Go to Home page Go to Past Issues Subscribe Go to Links

February, 2006

Highland Park, Michigan: A corporate wasteland
Community stands up for its rights

By General Baker and Marian Kramer, residents of Highland Park

The City of Highland Park, Michigan, became famous in the early 1900s. It was the birthplace of the Model T Ford. The Henry Ford plant marked the beginning of the moving assembly line for mass production. Ford's assembly line produced millions of Model T cars in Highland Park that brought thousands of people to relocate in and around the city for the $5 per day wage. As the population expanded, there was a need for a new infrastructure (streets, public services, etc.). Ford built it's own water treatment plant for Highland Park so it did not have to purchase water from Detroit, like other small towns. In 1942, Highland Park became the city with the first completed modern expressway in America, the Davison Freeway. Henry Ford was credited with the creation of the emerging middle class. During that period, Highland Park increased to a booming population of some 50,000 people.

Highland Park became the home of Chrysler Corporation's World Headquarters and the Ex-Cell-O Tooling Plant. It housed the second oldest Junior College in Michigan. Sears and Roebuck and two large hospitals also dotted the landscape. Highland Park had its own Police, Fire, Public Works, and Water Departments, a public library, one of the best school systems in Michigan, paved alley ways, and many retail stores. The YMCA and YWCA were located on the main street. Highland Park is located in the center of Detroit. Once Detroit began to expand, it grew around Highland Park. So, Highland Park became a city within a city.

Corporate flight took its toll as Ford Motor Co. moved its world headquarters to Dearborn, Michigan in the 1930s and it's tractor production to Romeo, Michigan in the 1970s. Chrysler Corporation, in the late 1980s, moved its world headquarters to Auburn Hills. This was around the time of the layoffs in auto resulting from new labor-replacing production with robots. The community had fewer jobs and less ability to buy. Ex-Cell-O moved to Troy, Michigan, Sanders Bakery went bankrupt and both hospitals shut their doors. The YMCA and YWCA closed their doors. They were sold by their Board of Directors to the Rescue Mission. The governor closed down the Community College, and Sears and Roebuck closed its doors. The major grocery stores fled and even the utility companies closed their payment centers. Highland Park was the home for some 50,000 people and now is the home of about 15,000 people and 3,000 households.

Highland Park is taken over by Financial Managers

The City of Highland Park has been under the administration of an Emergency Financial Manager for four and one-half years. The once thriving "City of Trees" and industrial Mecca has become a city of 2.9 square miles of urban decay.

The first Emergency Financial Manager (a Black woman with locks) was brought into Highland Park in June 2001. When the Financial Manager was placed in Highland Park, all the elected officials were stripped of their democratic rights to make the decisions for Highland Park. The Financial Manager only answered to the State Treasurer who represented the Governor of Michigan. The Financial Manager entered into a contract with the Rescue Mission to privately manage and control the Highland Park Recreation Center. The Financial Manager boarded up the city's only public library, outsourced the police work to the county and sold off publicly owned properties such as the Suburban Woodlands. Over two years, the Financial Manager laid-off most of the city employees; she even closed down the police department and the city jail and moved the command center to a strip mall backed up by portable trailers. The Financial Manager imposed a 60% increase in water bills, making our bills the highest in the nation. The residents of Highland Park received nine months of water bills and were expected to pay, without protest. If you do not pay in the period of time allowed, the water bill is placed on your property taxes. So, families faced homelessness. Over 50% of the residents of Highland Park had their water shut-off under her leadership.

Highland Park has become a corporate wasteland. The corporations bled the city through tax breaks, made huge profits, promising jobs in return. Some of these agreements were broken as the city was abandoned. Highland Park faces $19 million in long-term debt with annual revenues of about $10 million and no way to become solvent again.

As we go to press, the Highland Park School Board closed the Liberty Elm School, claiming this would keep the School District from going further into bankruptcy.

The Community gets organized

The Highland Park Human Rights Coalition exposed and defeated the first Financial Manager after she had worked out a contract with a private global company, R.J. Wright, Inc., to manage the publically owned Highland Park Water Department. The Highland Park City Council and the Mayor had no knowledge of the action. The contract that was being negotiated gave R.J. Wright, Inc., 80% of the public funds collected for water fees and the City of Highland Park only 20%. The maintenance of the water would come out of the 20% for the city. The organizing of the Human Rights Coalition resulted in the community applying pressure on the Highland Park City Council to vote against the Financial Manager's contract with R.J. Wright, Inc. The contract was defeated.

The Highland Park Human Rights Coalition and its supporters, after a long struggle, succeeded in getting their demands met by the Governor of Michigan to remove the first Financial Manager and implement a moratorium on water shut offs.

The second Financial Manager, (a Black male raised in Highland Park) recently reported to the City Council that he had worked out a plan for the DTE, (the gas and lights company) to read the residents' water meters and billing. This is an example of public funds again going to a private company for public services. First you let them read the meter and do the billing. Then later, they (DTE) are given the responsibility for collection. They will get the profits. Highland Park will maintain the ownership of the water, but not the profits and jobs. Now we are faced with a similar situation as with the first Financial Manager and R.J. Wright, Inc. The new Financial Manager claims he doesn't want peoples' water bills on their property taxes. He favors turning off the water for lack of payment! However, people cannot pay, because the bills are the highest in the nation. The Highland Park Human Rights Coalition has stated they will continue the fight for the Highland Parkers human rights.

The same options, which were available four years ago, still stare us in the face today. Many people say there is no way to save Highland Park, that it's not possible to even beg other corporations to come into the City to "bale us out," to bleed us to the bone like the last ones did, leaving us high and dry. Today, we still face a municipal death sentence wiping our city off of the map. In this sense, Highland Park is the harbinger for the rest of the cities in Michigan and the industrial midwest.

We must resist the attempt to privatize and dismantle our infrastructures and break the iron grip of corporate control of our lives. We must support groups such as the Coalition for Human Rights who stand up and struggle for a new community where people have their needs met.

Marian Kramer and General Baker are available to speak. Call Speakers for a New America at 800-691-6888 or email info@speakersforanewamerica.com.

This article originated in the People's Tribune
PO Box 3524, Chicago, IL 60654, 773-486-3551, info@peoplestribune.org.
Feel free to reproduce unless marked as copyrighted.
Please include this message with reproductions of the article.