Motor City Malaise

DETROIT - It was a 5-degree day in Motor City and Ronald Cook Jr. was a long way from the Maseratis on display at the international auto show downtown. A long way from his on-again, off-again life as an auto-industry welder. A long way from the prospect of an ordinary life in an extraordinary city on the rocks.

Bundled in a black parka with a fur-trimmed hood and a black-knit cap, Cook, 42, unemployed and out of sorts, had been pumping gas for a quarter here, a quarter there. After beckoning at a corner Valero station for bits of bus fare and a bite of next-day cash, his muscular hands had nearly frozen stiff from the blistering wind.

"Did you say your name was Ronald Cook?"

"Ronald Cook Junior," he proclaimed, before hopping into the passenger seat of a rented Chrysler to show an out-of-town reporter the way around his city of idled automotive plants, boarded-up houses, liquor-lotto stores and busted Big Three egos being stitched together with taxpayer dollars.

"Ronald Cook Senior," he said with a starchy pride bordering on hero worship, "is my father. He's a retired autoworker."

A short time earlier and a few miles away in this snow-covered city, John Adamo tended to the frozen-in-time flower shop his Italian immigrant father opened in 1946. The family continues to peddle petals here, even though the shop stands oddly alone on a stretch of now-vacant old buildings near a Chrysler factory.

Back in the day, Detroit was a magnet for the working class, the envy of the manufacturing world, a place where a migrant from a Southern state or a far-off island like Sicily (Adamo's father) could build a better life. Today, most dreamers have gone elsewhere, and the once-invincible U.S. automakers that built this town - General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., and Chrysler L.L.C. - are begging for federal handouts after failing to change with the times.

"This was the neighborhood that built America," Adamo, 52, said with a sweeping smile before taking a seat in the cavernous shop that is now too big for the business that remains.

The shop on Conner Avenue fronts a broad boulevard intersected by residential blocks once brimming with working families in their own detached homes. Now, there are as many as 10 boarded-up houses on a single block around the corner.

"I get thanked at least once a week from customers who come into the store, thanking us for still being here," he said.

"Because everybody else," he said, "has left the city."

Cook and Adamo are very different men. But they share a similar story line. Like the automakers, like their city, like the millions losing their jobs in this national recession, they are victims and survivors of life. Of economic whims. Of the winds of change.

They offer different and sometimes harsh prescriptions for how to get their beloved city and adored automakers out of this mess that has been decades in the making. It's the same advice they follow themselves, sometimes with success and sometimes without it.

They wonder if anything will truly turn around in their lifetimes. But they agree that any prospect for recovery rests on this universal tenet: Change is inevitable. It is sometimes your friend, sometimes your enemy. And it has a mind of its own.

And how you deal with it makes all the difference in the world.

"I was born over this way - two streets over," Cook said as the car began to roll toward Hamtramck, a town unto itself in the center of Detroit. A Port Richmond-like enclave once home to Polish immigrants and sprawling factories, one of its remaining jewels is a massive, gleaming GM Cadillac plant that has been idled by a production pullback.

"This place used to be plush. I mean, businesses everywhere," he said, his voice crackling with laryngitis as the rental car coasted down Joseph Campeau Avenue. "But, you know, over time, businesses, they just leave."

Up and down Campeau there are empty buildings with faded signs that once tantalized workers who churned out most of the world's cars.

"That was a big furniture store. Real big," said Cook, rolling by yet another shell of a building, his voice rising with enthusiasm.

Cook got his start in the 1980s, spray-painting cars at a famous Detroit auto dealership in another part of town. He was a high school graduate who was raised to believe there would always be a future for a working man in Detroit.

That dealership, Porterfield-Wilson Pontiac, was among the nation's 10 largest black-owned enterprises until it shut down in the early 1990s. The Honda dealership that had been owned by Porterfield's wife? That's still in business just over the city line, with different owners.

For miles on end in Detroit, there are scant traces of the thriving economy that once made this a metropolis of nearly two million people by the 1950s. Instead, boarded-up, detached homes on tree-lined streets are the norm in a city that has shrunk to 875,000 people.

The urban grid is a carcass, having hemorrhaged half its population since the 1960s, as suburbanization siphoned out the upwardly mobile, race riots hastened their exodus and foreign competition ate away at the once-omnipotent Detroit auto empire.

"It looks like Hiroshima, like it was a war or something here," Cook said, as though noticing the blight for the first time after a long stupor. "In some of these areas there's so many abandoned houses, it's pathetic."

Cook spent the last 20 years welding in factories around Detroit, juggling $10-an-hour and $15-an-hour nonunion jobs against his sometimes self-destructive desire for a higher-pitched life of composing music (he plays lots of musical instruments and loves to DJ) and hanging with friends.

Today, he is flat broke and demoralized. His last employer let him go a few months ago. Cook hopes to enter the health-care field like his sister, a nurse, but it's been tough getting his head straight these last few months.

Cook was hustling for change a week or so ago at an East Detroit gas station after coming up empty for a job at a welding plant on the west side.

He had made only about $2 in change - enough for a $1.75 bus ride later in the week.

As the car went past a mammoth gear and axle manufacturing complex in Hamtramck, Cook spoke of how his father had worked there for years as a Chevrolet man before retiring with a United Auto Workers pension.

