The history and growth of the City of Highland Park, Michigan is connected to Detroit and the automobile industry. Besides, all 2.97 square miles of it sits within Detroit’s city limits, along the city’s most famous corridor: Woodward Avenue. “H-P” – as it is affectionately called – was once deemed the “City of Trees” for its graceful elm trees and the country’s first urban highway was built there in 1942; the Davison Freeway. Former State Representative John Conyers Jr., former NBA player Terry Duerod, singer Jackie Wilson, and actress Telma Hopkins were all either born or raised in Highland Park. Chrysler Corporation was founded in 1925 at the plant on Oakland Street and Henry Ford introduced the world to the mass production assembly line, rolling out his famous Model T cars at his plant on Woodward and Manchester in 1913.
Highland Park is rich in tradition and has played a special part in the evolution of the automobile and the American labor movement. It will celebrate its centennial this year, having been officially incorporated as a city April 4, 1918. It has survived a rocky history over the last 100 years. Hit by the departure of automotive companies that stunted its tax base, the city has also struggled with maintaining its schools, businesses, and infrastructure. But it is a unique enclave with an independent government that is proud of its heritage and place in history.
“I can say that Highland Park has a lot of history,” said current Mayor Hubert Yopp, who is a 1962 graduate of Highland Park High. “It is the birthplace of mass production, Henry Ford’s Model T car, and the first five-dollar day job was here in Highland Park. I remember when I was a kid, I saw a newspaper headline that read, ‘Highland Park: The model city of the Continental United States.’”
Sydney Spight started the Parker Pride Alumni Association in 2009 to celebrate the spirit of being a Highland Parker. The group consists of thousands of Highland Park community members and residents of all ages that seek to bring pride back to the community of Highland Park through beautifying and restoration. Their mission is to improve their schools, neighborhoods, and quality of life in Highland Park.
Parker Pride will be throwing a birthday party for the city Saturday, July 28 from 10-10 p.m. at the old Highland Park Community College (136 Highland Street).
“The community college is 100-years-old as well as the city, so, I thought it would be a good time for me to do what I do,” said Spight, who is a 1984 graduate of Highland Park High. “So, I talked to Robert Elmes of the Galapagos Foundation and he allowed us to use the college and gave us a generous donation to make this thing successful. We plan to throw a huge celebration for the city and college, celebrating what it means to be a Parker.”
The origins of Highland Park date back to when Detroit was a farming and trading community. The area that is now Highland Park was born out of the Ten Thousand Acre Tract, which was land donated by the United States government to help citizens recover from the devastating fire of 1805. Judge Augustus Woodward, who was dispatched from Washington D.C. to help oversee the rebuilding of Detroit, platted his failed Woodwardville in the Highland Park area in 1825.
Ever wonder where the city got its name? The Highland Park area was once high ground. The ridge was leveled when Woodward Avenue was built through it and expanded to communities north of the city. Real estate Captain William H. Stevens led the charge to develop the area, purchasing most of the land in 1887, and is credited for the successful promotion and building of early Highland Park. It was incorporated as a village in 1889 under his watch.
Highland Park was viewed as a land of opportunity for new settlers and Detroiters, transforming from a decentralized farming community, to a more developed city built around a main road. The population of Highland Park in 1900 was 427. By 1910, it had jumped to just over 4,100 people and hit its peak of 52,959 in 1930.
The automobile industry is what helped Highland Park boost its economy to one of the best in the world. Henry Ford platted his Model T plant on Manchester and Woodward in 1910 and the “Crystal Palace” was the largest plant in the world at its opening. Ford invented the mass production assembly line in 1913 and paid his workers $5 a day in 1914, shocking the world. Chrysler opened its headquarters in 1925 at on Oakland Street. The plant grew to be bigger than the Ford plant up the road, to 150 acres. At one-point, Highland Park had two of the world’s biggest automobile giants headquartered within four miles of each other.
“Highland Park, just like Detroit, helped put the world on wheels,” said local Detroit historian Ken Coleman, whose wife is from Highland Park. “It’s a very significant city and as it celebrates its 100thanniversary, I think it’s important that people understand the important impact that the city made, not only in southeastern Michigan, but throughout the world.”
Over the last 100 years, Highland Park has had its ups and downs, from people all over the world wanting a piece of its beautiful homes and neighborhoods, top-tier schools, and healthy economy, to Ford and Chrysler’s departure leaving its tax base dry, white flight, and the city having its lights turned off due to financial issues. But even through the hardship the city has faced over the last 30 years, there are plenty of reasons to celebrate its being over the last 100 years.
Robert Blackwell was the city’s first black mayor in 1974, Bobby Joe Hill was born there and was part of the first black NCAA basketball team (Texas Western) to beat an all-white team in 1966, community projects such as Avalon Village and Parker Village are revitalizing the community, and its comeback is on the upswing as well.
“I’m a lifelong, born and raised Highland Parker,” said Parker Village founder Juan Shannon, who graduated from the high school in 1981. “We once were the third richest economy in the world and I remember when it still looked like that. We may not get back to where we once were, but the pride and passion is still there. Highland Park has always been a city of first and innovation and the last 100 years is proof of that.”