The North American International Auto Show is like an aquarium full of tropical fish. It has that same endlessly fascinating, scintillating play of motion and color. You can drift about Cobo’s hall of wheeled wonders for hours, even if you know nothing about the business, partly because it's incredible that people are capable of dreaming up such marvels -- much less get their keiretsu in order to actually build them (although Ford CEO Alan Mulally did point out, in his entertaining Will Rogers-style keynote at the Automotive News Global Congress, that if you think a car is complicated, try a Boeing 777).
So it's an odd feeling to exit the fish tank and enter Detroit. I hate using rock lyrics as a reference, but "exit light, enter night" comes to mind. It doesn't matter how certain automakers spin Motown for branding purposes (and while the industry is completely global now, I do realize there’s a sizable auto manufacturing pulse in southeastern Michigan), it's kind of depressing out there. Parts of smack-downtown Detroit make East New York look like the Hamptons. And there is just the slightest touch of "The Masque of the Red Death" to the auto show and its orbiting panoply of cocktail parties, dinners, and shows, where auto brands party it up with press corps from Germany, Korea, Japan, the U.S., and maybe 10 from Wayne County and Windsor. You imbibe themed drinks and forget there’s an “out there.” (It helps that it all happens at night.)
One of the evening press events for a couple of luxury bands had lines of Mercedes M's waiting outside the hotel to whisk attendees to the next party. But since my hotel was in Canada (I'll never do that again), I had to stroll over to the Rosa Parks bus station a block away to grab the tunnel shuttle. I felt like I had to watch my back, too, and since I had no idea where the bus was supposed to stop, I shamelessly ran up to a pair of Detroit's Finest (with some relief) to get some advice about where the hell I should wait. One pointed to the east end of the station. "But you don't want to wait out here," he said. "You'll want to wait right inside and keep a lookout right up till the bus comes. Then head out to the bus. There's a security guard in there." Did I need an armed escort, too?
How about the airport? It is incredible. LaGuardia and JFK? Fuggedaboudit. DTW puts them to shame. There's this one part where you walk through this incredible tunnel with lights playing along the walls to meditative sound design. The place is amazing, and kind of empty. It's like Brasilia. If you're looking for mass transit in Detroit, go to the airport: each of the mile-long terminals has its own monorail, and more restaurants than the frigging Champs-Elysees. You can imagine the gerrymandered conversations that got it built. Babbit comes to mind: "We NEED an airport that competes with Charles De Gaulle! This is Detroit! The Paris of the Midwest! It will create jobs, by jingo, and Think of what a Booster it'll be!" But you can't avoid that juxtaposition thing: it's hard to see what's beyond the walls flanking I-94 to DTW, but if you crane your neck a bit you'll see it: mile after mile of neighborhoods where every other house is burned, gutted, rotting, broken, or boarded up. One Detroit -- of dreams and illusions -- glides above the other … with sound suppression and great audio.