Monthly Column

The Return of Michigan Central Station: Interrogating Nostalgia

June 28, 2024

In a personal essay, Elizabeth Blasius visits Detroit for the opening of the newly renovated Michigan Central Station, a place that sparked her nascent interest in old buildings, but also makes her wary of sentimentalizing the past.


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About 20,000 people packed Roosevelt Park on Thursday, June 6, 2024, for “Live From Detroit: The Concert at Michigan Central” to celebrate the historic reopening of Michigan Central Station following an extensive six-year renovation by Ford. Eminem, Diana Ross, Jack White, Big Sean, and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra led an all-star musical lineup at the 90-minute concert, which also featured appearances by Ford executives and local leaders. © Ford Content Center.

It’s a balmy Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1999. My dad is pulling his Ford Explorer up to the chain link fence surrounding the legendary Michigan Central Train Station in Detroit. It’s a massive, brawny building—a sixteen-story skyscraper behind a passenger rail station—the tallest train station in the world at the time it opened in 1913. But Michigan Central had not seen a train since January 5, 1988, when it was closed by Amtrak after the last passenger train bound for Chicago pulled out of the station. “More than a mere excursion into nostalgia, the shutdown of the Michigan Central Depot should be the occasion of serious reflection about what we once were, what we have lost–and what, given sufficient will, we could regain,” wrote the editorial section of the Detroit Free Press on the day the station closed.1

Until 1988, Michigan Central was the arrival station for trains bound for Detroit from all over the country, while serving as a connector to other US cities. During the 1940s, the station served upwards of 4,000 people a day. Troops moved through the station from points across the country during World War II. Opportunities in Detroit’s automotive and manufacturing industries brought rural people, including members of both sides of my family from the copper mines of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and the coal mines of Northern West Virginia, as well as Black workers during the Great Migration from the south to the north, with trains being the prevalent method of travel for both Black and white Americans. By 1988, that passenger count had slowed to a trickle, and the station’s service declined to just six to eight arrivals and departures each day.

A lack of scheduled maintenance had allowed the building’s materials to decay rapidly in the eleven years between Amtrak’s closing of the station and our visit in 1999. Neglect had opened Michigan Central’s doors—figuratively and literally—to urban explorers, graffiti artists, scrappers, and vandals.

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Interior of Michigan Central Station, Detroit, 2009. © David Schalliol.

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Interior of Michigan Central Station, Detroit, 2009. © David Schalliol.

Lifting the fence, we headed toward the front door of the station, over piles of debris, and into the entrance hall. I was hit with a certain smell—a wet, sweet, old wood smell—that would later become synonymous with old buildings experiencing a tenuous period of abandonment. I was then floored completely by what I saw with my own eyes. I had never been in a room so large, so ancient or so dangerous. Plaster crumbled from the ceiling as colorful graffiti climbed the walls. Window glass was shattered, creating chaotic, jagged patterns. The walls had voids in them, from which anything metal or valuable had been stripped. The experience made my heart race, but it also provoked curiosity in me, a desire to understand how to live in the present moment with things from the past that looked like Michigan Central. I recall thinking, having limited knowledge of the conditions that led to the condition of the building, “Someone should do something about this.”

My dad and I walked deeper into the building and into the waiting room, where the metal skeleton of the ceiling was exposed to the sky. Building materials blocked the staircase leading to the stories above. Unable to go further, my dad and I turned around, and were met by a man warning us to be on the lookout for a squatter named “Catfish” who lived in the floors above the station. As my dad drove the Explorer back to the Detroit suburbs, where we lived, and where I grew up, he issued his own warning: “Don’t tell your mother we came here.” The whole experience, from the architecture to the condition of the building to the questions I couldn’t answer, struck me, took hold, and never let go.

Visiting Michigan Central Station was a prompt for my interest—my obsession, really—for old places, but talking about it has always felt cliché. I falsely conjectured that every person who found a “passion for historic buildings” found that passion by similar, hyper-romanticized moments of interaction with the grand buildings of the past that now represented urban decline.

Detroit isn’t my hometown. Troy is. Troy is a suburb of Detroit that developed as the highways that killed US rail barreled through the cities and branched out to the undeveloped beyond. I left Michigan for Chicago at eighteen, leaving behind a general knowledge of Detroit that felt like a collection of weird epigraphs in the font style of the Old English “D” on the Detroit Tigers uniform. Being from Troy, or a “suburb of Detroit,” made me feel discomfortingly ordinary. In Detroit, it made me feel inauthentic, and in Chicago it made me feel like I would never belong there either.

