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Who’s Your Tiger?

MitchI didn't always get the Detroit auto show -- even though I live here. I thought it was sad. In the dead of winter, freezing cold, our "social event of the season" was to dress up and walk around a bunch of polished cars?

I was forced into participation year after year, hosting radio programs on the show floor. I interviewed engineers, marketing reps, spokesmodels, wondering the whole time what the fuss was all about, why my bosses thought this was important. It was a bunch of cars. Next week it could be boats or tractors.

I knew other cities laughed at our infatuation. I knew auto shows in other cities were small-print items, also-rans, a bit like saying the circus was in town. It was safe to say that nowhere in America was the auto show so revered, cherished or essential to the survival of the building that housed it than it was here.

It made me feel sorry for Detroit.

But not anymore.

Still fighting the good fight

In the last 18 months, the auto industry has become something bigger than just the buying and selling of cars. It has become an ideological ground zero, a tug of war with many hands on the rope, labor, manufacturing, nationalism, elitism, environmentalism, jobs, the survival of a shrinking but vital American city.

And the North American Auto Show, which opened to the public this weekend, became something bigger, too. A red letter date. A rallying cry. It is still here.

And so are we.

Remember, not too long ago, the talk was the show would be moved, shrunk, diminished. Numerous brands were dropping out. Cobo Center could not sustain it. The show carried the doom and gloom predictions that mirrored the soothsaying of Detroit's harshest critics. Death was imminent. No point in fighting it. Give up.

Well, the patient is scarred, bruised and hardly out of the woods, but the patient is upright. Walking. Walking down the aisles of an increased -- not decreased -- number of car brands. Walking past displays of three -- not two, one or zero -- major American manufacturers, still in business. Walking past models of electric, battery-operated cars that are no longer pipe dreams of mad scientists but set for mass production later this year, representing a business that is in its infancy, that could grow rapidly and perhaps wildly.

Re-read those words. Infancy. Grow. When was the last time anyone used such verbiage with the auto business?

They're using it now. And this city and this state are better positioned than any place in the world to undertake an industry shift. We have the people, the plants, the mentality and the eagerness.

And we're still here.

A time to celebrate

That's really what the black ties are about at the charity preview. That's really why we have a week for the media. That's really why we drive down en masse on the first day, why we point and nod heads and compare notes on displays, why we say, "Did you get to the show yet?" and know what exactly what show we're talking about.

This is a bellwether of our existence. It's about an industry that still makes things (take note, bankers) and can put still those things in front of an ooh-ing and ahh-ing public. It's about our having jobs, being able to live here, stay here, raise our kids here as we were raised here.

Most of the nation didn't understand this when we were desperate for survival a year ago. And maybe most they don't understand it now. But it's a little like parents having to appreciate themselves when their kids do not, because we know, in our own quiet way, that it's not the same America without this America, the kind that makes and sweats and sacrifices and doesn't have to quadruple its money in credit default swaps and doesn't measure itself on Hollywood fame, New York high society or Miami chic.

Yeah, it's an auto show. A bunch of cars in an exhibition hall. But they're our cars in our hall in our city and we're still here, with better prospects than we had a year ago. Being alive. Honestly, what's more worth a fuss than that?

(C) 2010 BY THE DETROIT FREE PRESS DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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