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How To Drive In Detroit Without Being A Jackass (And The Time I Almost Killed Dodge)

Illustration for article titled How To Drive In Detroit Without Being A Jackass (And The Time I Almost Killed Dodge)

Kids in Detroit are taught to hustle as early as elementary school. There is a company in metro Detroit called Morley Candy Company. The candy company offers schools across the state, but especially in Detroit, opportunities for fundraisers by selling chocolate bars, truffles, summer sausage, and other seasonal edibles.


When a school participates in the program, each child is handed a catalogue, an order form, and a due date to by which to sell as much of the shit as possible, because Detroit Public Schools always needs money for something.

(Editor’s note: the following is an excerpt from the upcoming book How To Live In Detroit Without Being A Jackass, the debut book of journalist, author and former Jalopnik scribe Aaron Foley, published by BELT. You should pick up a copy, it’s getting a ton of acclaim. -PG)


When I was growing up, winners were incentivized with gifts based on how much they sell. Sell within the lowest threshold, and you might get a fanny pack. Even higher thresholds netted gifts like cassette players or autographed sports memorabilia. The goal of the fundraisers, aside from funding a pizza party or some other special program, was to teach children salesmanship and self-confidence.

Half of the time, though, this wasn’t the case since we simply handed the form to our parents to do the dirty work for us. The other half led to awkward encounters with fellow students; one year, a girl in my class who lived in my apartment complex knocked on our door, order form and catalogue in hand. What were we going to do, buy from each other?

I went to Walter P. Chrysler Elementary School, just a few blocks from the Walter P. Chrysler Freeway. Both are named for the founder of Chrysler Corporation. And because our school was (and still is) on the east side of Detroit, a lot of parents of students worked for Chrysler—which had and still has plants on that side of town—in some capacity, particularly in the auto plants.


I remember being jealous of one girl because her father, a Chrysler employee, had a brand-new Chrysler Concorde. The Concorde was built on Chrysler’s LH platform, an innovation described by automotive industry insiders as Chrysler’s “last hope” before sliding into bankruptcy in the 1990s. My mother yearned for a Dodge Intrepid, which was the exact same car as the Concorde with a different badge and sportier trim.

At Chrysler Elementary, the top three candy sellers got special prizes from the school in addition to whatever Morley handed us. And those top three students always had parents working in the plants. Their parents simply handed their order forms down the assembly line and let the magic work itself. Despite fears of Chrysler going under—it had just swallowed the remains of American Motor Company, the last of the American automakers from Detroit’s golden age, and was relying on AMC’s Jeep brand and platforms to bring in new customers—a healthy number of Detroiters worked there, as well as at General Motors and Ford, well into the 2000s. And everyone knew someone who did.


The influence of the American auto industry is not only seen in schools and highways named after its forebears, but in the way Detroiters, for a long time, interacted on a daily basis. There are men and women whose entire wardrobes, save for church wear, are comprised of United Auto Workers paraphernalia, their union numbers adorning varsity-style jackets, sweatshirts, windbreakers, and key chains.

Whenever someone wants to buy a new car, they immediately hit up an auto-worker relative for a family discount. You could always get job at the plant when there were no other options. All three automakers threw money toward community service projects, children’s programs, church dinners—you could not go to an event without seeing someone’s logo on the program or a T-shirt.


Two misconceptions among newcomers, though, are that everyone works in the auto industry—I mean, people think no one wants anything more than to build cars—and that everyone drives American.

My parents did not work in the industry, though my mom’s side of the family was drawn here from the South to work in the plants, and my dad’s dad is a Ford retiree. But everyone does know someone connected, even tangentially, in the industry. Driving American, though, how do I explain this? Well...


Driving American

Ever heard of Vincent Chin? Vincent Chin was a 27-year-old Chinese-American man from the Detroit suburb of Oak Park celebrating his last days of bachelorhood out on the town at a strip club in Highland Park (incidentally, where Chrysler Corporation was headquartered for several years before moving into Oakland County) in 1982.