I would follow Michigan Central into the twenty-first century as it became a worldwide symbol for Detroit’s decline. Living in Chicago, I would return to Troy, a web of subdivisions named Oak River East and Merrihill Acres with an interstate highway zigzagging through it, partially via passenger train, traveling the same route, in reverse, that the last train out of Michigan Central traveled on. I’d depart the train at the station built by Amtrak in Detroit after Michigan Central closed, a glorified vestibule, where I’d be picked up in a car and driven twenty miles to Troy. In addition to being an arrival city for intercity trains from places like Chicago, Michigan Central Station was also a hub for a system of interurban trains, as well as a fleet of municipally owned and operated streetcars serving the City of Detroit. Approaching the mid-twentieth century, these public transportation modes were under resourced, while resources for the construction of highways to serve personal transportation exploded.

News of both speculative developments and speculative threats to the building left me equally annoyed. The City of Detroit called for the building’s demolition in 20002 and then again in 2009.3 Each time, Michigan Central seemed to claw itself back from demise. Neither the City nor the public were willing to let it be demolished, and while the resources for renovation failed to materialize, so did the political will (or financial capacity) to demolish it. Any mention of redevelopment sparked hope but also disillusion. Plans were floated: for a casino, a hotel, or a police headquarters, but they never moved beyond the ideation phase. Michigan Central looked threatening when used as b-roll in news stories reporting that the City of Detroit had filed for bankruptcy in 2013.4 Seeing it pop up as the subject of op-eds written from the suburbs of Rochester Hills or Canton gave me secondhand embarrassment, as though, had I not known any better, I too could parachute my opinion into the conversation. Even as I learned how to research architecture, I calculatingly avoided learning too much about Michigan Central Station, like there was no authentic way for me to hold on to that knowledge.

Yet, I would create more and more personal connections to the building. If I could borrow a car during a trip home, I would visit Michigan Central to check up on it, to see how it was doing with my own eyes. I took an ex, a graffiti artist, to Michigan Central to paint a piece that included “Elizabeth” within a bright pink heart. The last conversation I would have with my mother before she began treatment for the brain tumor that would kill her three months later occurred in the parking lot of Mexican Village, with Michigan Central looming in the background. Grasping for a sense of normalcy, she asked me about the building’s preservation.

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Exterior of Michigan Central Station, Detroit, 2015. © David Schalliol.

As a writer, I am wary of making myself the protagonist, and as a preservationist, I am even more wary of nostalgia, including my own. Applied to preservation, over-romanticizing the past creates an opportunity where historical trauma can be bypassed by the magical thinking that a long bygone era is somehow better than the present. Working in preservation, it is often my job to determine the difference between “swapping old stories” and oral tradition, “the good old days” and the span of time when significant events occurred. Collective memory is often built through personal association, so this is a delicate balance of investigation and objectivity. If I deployed my own sentimentality for the past toward how old buildings should be evaluated, or valued, I would be working from an egocentric viewpoint. I leave my memories at the door, and as much as I am fascinated by old buildings, I wouldn’t want to live among them during their time, and very well would not be able to live my life without discrimination, harassment, or even criminalization. Yet, I would do a disservice to Michigan Central Station if I didn’t disclose my personal connection, here, now, at this moment in my life.

Detroit is a place with a commanding sense of nostalgia, much of it generated through feelings associated with the automotive industry, be it through the products that industry produced, or the incomes it provided for generations of Detroiters. My father drove a 1993 Ford Explorer because he worked for Ford, but he also had a 1968 Ford Fairlane because he was always a “Ford Guy” in a line of guys that worked for Ford that included my great grandfather, grandfather, and now my brother. I grew up around Ford, GM, and Chrysler, mechanics and muscle cars, and cruising Woodward Avenue.

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Aerial view of a portion of Detroit, Michigan, with a focus on the historic Michigan Central Station train depot. In 2018, Ford Motor Co. bought the building and began restoring it as an office building, Detroit, 2020. © Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress.

