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Day 1- May 8: Welcome to Dearborn, Michigan

After arriving to the Best Western hotel, otherwise known as the “Pink Palace”, outside of Detroit, Professor Smitka introduced us to the town of Dearborn, a complete paradox to my initial expectations of the city. Nestled just outside of Detroit, Dearborn, Michigan cannot simply be defined as an area still geographically segregated between black and white like I imagined all of Detroit to be. Instead, the tenth largest city in Michigan has become a cultural hotspot, as it is the home of the world’s second densest Arabic community outside of the Middle East. As we drove through the city’s main road, my initial expectations of the area were trumped to the extent that I questioned, “Why in the world is there Islamic calligraphy throughout what’s suppose to be ‘Detroit’?” Honestly, it felt as if I had suddenly woken up somewhere in Jordan or Saudi Arabia as Muslim women walked around in hijabs and burqas covering their faces and men resembled much of the perceptions I had seen through the news. However, the Muslim community of Dearborn is nowhere near that of the Middle East, which I soon realized once we entered our destination, Al-Ameer, a Lebanese restaurant. The hospitality and friendliness of the other diners and restaurant workers helped me overcome my fears of the Muslim world, especially since
I read that the area has been falsely accused of being named “Dearbornistan” and “Little Bagdad”. Moreover, the food of Al-Ameer was fantastic as it reflected the Lebanese cuisine of different meats like sausage and chicken. Afterwards, Professor Smitka took us to an even better place, which was an Arabic bakery that had a plethora of Arabic desserts such as baklava. A complete contrast to our American food and desserts, baklava and Al-Ameer introduced the whole class to a side of Detroit that we had not anticipated. Therefore, it’s a pleasure that Dearborn has become a cultural hotspot and friendly area in Detroit, especially with all the tension between the two civilizations.


Day 2-May 9: The City, Heidelberg Project, and Federal Mogul

Our first full day in Detroit consisted of a plethora of activities, such as touring the city and its surrounding areas, visiting the Heidelberg Project, and lastly meeting with Keri Westbrook, the director of the facility at Federal Mogul. To start, after a hearty breakfast from our home for the week, the Best Western, Professor Smitka decided to take us on a tour around his hometown of Detroit. As we drove north to the suburbs of Grosse Pointe, and then back down to the city via Lakeshore Drive and Jefferson Avenue, many of Detroit’s demographic and economic differences were illustrated through the windows of our vans. For instance, at one moment, we were driving past the mansions of Gross Pointe nestled across the street from beautiful Lake St. Clair to then being surrounded minutes later by dilapidated, burn down houses and empty lots on the same exact road.

In essence, Professor Smitka’s tour highlighted a lot of the history and struggles that the city faces today, as its population continues to flee to the suburbs leaving behind once great neighborhoods to become a collection of old and poorly kept houses for those not economically well-off. Once our tour of the city and its surrounding areas was complete, Professor Smitka decided to introduce us to the Heidelberg Project, an area solely constructed from the trash and garbage of the city. This art highlights the love-hate relationship that Detroit’s residents have begun to establish with its city and shines light on the fact that even garbage can be made into wonderful
art.For example, I thought the robots constructed out of former car parts were quite interesting and reflective of the city’s dependence on the auto industry that has brought Detroit’s residents together for the past century. Lastly, after our tour and visit to the Heidelberg Project, the time had finally come to start learning about the auto industry by meeting with Keri Westbrook at Federal Mogul. As a supplier for the auto industry, Mr. Westbrook was able to give us an awesome tour of their research facility that delves into producing and designing automobile parts such as pistons and engines. As we toured around the facility, I was a bit in awe about how much emphasis and passion those at Federal Mogul have for their products. Whether it was testing the efficiency of engines or discovering minute deficiencies with their products, all of the workers had a tremendous appreciation for their specific jobs, which displayed the importance of this facility to Federal Mogul as a whole. Moreover, I thought it was quite interesting that Mr. Westbrook believed it was totally okay if their products failed after being given to their buyer such as Ford, GM, or Chrysler.He stated that nowadays, it’s okay if their piston or something else failed because their buyers trust them and understand that Federal Mogul always has their best interest at heart. Furthermore, I thought it was particularly interesting that Mr. Westbrook emphasized the future, in that they are planning and designing products for 2023 as an effort to remain ahead of the game.

