Review: Biography of Detroit a sad, fascinating look at post-industrial supercity
DETROIT CITY IS THE PLACE TO BE: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis. By Mark Binelli. Metropolitan Books. 336 pages. $28.
On March 1, Michigan venture capitalist and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder declared that the city of Detroit was no longer able to manage its finances, and pending a 10-day appeal period, he would appoint an emergency financial manager to step in and try to set things right.
It was an announcement decades in the making and one Mayor Dave Bing and many others had hoped could be averted. It had been postponed already: In April last year, when Detroit was awash in $12 billion in debt, its city council signed a compromise “consent agreement” permitting a nine-member oversight board to help implement budgetary reforms.
Attempts at a state takeover were made before that, prompted by the stubborn desolation and political failures of a city that has lost more than half of its population since 1950. Today, perhaps 700,000 remain within its borders. (Most whites and blacks with means have left for the suburbs, an exodus that gained steam after the 1967 urban rebellion.)
It’s no secret that Detroit is a mess, and Mark Binelli’s “Detroit City is the Place to Be” describes the stunning decay with journalistic flair. He treats his sad subject with smart dashes of humor and wit. He refuses to wallow in uncalled-for optimism, but he doesn’t give up on his hometown either.
The result is a fabulously written case study of a major American city that, in many ways, exemplifies the failures of capitalism and partisan politics. The topic is Detroit, but the allegory is universal, making the book essential reading for all who care about economic justice.
Binelli, a magazine journalist who’s written mostly for Rolling Stone, returned to his place of birth for a two-year stint to explore what all the fuss is about. There has been a lot of fuss: lately, publications such as The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine and Time have been featuring photo essays and intriguing stories that emphasize either Detroit’s utter devastation or its struggling urban farmers and entrepreneurial hipsters who are moving in, clearing the burned carcasses of vacant homes and attempting to juice up the place a little.
One of the great accomplishments of Binelli’s book is the utter lack of sentimentality or romanticism. One might be forgiven for getting excited about the thin ray of hope cast on the city by the few who care enough to risk their investments (and lives) in this desolated patch of earth, for it suggests redemption and rebirth. But the challenges, which have mounted substantially over the decades and are methodically laid bare by Binelli, are profound enough to temper such enthusiasm.
The tax base cannot sustain basic city services. Whole streets go without illumination at night for lack of funds. Violent crime remains a plague engulfing what’s left of the population: mostly very poor, black people. The film industry, spurred by tax incentives that proved absurd, came for a while, then went. Whole skyscrapers are purchased for a dime, but remain largely vacant for lack of residential interest.
The city’s politics are alternatingly tragic and pathetic. A few people really are trying to address the problems, but others are too concerned with personal matters to effect any significant change.
The previous mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, eventually text-messaged himself out of office in 2008 and is facing federal corruption charges. He was replaced by Bing, a sober technocrat, businessman and former basketball star who nevertheless didn’t always get along with city council.
Binelli writes engagingly about the auto industry and its legacy, about the horrific crime that verges on the absurd, about the fascinating history that made Detroit into an industrial supercity, then helped undo it. All of this is presented with an observant wit and informed by a lot of direct interaction with Detroit’s various actors, from politicians to emergency responders, DIY urban farmers and post-industrial reclaimers.
Another of the book’s great attributes is its focus on people. Revealing conversations abound, and Binelli’s clever analysis and personal touch helps this urban biography add up to much more than its respective parts.
The humanity thus laid bare, one is inclined not to lose all hope. But the impending state takeover is reason enough to rely little on such reverie.
Binelli addresses the matter and concludes that any state oversight is unlikely to help, especially when the overseers are proponents of what’s euphemistically called “austerity.” For economic austerity is precisely what Detroit needs the least.
“Detroit City is the Place to Be” lingers in the reader’s mind long after its replaced on the shelf. The post-apocalyptic images — of Binelli and a guide scaling a vacant skyscraper, of human scavengers transforming factory detritus into public art, of entire neighborhoods left to burn and rot — unsettle and confuse.
This is the United States of America. We have allowed this to happen?
And Detroit is only the worst example. Other communities are enduring the hardship of our new age, too.
Will we let them rot? Or will we transform our economy so that it might rescue those left behind?
Reviewer Adam Parker is book page editor and a Detroit native.