LIANE HANSEN, host:
One of the most historic and disctinctive silhouettes in Detroit's skyline has been spared the wrecking ball, for now. The Michigan Central Station was designed by the same architects responsible for New York's Grand Central Station. Hundreds of thousands of migrants used to pass through its gleaming marble lobby. Today, the train station is empty and in disrepair, but as Celeste Headlee reports, it as received a temporary reprieve.
CELESTE HEADLEE: During the Great Migration, the Michigan Central Depot was crowded with African Americans coming North from the rural South to find work. And an equally large influx was that of European immigrants who came to Detroit by train after leaving Ellis Island.
Mr. TIM McKAY (Director, Greater Corktown Development Agency): This is their landing spot. This is where they began their life as an American.
HEADLEE: Tim McKay is the director of the the Greater Corktown Development Agency. Corktown is the oldest neighborhood in Detroit. And the abandoned depot sits on its western end. When the station was built in the 1913, it cost about $15 million and its 18-story tower was the tallest of its kind in the world. The last train pulled out in 1988. But Reynolds Farley of the University of Michigan says many Detroiters still have a passion for the building.
Professor REYNOLDS FARLEY (University of Michigan): Because they have fond memories of going to places from trains that left from this point or their fathers, grandfathers, grandmothers arrived in Detroit and this was the first thing they saw when they got to Detroit.
HEADLEE: The depot has been used in dozens of films, like "Transformers," "The Island," "Four Brothers" and "Eight Mile." Farley says the imposing 230-foot classical tower can be seen for miles.
Prof. FARLEY: When I've given tours, people who have never been to Detroit before, one of the first things they ask is, what is that building over there?
HEADLEE: And for Detroiters, it represents a time before the riots, before the decline of the auto industry, when the Motor City was the fastest growing metropolis in the country.
Mr. DAN STAMPER (President, Detroit International Bridge Company): I can remember going there when I was eight or nine to pick up a family member. And I can remember walking into the depot.
HEADLEE: Dan Stamper is president of the Detroit International Bridge Company. They own the building now.
Mr. STAMPER: We ended up with it through a loan that we had made to another company and they couldn't repay the loan. And we ended up with the depots.
HEADLEE: Stamper says his company has been trying to find a use for the depot ever since. There have been proposals to turn it into an international trade center, a convention center and casino. And Stamper says Detroit's former mayor wanted to use it as a police headquarters.
Mr. STAMPER: We spent a lot of effort, a lot of money, had a whole team together to renovate it and reuse it, only to ultimately find out that the city couldn't make the deal work from their end.
HEADLEE: So now the building is vacant, abandoned and forlorn. A chain-link fence surrounds it and leans precariously in some places. It's topped by bent and angular razor wire. The elaborate bozart stonework on the station's lobby is marred by graffiti, and there are trees growing out of the roof. In the building next door, police discovered the frozen corpse of a man inside an elevator shaft. And in April, the Detroit City Council voted to have the building demolished.
But in spite of the problems, many Detroiters still find the depot beautiful and inspiring. Hundreds of them protested and Tim McKay was one of them.
Mr. TIM MCKAY: I see this train station every day of my life. I live here, work here. This building represents certainly a bygone era. It also represents a great opportunity.
HEADLEE: But Dan Stamper says some people want the depot razed.
Mr. STAMPER: And then there's another group that wants that tower that you can see from everywhere to be removed because it is a visual rendering of the decay of Detroit.
HEADLEE: McKay says the residents of Corktown want to use the station as the backdrop to a city park.
Mr. MCKAY: We envision, even in the current state of the train station, a viable green space that could be used by all.
HEADLEE: The International Bridge Company has some ideas in the works as well. Dan Stamper says he submitted a proposal to the government to use part of the depot as a facility for Homeland Security.
Mr. STAMPER: We want to refurbish just the historic part. The main entry, main lobby of the depot. The tower would come down.
HEADLEE: In light of possible new plans, the Detroit City Council gave the building a stay of execution. But city leaders have said the building will have to be refurbished or demolished soon, so it can no longer mar the skyline of Detroit.
That attitude makes Tim McKay furious.
Mr. MCKAY: We see this everyday. It is not an eyesore to us who live here. We see what it was and what it is and what it could be.
HEADLEE: The city council hasn't set a date to reconsider demolition plans. But any restoration of the depot will cost millions of dollars, and if no one steps forward who's willing to shoulder that cost, the depot that welcomed millions to the industrial North and to the United States will soon be just a memory.
For NPR News, I'm Celeste Headlee in Detroit.
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HANSEN: You can see pictures of Michigan's Central Station on NPR's photo blog at NPR.org/PictureShow.
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