My friend and Dearborn native Bob Basse set up a meeting with Mary Laundroche and Dave Norwood from the City of Dearborn. We met at the Dearborn Administrative Center, a building in an office park across from Ford Corporate Headquarters.
After introductions, Mary described her role as one to foster an ‘engaged and connected community.’ I explained my particular interest in Dearborn as both the headquarters of one of the world’s largest corporations and the center of the Muslim community in America. Mary replied, “We don’t think of ourselves as the Muslim Capital of America. We strive to promote community among everyone.”
Mary described Dearborn as a city known for its outstanding services, with strong support from Ford, the largest employer. Besides having its corporate headquarters in Dearborn, Ford also has a large research and development facility here and manufacturers F-150 pick-ups at the revitalized Rouge Assembly plant. Geographically, Dearborn is a long city, “Ford land shapes the entire city, with its corporate campus as the fulcrum between East and West Dearborn.”
Dearborn was first settled in the 1700’s, but the community’s growth is tied to Ford. In the 1920’s, when Henry Ford opened the River Rouge plant and employed 100,000 workers, the city grew. It also expanded in the 1950’s, when cars became available to even more people after World War II. Ford has always invested in Dearborn; yet, Dearborn was never a ‘company town’ like Pullman Illinois.
Dave added that Henry Ford gave to the community through parks, schools, and contributions to healthcare and the arts. But the government remained separate and stable; Dearborn has had only five mayors in 80 years.
Dave sees his role as Sustainability Coordinator to ensure that Dearborn will make decisions today that allow future generations to live well. He iterated a number of initiatives and accomplishments, from the multi-modal transit center to bike sharing to canoeing on the River Rouge, water purity enhancements and LED street light conversions as steps to make Dearborn more sustainable.
Mary shared with me the Dearborn Calendar, sent to every resident annually, that lists an array of events and participation opportunities, as well as a breakdown of how tax dollars are spent and explanations of property owner responsibilities (lawns maintained, no cars on grass, no peeling paint, etc.). This is one example of how the city strives to keep citizens engaged and connected.
How will we live tomorrow?
Mary: “I hope we’ll live with even greater connection between each other. As we are more integrated we can find more of what we have in common. Dearborn is an excellent model of that.”
Dave: “We are a unified community with diversity, and our diversity will continue. Hispanics are our fastest growing minority. I see the River Rouge, which used to be a waste pool, as something that joins us.”
Dave walked Bob and me out of the facility. He explained that Dearborn’s former City Hall is being turned into artist housing; all city functions now take place in the administrative center.
After we shook hands and headed to the parking lot, I realized how this brief conversation with two city employees clarified the pattern of disconnection between the people I’ve talked with on my journey and our government. Not because of what they said – Mary and Dave were right on message – but because of what they didn’t say, or rather couldn’t say.
When I mentioned Dearborn as the Muslim Capital of America Mary politely shut it down. Yet, like it or not, Dearborn is the Muslim Capital of America, and, like it or not, the City’s Director of Public Information ought to be able to acknowledge how the rest of America sees her city. It is especially disconcerting when America could benefit from positive images of a Muslim community, and everything I saw of Muslim Dearborn is so positive.
Similarly, Dave’s description of sustainability efforts was extensive except for one small word – car. How could he mention cars? Sitting in an office that is nearly impossible to get to without an automobile in the shadow of Fords International headquarters, in the city that assembles the most popular motor vehicle in the world. Dearborn’s Suitability Coordinator is free to play around the edges of green, but does it really matter if the new train station is on a bike path in a city where virtually everyone has to own a car to have meaningful mobility?
And why has Dearborn abandoned it monumental City Hall to inhabit an Administrative Center in an office park? It’s because we’ve lost our belief in government as a noble enterprise, as the symbol of a proud community. Everywhere I go, people see business, technology, individual initiative, community, and faith as pathways to improve tomorrow, but no one mentions government, in any form, as an agent for positive action.
I appreciate Mary and Dave talking with me, and I appreciate how carefully, as public employees, they must tailor their comments. After all, I’ve approached dozens of elected officials with my question and can’t get a response out of even one. But ultimately that extreme care not to offend, that spin, diminishes government. The official line may be that artist will have cool space and the administrative center is efficient, but the reality is our government no longer represents our collective aspiration. And Dearborn, a responsive and well-run city by any measure, understands that pulse in abandoning a landmark City Hall and moving government functions to a generic place to execute transactions.