I hate Detroit.
First a disclaimer, I'm not a disinterested observer. I make absolutely no pretense at impartiality. Ive spent many a day and night in the depths of winter in this god-forsaken city. In all cases against my will and better judgment.
Why would I spend my time here? The same reason as so many others. The auto show.
Sometime back in the 1980s, so the story goes, Bob Eaton--then in charge of Chrysler--decided that since Detroit was the home of the Big Three that it should be a show that was on par with international shows worldwide: Frankfurt, Paris, Geneva and the rest. So he commissioned his exhibit makers to build a display on a grand scale...and.... the nuclear arms race had begun. The race wasn't just the displays and technology, it was the press events as well. Jeep once drove a vehicle through the windows of Cobo. Mercedes recently had a skating rink. The list is endless.
Up until the last few years the race continued unabated. It had gotten to the point where no one really knew why any more. Like an economic bubble that takes on a life of its own beyond any rationality, the Detroit show had become a colossus. Most of us had realized long before that the emperor had no clothes. That the truckloads of money being spent by the manufacturers had way outstripped the true value of the public relations boost it provided, but, still it went on year after year and the biggest irony of all, it was all happening in Detroit.
A lot of ink and electrons have been devoted to the plight of this city, so no need to go into it here, but staying in downtown Detroit and visiting the show provides a first-hand look. The Renaissance Center: A cluster of shining glass towers along the river reaching high above the blight meant to convey optimism and the rebirth of a declining downtown that was the brainchild of Henry Ford II, and is now in the hands of GM which would desperately like to walk away but can't due to political pressures. (Note to GM management: location, location, location.) A walk through this building is an eerie experience...there is hardly anyone there. An empty edifice like the skyscrapers currently being built in Shanghai with no real hope of full occupancy. The empty and boarded-up buildings - many of them architecturally beautiful examples of a prosperous time. The dearth of decent hotels in any kind of reasonable proximity to Cobo Hall, and the outrageous rates they charge...just because it's the only time every twelve months they have a captive audience
I hate Detroit.
Don't get me wrong.I don't hate the people of Detroit. A significant portion of them are innocent victims of the greed, corruption and mismanagement that has driven this once-proud place to its knees and left it a mere shadow of its former self. In the last twelve months we've all read the postmortems on the car companies, and how the long grim slide went on for decades while the dangerously in-bred senior management tinkered at the edges and convinced themselves they were making big changes. Meanwhile, apparently, the city was abandoned and left to slowly slide into something resembling a third-world nation.
On the other hand some of those people aren't so innocent at all.
I refer of course to the unions. The backbone of the nation. The protectors of workers' rights. The champions of the downtrodden. The bulwark against the greedy corporate oppressors. Well, that's if you believe their PR machine. You'd think I was talking about the UAW here, but I'm not. I'm talking about the carpenters, decorators, teamsters, and electricians that inhabit the aging Cobo Hall. The unions in Cobo have been forcing astronomically priced labor on automakers--with some decidedly sketchy "professionals" in tow--for years. All forms of bribery, graft, and psychological abuse must be endured to have a functioning display by the time the first press day rolls around. It's communism at its finest: Darwinism and capitalism turned on its head. The unions exert their iron will upon the hapless inhabitants who comply or suffer a proverbial death sentence.
So I hate it here.
Walking around a year ago, the smell of death was palpable. Missing exhibitors, scaled-down displays, and the false optimism of the press events...each telling the captive audience of journalists - who couldn't wait to get the hell out of town--how they had a plan. In the year since, the show has had numerous near-death experiences: The possibility that the Germans who move as a block would not return (they opted for one more year). The refusal of the Detroit city government to support the renovation of the facility (the building was finally brought under the control of a five-member board with the city retaining control and renovation has begun). Meanwhile the show cranked up the PR machine sending out weekly breathless e-mails proclaiming the wonder of it all..."don't miss it!"
Like a terminal patient who puts on makeup and props herself up in bed to reassure her family when they visit, Detroit has focused on making the hall prettier, and avoided the horrible truth: No one likes it here. Of the Big Three that made the Detroit show into an international event, two are on life support and one is weak but stable. The city itself is still a miserable place, and the working conditions inside the hall remain largely unchanged.
My prognosis: terminal. But that could just be wishful thinking on my part. The mood this year was not quite so bleak, and the inside buzz is that we'll be back here again next year.
Dear God, I hope not. But I'm not at all impartial. Like I said: I hate Detroit.
Jonathan Gilchrist is the pen name of a long-time participant on the auto-show circuit. This author has worked at literally hundreds of trade shows, from the exotic to the mundane. From coping with unreasonable executive demands to negotiation with unionized workers to get a contract fulfilled, this author has seen it all. This article was written in the hopes that a glimpse of what really goes on behind the scenes might possibly lead to positive change.