Day 3- May 10: Ford

Our first trip on Tuesday was to the Ford Rogue car assembly plant outside of Detroit in the infamous town of Dearborn. Now, before I begin to discuss the events that transpired later that day, I was able to do some extra research to discover an interesting connection between the Rogue plant and the highly populated Muslim community of Dearborn. For one, by the end of the 19th century, many Arabs began immigrating to the United States on their own accord to find a better life for themselves. Whether coming from Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, or anywhere else in the Middle East, many immigrants decided to take advantage of the job opportunities in Detroit’s booming auto business as Henry Ford, a man awfully anti-Semitic, welcomed them with open arms into his first car assembly plant, the Rogue facility. Additionally, there is a legend in the local Yemini community that Henry Ford actually went out of his way to meet a Yemeni sailor at port, and later told him about his auto factory jobs paying 5 dollars per day, which sparked a chain migration through the word of mouth from Yemen other parts of the Middle East. Therefore, once he opened the plant in Dearborn, many Arab Americans followed suit, which still has its effect today as Dearborn has become a town populated by 55% Arabs. With this in mind, it’s particularly amusing to discover the impact that the Rogue plant not only had on the modernization of the assembly line but also on the people and communities within Detroit.

However, the most impactful idea that the Rogue plant embodied (and still does today) was its assembly line, where most of these Arabs found themselves employed. In essence, what Henry Ford did, which was illustrated in a historical video of the facility, of course leaving out his anti-Semitic views, was created his plant to be so vertically integrated that he became his own supplier (built part supply building on the facilities land) and a levy system to transport his cars down the nearby Rogue River. In essence, Rogue plant turned raw materials into vehicles all in an area of about two miles. Nowadays, the facility still holds onto most of its vertical integration, but has begun to rely on supply companies for parts and does not use the river for transport. Moreover, the Rogue plant has become the facility for making the Ford F-150 as it had previously been in charge of assembling the Ford Mustang until the mid 2000s. For me, the sheer size of the Rogue plant, 1.5 by 1 mile, was not recognized until we went up onto the “roof” of one of the buildings. Here, all the tourists could peer out to see all the integration that the plant encompassed in its hey-day, with some of its supply facilities being sold off to other companies later in the 20th century. The Rogue plant was simply massive, but also modernizing itself to fit today’s society’s environmental standards. When we were on the “roof” tour, the guide pointed us towards the truck assembly plant’s roof, where it was covered with the plant, sedum, which has been used to retain rainwater and reuse it for the assembly process. Moreover, we were also able to tour the assembly of the F-150s, which was really cool to see in person as each worker carried out his or her own specific part: whether it was checking the hood, implementing the door handles, or unwrapping the material covering the seat. However, the work did seem extremely mundane and low-skilled, so I tended to question the work hours and whether or not the employees enjoy their specific task each and every day. Also, something that I found particularly interesting with this new Ford F-150 model is that its built out of aluminum rather than steel, as Ford has tried to become even more environmental friendly by focusing on higher fuel economy.

Later that afternoon, we left the Rogue plant and went to the nearby Henry Ford Museum. Here, we toured an area that was full of cars from some of the original models to Mustangs to one of the first pickup trucks. However, what I found the most interesting at the Museum was an area that look at much of the materials of the 20th century, starting in 1900 and going all the way until nowadays. For instance, the 1980s area was full with MTV videos and music that ranged from Prince to Aerosmith. Likewise, in the 1990s section, a lot of my favorite technological gadgets growing up such as the Gameboy, Play-Station, and Sports Illustrated for Kids were highlighted in the exhibit. In essence, the Museum was not solely about Henry Ford, but instead, displayed cars, trucks, trains, and even the Oscar Meyer car plus technological advancements and many of the first industrial engines and such. In all, I think what this Museum highlighted was the change that took place throughout America in the 20th century, and the impact that the automobile had on it.