Here’s what was going on in the automotive world in 1982. The American car companies had spent years making large, gas-guzzling sedans and too-sporty muscle cars, neglecting changing consumer attitudes toward smaller vehicles and fuel efficiency. And despite the assembly lines in Detroit and other car towns back boning the middle class in America, Asian carmakers proved far more efficient at building affordable automobiles. Japanese companies, with spiffy compacts like the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, began increasing market share during this time, just as the country entered into a recession.

All this spelled trouble for the Detroit companies, and Chrysler was the first to wave the white flag. The company received more than billion dollars in government loans—we call those “bailouts” now—but still had to cut costs. That meant layoffs at plants. Ronald Ebens, a manager at a Chrysler truck plant in Warren, a Macomb County suburb just north of the Eight Mile border on the east side, was one of those laid off.


Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz, happened to cross paths with Chin at the strip club on that awful June night. They exchanged words—no one is quite clear how exactly the exchange began—and began fighting in the club. The indoor fight died down; it re-escalated outdoors.

It ended with Ebens using a baseball bat to club Chin to death outside a nearby McDonald’s while Nitz held him down. Eyewitnesses say Ebens said to Chin that “it’s because of you motherfuckers” that he and other Chrysler workers had been laid off. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what Ebens meant when he said that, even if they didn’t know Chin was Chinese and Japanese automakers were what was causing Detroit’s woes.


Ebens and Nitz initially faced murder charges, but got off relatively scot-free with manslaughter convictions, probation, and heavy fines paid to Chin’s family. They served no jail time.

Chin’s death spurred angry protests in Detroit’s Asian-American community and nationwide, but while Ebens was later convicted on a federal charge of violating Chin’s civil rights, that conviction was overturned on appeal. Eventually, the story faded from public consciousness and was led away as just another Motor City tragedy. It’s not widely taught in grade school; I learned about Chin in college by chance, covering an Asian student organization’s event for my college paper.


What didn’t stop after Chin’s death was the growing market share of Asian automakers in the States, or the anti-Asian sentiment geared toward foreign industry. When you move to Detroit, you’ll have to keep your outrage at bay if you are trailing an F-150 with a bumper sticker that reads: “My truck is made of steel, not chopsticks.”

There hasn’t been a moment in history where Americans weren’t hostile to immigrants, foreigners, whatever your term of choice may be. Detroit, despite being a city of immigrants, was no different. Nowadays, we’ve grown more politically correct in referring to Toyotas and Nissans as “imports” rather than “foreign cars.” But don’t be surprised if you run across the latter term, in a delivery dripping with contempt.


Consider, however, that pride in American workmanship far predates the Chin killing. Listen to all those old rock ‘n’ roll songs of the 1950s. Are they singing about Volkswagens? No, those songs are all about American steel and horsepower, most of which originated right here in Detroit.

We Don’t All Drive Imports!

My mother’s first car was a Ford Granada. She later drove a Ford Mustang, and then a Ford Tempo. I learned to drive on my grandmother’s Mercury Lynx, the sister car to the Ford Escort, and my first car was a Ford Focus. My grandparents on my mom’s side have owned every generation Ford Explorer and regularly lease Lincolns. Because my grandfather on my dad’s side is a Ford retiree, almost everyone on that side of my family drives a Ford.


It didn’t mean that I never knew anyone to drive an import. One of the first automotive terms I learned as a toddler was “lift-back,” the term Toyota used on the early-‘80s Celica driven by my stylish cousin. My mom’s best friend from college drove a Nissan Sentra with a bad muffler. My other cousin’s first car was a Honda Accord with flip-up headlights, a stick shift, and a modified sound system to showcase his 1990s rap. His mother, my grandfather’s sister, drove a Mazda 323. My grandfather’s other sister drove an ocean-blue Volkswagen Beetle, her beloved Bug.

