St Paul's Post-Fordist Future

[The large footprint of the St Paul Ford Plant.]
St Paul’s Ford plant (along Ford Parkway between the Ford bridge and the Ford dam) is finally shutting down for good this week after a prolonged twilight run of Ranger pickups. The closing of the plant marks the end of a 80+ year run of the site near the hydro dam on the Mississippi being used for industrial automobile manufacturing.

The closing of an auto plant in the Midwest is hardly a new story. It’s been going on for 50 years. According to urban historian Thomas Sugrue, the big American auto companies started moving jobs out of Michigan as early as 1953 because of desire to avoid high labor costs, to exercise more control over production processes, and to get closer to emerging markets in the sunbelt and overseas.

So, it might seem like another closing auto plant is no big deal. But it’s worth remembering how central industrial manufacturing used to be in the landscape of American cities. These factories were huge! Ford’s largest and most famous factory, the River Rouge plant in Dearborn, was a gigantic complex that took up over two square miles, had 100 miles of railroad track, and at its peak during the war employed over 100,000 workers. For comparison, that’s roughly the size of the University of Minnesota campus, with far higher density. To get a sense of what Detroit was like during its heyday in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, you’d have to picture multiple U of MN campuses all through the city, replacing the throngs of undergraduate students with shift changes of tired workers, replacing all the stacks of books with smokestacks belching coal.

[The Ford Rouge plant in near Detroit, which employed nearly 100K workers at its peak.]
[The U of MN Minneapolis, nearly the same size as the Rouge, with about as many students & employees.]

The St Paul Ford plant is nowhere near as large as that, and has for some time been rather quietly coexisting in the very residential Highland Park neighborhood along the river in St Paul. There aren’t huge numbers of truck workers pouring out of the plant at all times of the day and night, and while there are some clean-up costs from the decades of manufacturing pollution, the factory hasn’t really had a big impact on its neighborhood, instead leading a quiet, pleasant life surrounded by trees and river bluffs.

I wonder about the future of industrial land uses in the Twin Cities, particularly as the denser corridors along the old rail tracks become more desirable locations for increasing residential density. Minneapolis’ riverfront, Northeast Minneapolis, and St Paul’s University Avenue are good examples of where industry and residential activity rub shoulders. How long will plants like the Rock-Tenn facility want to remain in St Paul if residential density keeps increasing in the area? Will fights like the Pelham Boulevard situation become more common, as competing visions for the future of the area come into conflict with each other?

On one hand, if industry were to keep leaving the city, we would be losing the kinds of efficiencies associated with mixed uses and density, with convenient access to electricity and waste heat, with convenient access to jobs. On the other hand, as anyone who remembers the old St Paul Gopher Ethanol plant will attest, living in close proximity to industry is not always pleasant. We’ll have to see what our Post-Fordist future holds.

[The tunnels in the bluffs underneath the St Paul Ford Plant, originally used to mine window glass.]


Unknown said...

I'm most excited to see what happens to that railbed. I'm assuming it won't be used for freight rail anymore. What will it be instead? Transit corridor? linear park? bike trail?

Anonymous said...

Like we need another bike trail... RIP railroads. Thanks for shipping the new Ranger factory over to Thialand FORD.