Twenty-five years after my first visit, someone did something about Michigan Central Station. That someone is (to my family’s delight) Ford Motor Company, and that something is a tech and cultural hub. In 2018, Ford announced it had acquired Michigan Central for $90 million from a transportation adjacent conglomerate owned by Detroit billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun that had purchased the building in 1996.5 A renovated Michigan Central serves as the centerpiece of a campus Ford refers to as an “innovation ecosystem” looking to inform the future of transportation. A former post office at the foot of The Station, abandoned alongside the train station in 1987, opened in April 2023, and now hosts nearly 100 transportation startups that focus on aerial mobility, energy equity, and multimodal logistics. The campus includes the first wireless charging public roadway for electric vehicles in the United States—an amenity that is surprising considering the level of partisanship electric vehicles are subject to in Detroit and statewide.

Ford Motor Company spent $940 million on the renovation of Michigan Central Station and the creation of the campus, a figure that only a multinational private sector company with revenues in the hundreds of billions would, or could, ever invest in a preservation project. That investment has a tremendous amount of symbolism for Ford. Michigan Central, a derelict old train station, became notorious for Detroit’s industrial downfall and blight, and it was Ford, the hometown hero, who answered the call to save it.

Of course, Ford Motor Company is solving a problem it helped create. The prevalence of personal vehicles begat the construction of highways. Locally, these highways helped grow the sprawl of the suburbs that then attracted companies (including Ford) out to the suburbs, which then attracted workers, who left the urban for suburban, leaving the cities like Detroit with fewer residents—and fewer resources—to invest. Detroit was heavily reliant on the industrial capital Ford and other automotive companies provided, but like nearly every other US city at the midpoint of the twentieth century, its Black residents were no longer willing to accept substandard housing due to state-sponsored systems of segregation. While the automotive industry hired Black workers, their employment was relegated to jobs that were unsafe or low skill. A series of racial uprisings in the summer of 1967 terrified white Detroiters, and those that had the means to abscond to the suburbs did so on a massive scale.

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“Live From Detroit: The Concert at Michigan Central” on June 6, 2024. © Ford Content Center.

Accelerating to June 2024, Michigan Central has officially opened to bombastic fanfare, including a sold-out concert featuring Detroit natives Diana Ross, Big Sean, and Jack White, executive produced by Eminem. I’m in Detroit for this event—essentially a concert celebrating an old building I’ve followed my whole adult life, and my whole adult life has been about old buildings. From my hotel downtown, I calculate the distance and travel time to Michigan Central for the concert. It is about two miles, approximately 10 minutes of driving, but an hour using any combination of light rail or bus, so I drive.

The excitement as the concert begins is palatable and authentic. I feel so vulnerable, so impossibly nostalgic that it makes me feel discomfort despite the dopamine rush that the environment generates. Can you see it on my face, how much this building means to me? How much of it is a part of my history? Can all these folks tell I’m not from here? But am I from here? (The term “nostalgia” comes from the Greek words nostos (return) and algos (pain).) Big Sean addresses the crowd before his performance with “What Up Doe,” a Detroit vernacular greeting, and the crowd excitedly parrots it back. Big Sean is joined on stage by William Clay Ford, Jr., executive chair of the Ford Motor Company, and billionaire owner of the Detroit Lions. He is in search of the rizz factor from the audience in black Ray Bans as he remarks that Michigan Central was “a symbol of Detroit decay, a broken city,” but then, thanks to Ford, it would be that way no more. The renovated station, according to Ford, would “invent the future of transportation.” William Clay Ford, or Bill as he’s known, is presented as a hero figure here and elsewhere in the Michigan Central story Ford Motor Company tells.

Shortly after the announcement that Ford would purchase the building, I recalled reading that the idea to restore the building was Bill’s, generated as Bill would drive (of course) past Michigan Central in his Mustang GT (because of course that’s what he’s driving), wondering about his legacy, his family’s legacy, and the future of the Ford Motor Company. The reason the building was redeveloped had nothing to do with revitalizing Detroit, or giving back to the city, or repairing past harms because car culture has negatively affected public transit, or the incredible history at Michigan Central, but it is instead the nostalgic vision of an executive who makes three hundred times more than the average Ford employee? The Corinthian columns and arches of the building’s front entrance light up like a casino, and the new windows above have an almost rainbow shimmer as Diana Ross emerges to sing “I’m Coming Out” in an orange feathered caftan.

