Navigating tables laden with lentil burgers and smoked wild salmon B.L.T.’s, Sharon Robinson escorted a guest toward paintings hanging on the high walls of the Cass Cafe, a venerable gathering place near Wayne State University popular with students, poets and visual artists. The cafe is about three miles from Cobo Center, the site of the North American International Auto Show, where press previews officially begin on Monday.
“It’s one of the bonuses of coming here, all this great stuff,” Ms. Robinson, 32, a Detroit poet and habitue of the cafe, said of the dozens of paintings by local and nationally known artists for sale on the walls. “They’ve been rotating them for years, but it seems like what’s been going on the last year or two, all the artsy folks around, more people have been paying them attention.”
Detroit will always be entwined with its automotive heritage, and after a few years in the abyss, the primary industry of the Motor City is looking up. Sales last year were at their highest levels since 2008, and analysts project an even more robust 2012.
The renewed fortunes of the big three automakers is a welcome story here, but a funny thing happened on the way through the recession. The region, which had long suffered the vagaries of a cyclical industry, was forced to rethink its identity and, yes, its dependence on an industry that, despite the improved near-term outlook, is hardly out of the weeds.
Skepticism toward an enduring automotive rebound has fomented a kind of can-do, post-industrial attitude here that embraces Detroit’s lineage and also separates from it. Young people, many from the suburbs, see opportunity in Detroit’s transition and are moving into affordable loft spaces, opening small businesses and generally contributing to a vision, not altogether cohesive, of a city that isn’t so dependent on one income stream.
“A lot of people feel like the auto industry is something that we don’t think about anymore,” said Amy Kaherl, facilitator for Detroit Soup, a two-year-old organization run by volunteers that uses entrance fees from monthly dinners to finance creative projects in and around Detroit. “People in this community are looking for something else, not for the next industry that’s going to save the city, but working toward a lot of sustainable things that can build this community up.”
“We saw a need to encourage people to try things that they’ve always wanted to try, on a smaller scale,” Ms. Kaherl said in a telephone interview.
There are also new-business incubators like Paper Street, based in suburban Ferndale, which leases office space in a building and offers classes ranging from photography to business. “We get more creative types rather than those from traditional automotive businesses,” Andy Didorosi, the company’s founder, said in an interview. “But whoever has a viable idea can get space with us. The idea is to get here, then go on to big things.”
Jacques Driscoll and his wife, Christine, spent years in San Diego before arriving here two years ago. They are opening a restaurant called Green Dot Stables, after the original owners’ equestrian involvement, near the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit. “We came here for a wedding and started talking about all the potential here, all the affordability and the growing cultural community, then how we wanted to live here,” Mr. Driscoll, 30, said.
Gerald Dixon has been at the vanguard of the city’s growing creative class. For nearly a decade, in black-lighted basement gigs in the city’s historic Boston-Edison district, which once sheltered many of Detroit’s auto barons, including Henry Ford, his events have included spoken-word marathons, photo exhibits and a steady stream of concerts.
“We all know that it used to be you could go to the factory if you couldn’t find anything else,” said Mr. Dixon, who is in his late 40s. “Now, all that’s changed. Not only can we not get those jobs, a lot of us can’t get any job. So people come here and to places all over the city as outlets for whatever they’re feeling. Positive outlets. And some of us have been able to make a living at it.”
Two years ago, James Feagin IV lost his job as an economic and community development coordinator for a nonprofit. A chance encounter with an artist resulted in Mr. Feagin leading the marketing and strategic management efforts of BeloZro Visual Energy, a painting and graphic design collective, out of Mr. Feagin’s downtown loft.
“My peers and I see opportunity in everything. We know that there aren’t so many traditional jobs left, so we’ve got to figure out new ways to make money,” Mr. Feagin, 30, said. “When I got laid off, if there was anything less practical than going to work in the auto industry, it was trying to sell original art. But we’re doing it, in new ways.”
Emily Linn, 34, said that the city’s growing sense of community would triumph over any future automotive downturn. She is a co-owner of City Bird, a popular boutique near Wayne State. “The community and other business owners, we support each other more than ever,” she said.
Yet for all these green shoots of urban bohemia, Detroit is still more lunch bucket than Freitag tote. The Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, a nonprofit group that works to attract new businesses to the city, initiated a diversification effort aimed at automotive suppliers and nonauto industries like aerospace.
“We have made the decision to look at clusters that are poised for growth and expansion,” Malinda Jensen, the group’s director of business development, said in a telephone interview. “We know the auto cluster has changed, but it’s not forgotten. That’s part of our roots and that’s not going anywhere.”
Recognizing Detroit’s need to diversify while supporting the auto industry, the Detroit Regional Chamber last week announced the Michigan Automotive Program, which is intended to involve automotive industry representatives in its economic development activities, said Sandy Baruah, the chamber’s president and chief executive. “We also want to make sure that we develop that talent to run factories of today and tomorrow,” he said.
And with companies like LG Chem and A123 Systems coming to the area to produce lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles, the auto industry has acted as a springboard to lure advanced technology firms to the state.
Mr. Feagin, the manager at BeloZro Visual Energy, says an unwitting convergence of old and new is occurring in the city, and within the confines of Cobo Center. “When you look at it, the auto show is one big art show, and every new car an art project, but on a world stage,” he said.
“And that legacy is cool, isn’t it? We can build upon that.”
By Mary M. Chapman, NY Times