But this wasn’t a conventional car convention, if you will. There were mommy bloggers, fashion and lifestyle writers, eco-geeks, designers, tech gurus. Oh yes, and a handful of auto writers like me.
Car companies like Ford are getting smart. They know that most people only read car media when they’re buying a car. So Ford is reaching out to a wider audience by wooing alternative media. Is it working? We don’t know.
What we do know, is that car companies are delving into cultural, social, environmental and technological trends to divine their future. And somehow, that translated into dispatching us conventioneers out into the heart of Detroit, in a convoy of 2014 Ford Escape SUVs.
This was brave. Let’s remember Detroit topped the Forbes list of America’s most dangerous cities in 2012. It’s a city on the brink of bankruptcy, that has fallen from espousing the American dream to housing 80,000 abandoned buildings. From 2000 to 2010, the population fell by 25 percent, as its citizens fled for more lucrative and genteel urban prospects.
But there are those citizens who have stayed, and have pride in their town. Because there is still beauty, dignity and vision to be had. Like the Detroit Institute of the Arts, with its stunning Diego Rivera murals of the Ford Rouge factory. It celebrates the town’s legendary industry, with sponsor Edsel Ford painted in front of a sombre assembly line.
And then there is the Heidelberg Project, which may well be the strongest metaphor for this metropolis struggling to get back on its feet. It is an outdoor art installation in one of Detroit’s most dismal neighbourhoods, that had deteriorated into godforsaken patches of weeds and burned-out shells of houses. Local artist Tyree Guyton came home from the army in 1986 and was shocked to see how his childhood home had hit the skids.
With the help of his grandfather “Grandpa Sam,” and a squad of volunteers, Guyton led a creative protest against the encroaching decay, using art as his weapon. Provocative polka dots are painted everywhere, to symbolize society’s diversity. One house has records peppering the walls (this *is* Motown). Another is adorned with slumping stuffed animals, which also fill a boat that’s beached on a lawn. Dead trees are cheekily trimmed with found objects, from mannequin heads to shopping carts. Bright, sassy colour is splashed on everywhere.
All this, in a neighbourhood where police, firefighters and lawnmowers didn’t dare to venture for years. Guyton’s mother lives in one of the homes, and had we stayed longer, we might have been treated to iced tea.
The scenic voyage went on, taking us along a road where the asphalt had worn off, and the Escape’s tires drove on bare bricks. The city is literally too poor to afford to re-pave the streets. Our directions led us to the magnificent Michigan Central Railroad Station, designed by Warren and Wetmore, architects of New York’s Grand Central Station. It’s protected from arsonists and squatters by barbed wire, and volunteers have begun restoring the top two storeys.
Finally, we returned to Ford headquarters in the well groomed suburb of Dearborn, with its small yet sparkling homesteads. This is a town that supports its industry – offshore vehicles were spread as thin as the asphalt on the Detroit roads. Well over 90 percent of the vehicles we saw sported badges that were as homegrown as Mrs. Guyton’s iced tea.
Case in point – one of the Ford employees told us that just after the convoy left Heidelberg, Tyree Guyton himself had pulled up to do some work. What was he driving?
A Ford F-150 pick up truck.