I played with Hot Wheels, Matchbox, and Majorette cars growing up. My favorites were a white Mercury Sable station wagon, a maroon Saab 9000, and a Mercedes-Benz 300E. That’s one American, one Swede, and one German. There was a time when I wanted my first car to be a Hyundai Scoupe, but my grandfather promised me a Mustang when I turned 16. (I never got it.)


I wasn’t really beat over the head with “buy American,” but I was born during a time of shifting attitudes toward imports. Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, and BMW were seen as aspirational – something higher than Cadillac or Lincoln, just to let folks know you’ve made it. Pick up an old Jet magazine, and see how many black celebrities pose next to the hoods of their Mercedes convertibles.

I had a great-aunt who was head of nursing at a Detroit hospital who drove Corollas from the 1970s until she died in 1991. Her son drove a Volkswagen Golf, while her two daughters drove American: a Corvette for the older one, a Buick Century for the younger. Cars like Corollas and Golfs were seen as thrifty, budget-saving options, a welcome choice for many locals who wanted to save a dime or two.


Then there was Hyundai. Everyone knows that if you have bad credit or hardly any kind of down payment, you go find a Hyundai dealership. Or Mitsubishi. They give their cars away! (Remember, poverty rates, unequal wages, and other financial calamities have haunted many black Americans for generations. Detroiters are no different.) Then Kia came along, and it seemed like every model they had was under 10 grand. I lived next door to a preacher and his wife who had 10 children in a three-bedroom house. The oldest daughter was able to save up enough to buy a Kia Rio, which sold for around $7,000 out the door at the time.

There are myriad reasons why someone might drive an import in Detroit, but I can tell you this about everyone I’ve known to drive foreign: they’ve never had their tires slashed. They’ve never gotten into a fight with someone that works at one of the plants. They’ve never been refused service by a mechanic. Never had anything spray-painted on the hood of their car. Never had their windows busted out, their brakes cut, their car explode when they turn on the ignition.


You may get a snide remark or two if someone sees you in an import. That will be the extent of it. I drove a Honda Civic for a little while, and my dad’s dad, the Ford retiree, was a little upset about it. After all, he built Fords, so why couldn’t I drive what he built? I tried to explain that things had changed, and that he retired a long time ago, and that my little Honda purchase wasn’t going to bankrupt Ford, and so on and so forth, but he wasn’t hearing it. He did not, however, disown me or love me any less.

I eventually bought a Ford Fusion, which is what I drive now. But it was built in Mexico.


That Time I Maybe Almost Killed Dodge

I loved cars all my life and thought enough of myself to work fore car publication. I spent a year and a half writing for Ward’s, a trade pub that voraciously covers the innards of the automotive industry.


There are magazines like Motor Trend and Road & Track, and Car & Driver, the ones I grew up reading—they are called “buff books” among car enthusiasts—and then there are publications like Ward’s, Automotive News, and Detroit Auto Scene. The former are for gearheads who like to put posters on their walls, soup up their used coupes as much as they can in high school, and later graduate to big-boy muscle cars when they can afford them. The latter are the trade publications that talk about things like impending union strikes, the strength of the Japanese yen, executive management changes, and future product plans. The activities covered by the trades beget the stylish finished products covered in the buff books.

During my time at Ward’s, we were trying to figure out if a subsidiary of one of the Big Three was nearing the end of its run. Ford had pulled the plug on Mercury and put Volvo up for sale. General Motors had let go of Oldsmobile, Geo, Pontiac, Saturn, and Hummer. Chrysler put Plymouth and Eagle to bed.


Automotive suppliers—the people that make seats and turbochargers and infotainment systems and transmissions and other parts of cars—are given directives from automakers about forthcoming product plans, long before the rest of the world knows. And suppliers were hearing things about every Chrysler brand except Dodge.

At the time, Dodge’s product plan released to media also seemed vague. While Chrysler had plans for Jeep, Ram, and Fiat, Dodge seemed stagnant with its current lineup. Dodge’s lineup was already dwindling as it was; the stalwart pickup trucks were separated from Dodge and spun off unto its own brand, and Chrysler had previously announced that one of the minivans in the stable would be killed off. Rumor had it the Dodge Grand Caravan was going to be that minivan.