Then, as GM's gleaming headquarters came into focus on the horizon, Cook smiled.

"That's the GM building right there," he said, as though nodding toward a fabled baseball stadium.

"Are you proud of that?"

As quickly as it had puffed him up, the pride vanished.

"Well, I'm frustrated with GM and the way they handled their business," he said, turning reflective. "Not just GM - the whole industry."

Cook then scolded the automakers for not being smart. The same way, you could argue, that Cook got himself into his own mess by not saving money, by not thinking of the long term in a life that has included a few scrapes with the law and the missteps of an unfocused adulthood.

"They're making these doggone cars, these big old cars, or whatnot, instead of using their head and economizing, coming up with something sufficient, where they have to depend on this here gas and whatnot," he said.

"If it was me, I'd do something different so we could run on our own source," he said, echoing the refrain of alternative-fuel advocates. "We don't have to depend on that stuff.

"They've got the brains to do it," Cook said. "Why don't they do it?"

John Adamo and his family should have sold their Conner Avenue flower shop more than 20 years ago if they wanted to get a decent dollar for the building that paved the future for a Sicilian immigrant and his seven children.

But it wasn't until well after Detroit's economy had been gutted that the Adamos grasped the extent to which times had changed in a neighborhood once electric with the hubbub of working families.

Adamo tries not to think too much about lost opportunities. Or the sentimentality that he admits has played into the family's decision to hold on to the store his father, Vincent, a Sicilian immigrant, started after serving in World War II.

"You can't do anything about what's happened," said Adamo, who runs the business with his brothers and his mother, Rosemary.

Fortunately, the Adamos were smart enough back in the 1970s to do what many others in Detroit did: They moved out and diversified.

For a while, they snapped up other flower shops and formed a four-store business across the region. In the late '70s, they opened a Conner Park shop in the swanky suburb of Grosse Pointe. They moved that into an even bigger location in the swanky suburb right next door to Grosse Pointe - St. Clair Shores - eight years ago.

The idea, said Adamo, was to follow Detroit's customers. If they were moving into the suburbs, so should the flower business.

But the family didn't let go of the flagship in the city, even though it serves a neighborhood that has become a shell of its former self.

Today, the suburban store is helping subsidize the faded but beloved flagship on Detroit's east side.

"My father was raised just a couple streets over," Adamo said.

Here on Conner, Adamo learned the ropes as a child. One time, his father's workers locked him into a walk-in refrigerator as a prank.

"It's home," Adamo said. "A lot of people have come through here over the years."

Who can forget the '60s, when this shop on Conner would produce flowers for up to 20 neighborhood weddings a weekend?

Or New Year's Eve, when the workers would be there until almost midnight, "because everybody that went out had a corsage," he said.

"I can remember working here until 2 o'clock in the morning on certain holidays and coming back at 6 o'clock," Adamo said. "I was probably 16 at that time."

But Adamo, who has one son who is a legislative aide in Washington and another who is being groomed to help run the family business, does not bemoan the way times have changed.

He said he believed that people and businesses must move with the flow and readjust to survive. He will hang on to this shop and its tattered old facade until it becomes too expensive to keep open.

Not too long ago, he struck up a conversation with a funeral home director at a business-networking meeting. The pair then met at Adamo's Detroit store, where many refrigerators that once stored flowers are now often empty.

"He said, 'Wow, you have all this cooler space. I could use some of this cooler space,' " Adamo said. "Crazy as it sounds . . . I don't know that it'll ever happen. But it shows you can't not talk about that."

The U.S. auto manufacturers must display the same willingness to try new things, rather than simply clinging to memories of a glorious and well-worn past, he said.

"It is a crisis," he said. "The thing you've got to do is make changes to continue on. And that's everybody, anybody else, the companies - everybody."

It's a tough thing, trying to find a new way when old ways have stopped working. The impulse to hold on to broken but familiar patterns can duke it out with the desire to change overnight. Neither extreme seems to be very productive.

But as Cook and Adamo have witnessed here in their beloved Detroit, change comes and goes at its own enduring pace, and so the adjustment to change must be just as sure-footed and relentless.

"We've gotta see," Adamo said. "There are little glimmers of hope out there. They're talking about putting a battery plant here locally. You have a lot of engineering minds and manufacturing minds that are here, and things still have to be made. They don't just come at the snap of a finger.

"We have the people and infrastructure to do it here," he said. "We just need to be competitive with the rest of the world to do that."

Cook said he hoped to turn things around for himself this year and is trying to find strength in the Bible for the way forward.

"I see a lot of things said in the Bible coming true," he said, as the car approached an active Chrysler assembly plant just over the Detroit line in Warren, where the Dodge Ram is produced.

"Times with these industries and whatnot, all the wars and whatnot," he said. "It means for me to tighten up and become more, to get to know God better, and do the things of his will."

An hour later, Cook revisited the topic over a bowl of chicken noodle soup at a Coney's diner back in Detroit. He discussed his aspirations with a trace of fear until, in a flash, there at the booth, he recalled a saying that brings him comfort.

"Like my mama says," he began, raising downcast eyes from the hot-dog-joint table, "don't let your feet be in too much of a hurry to end up nowhere."


Contact staff writer Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or mpanaritis@phillynews.com.