After visiting the Henry Ford Museum, we continued our automobile tour and visited Ford Headquarters to meet with Hau Thai-Thang, the Vice President of Global Purchasing at Ford. As someone who had worked in Brazil and China for the company, Mr. Thai-Thang was incredibly knowledgeable when it came to Ford and its global market, especially since he job initialed buying certain supply parts and allocating all the money that Ford spends each year on goods such as office supplies, computers, and machinery/equipment. For the most part, Mr. Thai-Thang gave a brief 20 minute presentation on the company itself from history to their business process (comparing it to Apple’s vision of a business plan) and after this, took about 40 minutes out of his day for Q&A, which I found to be the most productive and informative engagement on the industry while in Detroit. For instance,Mr. Thai-Thang answered a plethora of questions regarding purchasing strategy, Ford’s global market, and their plans to start business in developing countries. In all, the conversation with Mr. Thai-Thang really opened me up to the actual business strategy and process behind Ford as he was extremely engaging and informative when answering our questions. After meeting Mr. Thai-Thang, I can see why Ford, a century old company, has continued to be on the forefront of innovation.


Day 4- May 11: The FED and UMTRI

To start off our Wednesday, we decided to visit the Detroit Branch of the Chicago Federal Reserve. As we approached the building, I couldn’t help but notice the drastic difference between the building and its surrounding community. For one, the modernized Fed building was architecturally aesthetic staying intact with its tall gates and extreme security system. For instance, once we were able to get through the initial gate, which took awhile, we were forced to then go through a security system similar to one at an airport. On the other hand, the surrounding community around this gated Fed building resembled the prototypical 21st century Detroit with dilapidated buildings and not kept warehouses. In essence, the Fed building seemed extremely out of place in the neighbor it was nestled in.

To continue, after going through the strict security area, we visited where the Detroit Fed Branch produces its billions of dollars to later be stored in their vaults. Again, I couldn’t help but notice the strict security that the workers in this area were under as each had to wear all blue clothing and be carefully monitored by cameras. Moreover, I found it interesting how hands on these workers were with billions of dollars, which must be incredibly stressful due to the tempting desire to steal some cash for themselves. Furthermore, our tour guide explained that all of the money that these workers were producing was to be stored in the Fed’s vaults until surrounding banks needed the money.

After touring the money-making area, we met with two Federal Reserve economists with the first being Paul Traub. In his presentation, Traub reviewed the current economic state from interest rates and employment/unemployment to consumption. One particular topic that I found interesting from Traub’s presentation was about the Great Recession’s impact on consumers’ purchases of durable goods. To explain, when the Recession hit in 2008, Traub explained that consumption of durable goods (cars for instance) slowed down because consumers would rather buy durable goods once they have the means to do so. Therefore, once the Recession ended, consumption not only went up to its normal amount but exceeded it, which is something that rarely happens after recessions. After Traub, the next economists spoke to us on the reasons why Detroit has become the city it is today: one that recently filed for bankruptcy. This presentation I found particularly interesting because the only other city to file for bankruptcy during the Recession was Birmingham, Alabama, where I’m from. Because of this, his presentation was fairly relatable as I could compare how my city of Birmingham has moved past the recession and Detroit has not. Interestingly, he brought up a cool stat about Detroit in that Manhattan, San Francisco, and Boston could all fit inside the city limits. However, unlike Birmingham, which has areas once underdeveloped developing due to the proximity to hospitals, Detroit has become desolate in some areas, which we were able to see on Monday’s car tour. He also pointed out that the hospitals and University of Michigan has made Ann Arbor become a more desired area to live. Also, he illustrated how the auto industry started Detroit but has also become the city’s biggest nemesis due to the people’s dependency on it.

Later that day, we went to Ann Arbor to visit UMTRI, a car research facility run through the university that researches car parts for companies and tests cars as well. One of the best parts about this trip was visiting the research track, where UMTRI has been doing tests on the self-automated automobile. The track was designed almost to resemble a town with street lights, fake houses, and such which I thought to be incredibly unique. Furthermore, one of the researchers spoke on how they have found that the most wrecks of self-automated automobiles have been because regular automobiles accidentally rear-ended them at stoplights. Moreover, he discussed the importance of headlights and how their research has discovered the best type of headlight is one that can move at certain angles whenever a car moves one way or another.