We felt confident enough at Ward’s to print a few stories that basically asked what the hell was going on. It was written in a language that only automotive executives would understand, pointing squarely at the lack of information given to suppliers about the brand lining up with previously disclosed information about Dodge’s overall product plan. But those reports were picked up and spun by automotive blogs who basically wrote Dodge’s obituary and nailed the coffin shut with their own speculation.

Each summer, Chrysler invites media from around the country and from some foreign countries to an event they call “What’s New, “at which they show off their entire product line. The amount of money the car companies spend on writers to get them to say nice things about their product—all for the purpose of sending good messages to you, the consumer—is mind-blowing. The flight and lodging costs, plus the expenses of catered food from a top restaurant, and enough fuel to gas up the vehicles at the disposal of speed-demon writers, would make Suze Orman or Clark Howard explode with rage.


Regardless, “What’s New” is also an opportunity for journalists to talk to executives one on one. By the time “What’s New” rolled around that year, the “is Dodge dead?” question was heavy on everyone’s mind, but no one had any executive comment. This was the chance for someone to get it.

I cornered one Chrysler executive for a one-on-one interview. Voice recorder in hand, I asked him point-blank about what the plan was for Dodge.


“You’re making this shit up about the Dodge brand. Why are you making this shit up about the Dodge brand? You started it!” he told me. “Shit” would be as frequently used in this conversation as “Challenger” and “Durango.”

“I don’t know why you’re making shit up and spraying it allover the market,” he continued. “The Dodge brand is the number-one selling brand in the Chrysler group. It’s like saying the Ford brand is going away and they’re going to start selling Lincolns. It’s like saying Chevy is going away and they’re going to start selling GMC.”


The numbers weren’t adding up. I asked him about the Dodge Dart, a compact car that had a huge marketing campaign but hardly had sales to match. The one TV show that’s advertised constantly, but doesn’t have the Nielsen ratings to match and could be canceled after the first season.

“The Dart is brand new. It hasn’t even seen its year birthday yet,” he said, hinting that sales would rise in the months to come. They didn’t. A few months later, the executive’s boss, Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, would tell a group of reporters at the North American International Auto Show that the Dart’s sales “were not as well as I wanted.”


But our executive was relentless about Dodge. “I think you should stop making shit up. As far as I’m concerned I’m not even going to talk to you anymore because it’s such a waste of my time. I tell you certain things, and then you write something completely different,” he said.

Car enthusiasts in Detroit are not to be fucked with. If you don’t know the difference between a supercharger and a turbocharger, don’t even bother trying to jump into the conversation. If you’ve never heard those terms in your life, just don’t bother at all.


But car executives are a completely different breed of unfuck-withable. They’re car enthusiasts with ruling power, sometimes far too much. They’ve worked their whole lives to get where they are. They could build a car from scratch with their bare hands if they wanted to, but instead they use thousands of laborers to build the cars they’ve always wanted as adolescents. Visiting journalists write about how Detroiters have motor oil in their veins, but a lot of them don’t; they just build the cars and go home. Car executives are the ones who actually eat and shit spark plugs.

I talked to a different Chrysler executive at “What’s New” sometime later that day. He, too, knew exactly what I was going to ask, but he offered a more sympathetic take. Soon after the “is Dodge dead? “stories started circulating, Chrysler dealers started panicking. Leading dealers began flooding Chrysler’s headquarters in Auburn Hills with calls, wondering if their sales staff would be out of a job soon.


There was also concern spreading throughout the company, particularly on factory floors where Dodges were built. Chrysler had gone through layoffs in the 1970s and early 1980s, was near death again in the 1990s, had changed ownership three times in the last decade and a half, and led bankruptcy in 2009. The death of Dodge could have been the death of Chrysler as a whole.

“Holy shit,” I asked myself. “Did I almost kill Dodge?”

