Auto show renaissance is resolution of Detroit's third act

Why senior auto comms execs in Detroit helped persuade the North American International Auto Show to say goodbye to freezing January temperatures and move the iconic event to sunny June.

Ford is transfroming Detroit's historic Michigan Central Station (Pic: Getty Images).
Ford is transfroming Detroit's historic Michigan Central Station (Pic: Getty Images).

ACT I: INT. GOLD CASH GOLD, DETROIT - NIGHT

The conversation started over dinner at Gold Cash Gold, a former pawnshop-turned-restaurant in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.

I drove in from Ford headquarters in Dearborn and Tony Cervone came from General Motors. Some things can bring even competitors together. Though I run communications at Ford and Tony does the same at GM, we both care deeply about the future of Detroit.

We took a table near the window, where we could see the ruined shell of the once-bustling Michigan Central Station.

At one time, the station was the envy of the world. When it was first constructed in 1914, it was the tallest train station ever built. During World War I, more than 200 trains stopped there every day.

Then, things took a turn for the worse. The city fell apart and, bit by bit, Michigan Central Station started to shut down. Since 1988, the station has sat abandoned and neglected. It was a symbol for everything that had gone wrong in Detroit.

At Gold Cash Gold, we started talking about the Detroit Auto Show. For decades, it’s been held in the middle of winter, usually in January. Thousands of people from all over the world attend every year and, when they arrive, they’re presented with a vision of Detroit that’s frozen in place. Blistering cold, icy wind, and blasts of snow: To our auto show visitors, the city would seem to be living in a sort of perpetual winter of discontent.

For years, this picture fit the broader narrative on Detroit. In 2013, the city filed for bankruptcy. Everybody, it seemed, had written Detroit off.

Over dinner, Tony and I talked about a proposal that the Detroit auto show organizers had recently floated: What would it look like to move the show to the fall? It was a fascinating idea and we wondered what kind of message it would send. How would it shape the narrative of Motown and its lifeblood auto industry?

We talked about what it would feel like to host the event in the autumn. And was that consistent with what we felt about where Detroit was at? It seemed like it would be more fitting in summer, when the city is alive and thriving. Maybe it would help people realize this movie wasn’t over, that Detroit wasn’t a punchline to a joke anymore.

ACT II: EXT. MOTOR CITY, DETROIT - DAY

It’s what everyone learns in school: All those old Greek plays rely on a three-act structure. At the beginning, you introduce the characters and set up the challenges they face.

Detroit’s first act was pretty impressive. The city was founded in 1701 and, even early on, it was a resilient place. After a fire destroyed all of the settlements in the early 1800s, Detroit bounced back - and by the mid-19th century, had become a thriving manufacturing center.

This is why, in 1903, Henry Ford founded the Ford Motor Company here, helping to turn the city into the automotive capital of the world.

By the middle of the 20th century, Detroit had become the arsenal of democracy, an industrial marvel that helped the U.S. win the war. Detroit seemed poised to be the engine of our country’s future.

But then the second act started. Detroit ran into trouble. There were the riots in 1943 and 1967, the outcome of deep racial divides. The gasoline crisis in the ‘70s. The city’s rapid rise in unemployment, which paralleled its rise in crime.

By the time we hit the recession in 2008, we had reached our "all-is-lost" moment, the time when it felt like everything that could possibly go wrong had, in fact, gone wrong. Maybe Detroit was simply a rise and fall story.

Coming from Ford, I knew that wasn’t the case. We never stopped believing in this city and the determination of its people. Yes, we were beat up. Yes, things looked bad. But there was also a stubborn belief that Detroit had a third act.

ACT III: EXT. CORKTOWN - NIGHT

When F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, "there are no second acts in American lives," he wasn’t implying we never recover from defeat. He was talking about this three-act structure. He was telling us that Americans seem to want to go straight from the excitement of the first act to the triumph of the third act, where the hero prevails. Nobody wants to live the tough parts in between.

Of course, that’s not how life or stories work. The tough times are terrible but they also prove our mettle. The second act shows the world how strong we actually are. It sets us up for the finale.

As Tony and I finished dinner, the late summer sunlight cast a reddish hue on the train station across the street. Soon after, Ford announced plans to buy the station and begin the process of turning it into a new campus devoted to mobility in the 21st century. Thousands of Ford employees will work there, turning what was once a symbol of ruin into a beacon of progress and innovation.

This development is a piece of a greater awakening in Detroit. The city has come back from bankruptcy and the population is on the rise again. A new light rail runs through the city center and is helping drive a revitalization.

GM and other companies have invested heavily in the city. There are new businesses popping up, and, of course, there are the businesses that slugged it out and survived all along. Detroit is starting to look like the comeback kid.

Having worked downtown for a decade as a journalist at The Detroit News, I witnessed the city at its most desolate. But now a true renaissance seemed to be finally within reach.

Tony and I finished the dinner and walked out into the warm Detroit night. A lot of the Corktown area is still boarded up but it won’t be for much longer. Our teams began working with the show organizers to support an exciting reboot of the auto show, and it’s now official that it will move to June starting in 2020. It will be a signal for thousands of visitors that it is summer in Detroit, both literally and figuratively. 

It feels like the beginning to a great third act.

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