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Singer, actress, and Detroit native Diana Ross performs on Thursday, June 6, 2024 at a sold-out concert to celebrate the historic reopening of Michigan Central Station following a six-year restoration by Ford. The iconic building will be the centerpiece of a new culture and tech hub in Detroit. © Ford Content Center.

Later in the evening, I break from the crowd to roam the grounds, finding the entrance to The Station (as Michigan Central is called within the larger campus) behind the stage. After twenty-five years, I’m just going to walk into this building like it’s just another old building? I brace myself.

To renovate Michigan Central, designed by the same architecture firm that designed New York’s Grand Central Station (Warren & Wetmore and Reed & Stem), Ford reopened a quarry in Indiana where the Station’s limestone exterior was originally sourced from, and recreated 4,200 light fixtures, including the three massive chandeliers in the entrance hall. It is abundantly clear to me that this isn’t the kind of preservation project, like so many others, operating with a scarcity mindset or budget. A banquet server handed me a glass of sparkling wine as I observed the sparkling floor, so shiny I can see my reflection in it. Everything within the entrance hall and the waiting room was made new, although some graffiti in the hallway off the concourse has been preserved as an homage to the building’s rugged past. This expression of material layers is trending and cool amongst preservation projects across the county, but like elsewhere, it is heavily curated. Detroit is full of resilience narratives, but it winces at its reputation as a place where “ruin porn” dominates, so the graffiti’s preservation is concentrated. Meandering through a group of canapé-eating Ford executives, I viewed an exhibit of Michigan Central ephemera, which included salvaged (or stolen, depending on your perspective) items from The Station that Ford put out in a crowdsourced “no questions asked” call for during the restoration (In 2018, an anonymous individual alerted Ford that they had dropped off an original 750-pound clock from the station at a location near the worksite).

I return to the concert, where Eminem and Detroit rapper Trick Trick are performing “Welcome 2 Detroit.” A man in front of me bobs along to the music, adorned head to toe in Detroit gear—a number 20 Detroit Lions jersey, the number worn by beloved Football Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, and a pair of custom blue and white Lions Air Jordans. I had been in Chicago for five years when “Welcome 2 Detroit” was released, but I know every one of each rapper's verses and am bobbing too. Detroit has experienced a palatable resurgence over the twenty years that I have lived in Chicago, and this moment seems to be a critical one in the city’s narrative as the scrappy, beautiful underdog. Yet, there are neighborhoods here that have seen no direct benefits of that resurgence, and while downtown might be awash with murals celebrating Detroit’s creative spirit, they overlook blocks upon blocks of surface parking lots. The concert ends with a spray of fireworks and a reminder to “drive home safe.”

The next morning, I am outside of the station entrance again, waiting for my dad, and looking at photos I took of Michigan Central in 1999 with the Canon 35mm camera he gave me. A lot of the pictures are either blurry, or have bad composition, but they are affirming. I grew up terrified that I wouldn’t find something to be passionate about, or that I would find something, but the real world would render the pursuit of it impractical. The reality of my life is that I found a thing that interested me and then worked relentlessly at it until I got really, really good at it. It feels surreal to be here. My interest in preservation is through, and because of, this building, and here I am, watching my dad walk up with his hands in his pockets, jingling his keys. He’s meeting me for the tour of Michigan Central Station that I’ve arranged for us to take together, twenty years after he helped me find my way.

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Michigan Central Station, Detroit, 1999. © Elizabeth Blasius.

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Michigan Central Station, Detroit, 1999. © Elizabeth Blasius.

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Michigan Central Station, Detroit, 1999. © Elizabeth Blasius.

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Michigan Central Station, Detroit, 1999. © Elizabeth Blasius.

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Michigan Central Station, Detroit, 1999. © Elizabeth Blasius.

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Michigan Central Station, Detroit, 1999. © Elizabeth Blasius.


The author would like to thank her father, Keith Blasius.

2 Council postpones raising train depot,” Detroit Free Press, September 22, 2000.
3 Naomi R. Patton, “Council: Tear down train station on its owner’s dime,” Detroit Free Press, April 8, 2009.
4 Monica Davey and Mary Williams Walsh, “Billions in Debt, Detroit Tumbles Into Insolvency,The New York Times, July 18, 2013.
5 Phoebe Wall Howard, “City’s Past, Ford’s Future,” Detroit Free Press, June 17, 2018.