Learn To Live With The Car Companies (And Be A Good Cyclist)

“You don’t need a car in Detroit” is one of the biggest fucking lies I’ve ever heard.


If you’re moving to Detroit and you’ve heard this, let it go immediately. We don’t have New York’s subway system or Chicago’s el trains or the Bay Area’s BART. You could survive without a car, yes. But you will find yourself bumming rides more often than not.

There are places that are not as easily accessible by public transit, cab, or bike. There is no bus that can take you to Detroit Metropolitan Airport, which is not in the city of Detroit. There are no casual bus rides to the Detroit Zoo, which is also not in the city of Detroit. When people say that they don’t need a car, what they are really saying is that they hate cars and therefore anyone who has a car is a threat to the bike-riding utopia they are trying to build.


Detroit is going to have a tumultuous relationship with bicycles for a long time, so if you’re coming here on two wheels, be prepared. Are people going to purposely run you down with their car because they can’t stand the sight of you? Absolutely not—and there are more creative ways to commit murder, anyway! But will there be occasions where a driver may not see you because they’re not used to seeing bikes on the road? Yes.

The growing attitude among bike riders is that the city of Detroit should bow down to the cycling community. The city has improved bike infrastructure somewhat; there are bike lanes on many major streets, and the Dequindre Cut, which stretches from Eastern Market to Jefferson Avenue, is a popular greenway for bikers. But there are a few things preventing the city from being as bike-friendly as it could be. The city does not have the resources to install bike lanes on every single street, and the fact that there are more pressing concerns, such as fixing public transportation, than catering to every single city resident who prefers bikes over motors.


Cyclists in Detroit, just like in any city, tend to take out their frustrations on car owners. They wonder aloud why everyone in Detroit can’t just give up their cars and join them on the bike parade. For starters, if you’ve got a family, you can’t just give up your minivan and shuttle your kids to school, doctor’s appointments, basketball practice, church, and grandma’s Sunday dinner on a Schwinn. Next, a significant degree of the population is aging. If you’re in your 70s and you’ve had a few surgeries in your lifetime, riding a bike isn’t for you. Then there’s safety. I had a neighbor who biked everywhere until he was robbed at gunpoint. Now he walks.

Cyclists in Detroit forget that riding is a privilege that few can afford. Sure, if you happen to live in a safe(r) neighborhood with things close by, it can be a breeze. But those neighborhoods come at a cost many Detroiters can’t afford. So when cyclists finally realize this, they turn their aggression toward the automakers.


Let anyone on two wheels tell it, and the Big Three and the Japanese and the Germans and everybody else are all in bed together to keep Detroiters driving cars until all the Earth’s roads are drowned from all the ice caps finally melting, upon which time we’ll be converted to superpowered autonomous hovercrafts built by the merger of General Motors, Toyota, and Volkswagen. Every car executive is Judge Doom from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, apparently.

To not be a jackass in Detroit, you will have to learn to live with the car companies. You are allowed to make fun of Chrysler for having its headquarters in Auburn Hills and being taken over by an Italian automaker. You can wag your finger at Ford for being in Dearborn. Play that suburb vs. city card as much as you’d like, or maybe even the bailout card if you want to be a dick about it, but that’s as far as you’ll get.


It is complete jackassery to disrespect the Big Three on any other grounds, however. Many people in suburbs tend to become total elitists when talking about people that work there, because they usually point to the ones that graduated high school and went directly to the plants after graduation. They talk about how they “made it” out of Warren, Lake Orion, Flint, Trenton, and other factory towns and how those that were left behind just aren’t worthy.

I’ve spent time in the plants as an automotive reporter. I had relatives that work there. I live in the same neighborhood with them; we all do as Detroiters. If you’ve spent any amount of time in a plant, or heard any of the stories from the line, you’d know that these are some of the hardest-working motherfuckers on the planet.


