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Starting today, more than a million classic car enthusiasts are descending on the Detroit area. It's the annual Woodward Dream Cruise. This year, it takes place in the shadow of the auto industry's decline and its efforts to reinvent itself.
As Sarah Cwiek of member station WDET reports, there's a strong emotion in Detroit these days and it's yearning for the glory days of the American automobile.
SARAH CWIEK: Woodward Avenue is a 27-mile thoroughfare that runs from the heart of downtown Detroit to Pontiac, another once-thriving industrial city that has fallen on hard times. The corridor was once the epicenter of a flourishing American auto industry, the place where Henry Ford refined the assembly line at a massive complex called the Crystal Palace. It's an iconic place in American car culture.
If you were a teenager in Detroit from the 1950s through the '70s, Woodward was where you brought your parents' car to go cruising. For the past 14 years, the wildly popular Woodward Dream Cruise has sought to replicate those glory days. Even before the Dream Cruise, crowds lined the streets to gaze at the parade of classic cars mingling with ordinary evening traffic.
Ms. PAM BURNS: Yup, that's my dad's old car.
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CWIEK: Sitting in a folding lawn chair outside a 1950-style sweets shop called The Donut Cutter, Pam Burns points out a blue 1960 Chevy Impala. Burns says that was the car she cruised Woodward in as a teenager.
Ms. BURNS: From 8 Mile all the up to 10, you know, back and forth, and then into Detroit to Big Boy's and Richard's Drive-in and, you know, you hit them all. It was what everybody did.
CWIEK: For some car enthusiasts, the Woodward Dream Cruise is a chance to enjoy the sights and sounds of their youth. For others, it's all about the cars themselves. For Jim Florence(ph), it's a little bit of both. Florence has been to every dream cruise with his 1967 Plymouth Satellite. He revels unabashedly in the sights, sounds and smells of a bygone era.
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Mr. JIM FLORENCE: That's what we want to hear right there. And besides that, the smell of the old fuel, the Turbo Blue and some of the better fuels that are out there, carbureted cars instead of injected cars, all the good old stuff.
CWIEK: But this year, even at an event as steeped in nostalgia as the Dream Cruise, it's harder than ever to ignore the present. Once-major sponsors General Motors, Chrysler and Ford are conspicuously absent. This year's primary sponsor is Detroit's Motor City Casino. Rick Catren(ph) says he doesn't mind, though.
Sitting in a curbside lawn chair, sporting a Detroit Tigers T-shirt and matching beer cozy, Catren says he's here to celebrate the American auto industry's past, not its present.
Mr. RICK CATREN: They're cookie cutters. That's about it. I don't think there's anything really cool out right now. I mean, back then, they made them bigger, stronger, faster. They were gas-guzzlers, and that's what we loved.
CWIEK: In The Donut Cutter parking lot, Jerry Wright(ph) is talking shop with fellow classic-Chrysler enthusiasts. A self-described, dyed-in-the-wool car guy, Wright says Chrysler's and the other Detroit automakers' absence as sponsors signals just how much times have changed.
Mr. JERRY WRIGHT: It's an entirely different world now, no doubt about it. And with all the grief that they've just gone through, I guess we're all kind of in suspense about where it's going to go from this point moving forward.
CWIEK: That suspense has Michigan on edge. It's not only looking for a new economic center but a new cultural identity and sense of purpose. For many here, the Dream Cruise is about more than cars. It's also an opportunity to remember when the Motor City was secure in its sense of self.
For NPR News, I'm Sarah Cwiek in Detroit.
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