entire life, gave us a much more personal take, sharing his memories of life on Filer Ave., which runs parallel to Mt. Elliott.

Mr. Nemerski was born in the same house he lives in now in 1939, and remembers his family growing vegetables in a garden behind his house, a common thing for city residents during WWII.  After the war, the area became increasingly industrial, and lots of small shops opened on his street.  For the next several decades, various shops did business in the area, including an ironworks.

In the 1960s and 70s, however, the ironworks closed down as industry in Detroit started to suffer and Crown Enamel moved in, constructing a large plant.  Ron’s new neighbors were much less enjoyable than the old ones: whereas he and the ironworks coexisted peacefully, the new plant stunk up the neighborhood with its painting and waxing operations, and a fire there in the 1990s damaged Ron’s house.  Crown Enamel eventually moved out in the 90s and was replaced by Kimberley Fence Co., which didn’t last long.  However, there is activity there now, but all that can be heard is things being knocked down.

Some of the downzoning brought relief to Ron and his non-industry neighbors– according to Ron, no one really wanted heavy industry in the area, and now it was gone.  Ron pointed out that he can actually see Mt. Elliott from his back porch; before a factory blocked it all from his view.  The downzoning led to several firms (he mentioned Michigan Lumber right next to him and a steel company nearby) that existed for a few years at a time and then were replaced or laid empty for decades (now, where Michigan Lumber was before is just an empty lot).

Mr. Nemerski’s opinion regarding industry in the area (and likely shared by other residents) is that heavy industry isn’t inherently a bad thing– it can be fine, as long as the factories are good neighbors, which some (like Crown Enamel) weren’t.  This attitude was summed up by a single quote: “I like people to treat Detroit with some respect, so when they come in and crap on everyone here they can get out.”  He believes Detroit can turn itself around, but to do so, the city needs a mayor that can do the right thing for the city and a city council to follow along with the mayor.  These are lots of ifs, but even though it will take a while, Ron sees the city as heading in the right direction.

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