Day 5: May 12- From an “Junkyard” to Art Show

Our final full day in Detroit consisted of a variety of visits as we first went to an automobile recycling plant and then later to the Detroit Institute of Art and the Heidelberg Project once again. At the recycling plant, we were able to experience where cars “go to die” in a sense, as Fox Auto Parts’ business process consisted of purchasing totaled cars off an auction and then selling their parts to automobile shops and dealerships. If Fox didn’t acquire their parts from auctions than they would purchase wrecked vehicles from their next-door neighbor, Insurance Auto Auctions, where they would then place the vehicles in their “junkyard” to later be taken apart and disassemble to be sold in the full-service area. Our tour guide stated that transmissions and engines were their best selling parts, but they also sold a variety of other car parts. Something that I found particularly interesting was that after the cars have been in the lot for a certain number of months, as I recall I think its between 5-7 months, they are then sent to the “crusher”. The “crusher” does exactly what it seems like its suppose to do and that’s crush the vehicles so that it maybe be scrapped, recycled, and sold. Moreover, I thought it was extremely cool how Barrett’s family auto parts store in Texas has so much attention nationally, as Fox was extremely familiar with the Texas company and had even worked with them in the past.

After Fox Auto Parts, we went back into downtown Detroit to visit the Detroit Institute of Art. While we were here, I immediately noticed a fresco surrounding the whole atrium of the Museum, which resembled the Rogue plant during the 1930s. Immediately, I questioned one of the employees of the Institution who was explaining the painting to a group of individuals nearby, and she then explained to me that this was indeed a fresco of the Rogue plant in the 30s made by Diego Rivera. From my Art History class in high school, I recalled that Rivera was a Mexican, communist leaning artist, so I’m sure when he made the painting, there was a lot of patriotic backlash from Americans regarding choosing him to make the painting. Furthermore, I really enjoyed the Expressionist art in one of the areas of the Museum because it’s brushstrokes and collage-type feel always makes me think that I could possible make something to that degree whenever I feel like evoking my moods or thoughts. Furthermore, we were able to look at artwork from a local artist, Tyrone Guyton, who was the mastermind behind the Heidelberg Project which we had visited earlier that week. Because of this, Professor Smitka decided that we could possibly meet Tyrone back at his masterpiece, so after the stop at the Art Institution, we made our way over to the Heidelberg Project. Fortunately, we were able to meet with Mr. Guyton, who really abstractly picked our brains about reality. For the most part, he philosophized on material that was similar to “The Way” of political philosopher, Lao Tzu, and later questioned one of my peers like Socrates did in his very own trial. I thought this was particularly engaging as he questioned, “What is beautiful? How is something beautiful?” and so on in order to get across his point that words are all artificial and that anything can be ugly or good. It’s all a matter of perception and looking outside the box. Honestly, this was my main takeaway from visiting such an abstract piece of artwork that some of my peers deemed beautiful while others rudely claimed it to be “a bunch of garbage”. Anyway, I was very appreciative of the time that Mr. Guyton gave us and also his ability to make us think more abstractly about everyday things and time itself.

Day 6- May 13: A Pit Stop at Transportation Research Center

Leaving Detroit early in the morning, we caravanned back down south, except our destination was not yet Washington and Lee. Instead, Professor Smitka set up a visit to the Transportation Research Center in East Liberty, Ohio, which is about 45 minutes north of Columbus. Pretty much nestled in the middle of nowhere, the Transportation Research Center, funded by The Ohio State University, primarily test Honda automobiles, which is right next door, but also other car companies too, to understand the statistics behind certain cars’ abilities to combat corroding, controlling, steering, brakes, and plethora of other possibly damaging factors within a car. Specifically, I really enjoyed the test track run that we were taken on, which was pretty exhilarating. The 7.5 mile track consisted of some pretty inclined embankments and turns, which made me feel like I was in a Nascar race, although we were in a minivan. Moreover, we went to an area where the researchers test the drag of vehicles, and I found it astounding that the area where they do this is equivalent to 14 football fields. Honestly, if I wasn’t so worn out from all the activities that we had done previously this week, I would have had an absolute blast. Either way, this trip to the Transportation Research Center was definitely one of the highlights of the trip and I’m glad we made the pitstop.