The men and women in the plants have varied backgrounds. A large amount of them served in the armed forces and many couldn’t find work after their service and got their feet in the door of the industry through various veteran feeder programs. There are some, especially as of late, who went to college and couldn’t find work in their field, so they wound up on the line. And then there are the many who joined the ranks when all this talk of having a degree was unnecessary, but used their earnings to simply provide for their families—families you might be neighbors with here in Detroit.

Their pride for their work knows no bounds. They are no less of a Detroiter than you. Don’t piss on the industry that built the town you decided to call home.


If I ever get rich, I’m not buying the Mustang my grandfather once promised me. I’m getting a BMW M5.

For the non-automotive enthusiasts, the M5 is a high-powered variant of BMW’s midsize 5 Series sedan. In layman’s terms, it has a higher-powered engine and a faster 0-60 time. It’s not a cushy ride like some of BMW’s other vehicles, but it is comfortable for its class. It’s not cheap; I test-drove one with a sticker price of more than $100,000. Despite its prowess and good looks, it’s still a German car, somewhat of a betrayal of Detroit and the ties to American carmaking my family has.


I’m of two minds of the “buy American” ethos that covers this town. I think that it’s a free market, a free country, and you should buy what you want. But I also think you don’t buy American, you should, at the very least, consider buying American.

If you want to be the die-hard Detroiter, the one that wears Detroit-branded T-shirts every Saturday to Eastern Market, the one who gets excited for Opening Day, the one who wants to have your name up in lights on the Fox Theatre marquee on your wedding day, you should buy American. But for those on the fence, here’s some quick advice.


Advice For Car-Spotters

1. If you’re moving here or getting settled here in your foreign car, go ahead and keep it. You’re welcome almost everywhere, with the rare exception of an American automotive plant, where there are signs instructing owners of foreign cars to park in the lots the furthest away from the main entrances. (Seriously. But you won’t be towed or anything.)


2. Respect the industry. Do not try to start a petition or a Facebook page calling for the end of the industry just because you want to ride your bike. Know that there are millions–yes, millions–of people dependent on the industry, and not just the people who work there. Not just Detroit. Factory towns and the businesses that support them, the schools where their children attend, the numerous suppliers that support the automakers... there would be catastrophe if the industry folded. Well, actually, there already has been catastrophe. The lingering effects of the industry’s falters should be immediately seen when you move here.

3. If you’ve got a bright idea for an industry that can employ thousands of people in Detroit that’s not automotive, let’s hear it!


4. Respect the folks in the industry. You don’t have to tip your hat or bow down, but if you come across someone, be they on the line or in the glass tower, keep your conspiracy theories or disdain to yourself.

5. Love your car, American or import. You don’t have to be an enthusiast, but you shouldn’t have to treat your car—essentially, a very expensive robotic pet—as a burden. Maintain it. Get regular oil changes, for goodness sakes—so many people don’t! Get that noise checked out, keep your fluids fresh. Keep it clean, too; there will be instances in Detroit where not everybody wants to wait for a cab.


You’d think the Motor City would be a car-spotter’s paradise, but... not exactly. A few years ago, a writer for Jalopnik, the most-visited car site, joked that all he saw in Detroit during a visit to the North American International Auto Show were Pontiac Azteks. He wasn’t exactly correct.

You can see some Pontiac Montanas, too.

Aaron Foley is a writer who grew up in and currently lives in Detroit, which gives him more street cred than a lot of others. He has written for several local and national publications. “How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass” is his first book.


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PotbellyJoe and 42 others

As someone who grew up in Michigan, is the grandson of a Ford retiree, has an uncle who is still with Ford, a father and two other uncles who put themselves through college by working at Ford stamping, and a father-in-law who was a lifer at AC Delco, when I bought a Toyota, I heard about it.

When I replaced it with a Pontiac Vibe, they all were very happy I had come around and was buying domestic. I didn’t go into the fact that the GT had the engine of a Toyota Camry and all that, but why blow my cover?

It’s the perfect car for me as it is virtually anonymous in New Jersey and wears a Pontiac badge when I go home to visit family.