Mark Binelli, Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, Metropolitan Books: 2012.
Ten days ago, I finished reading Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be. Five days ago, Detroit declared bankruptcy. I would hardly call the series of events auspicious, but I have to admit to a sense of relief. Because of Binelli’s book, I understood.
Much of the book’s content wasn’t new to me. The novelty was in Binelli’s creative rendering of Detroit’s story, which brought alive a city considered by many to be dying. So on that matter, let me begin: Binelli writes well. His approach to the city is both personal and self-aware. He is a native of Detroit but admits to his positionally as someone who drained the city of his brain to live in New York City and write for Rolling Stone; he treats at length the media’s rather voyeuristic descent upon the city during the recession, where they seemed to thrive off decline (see my last post on ruin porn). He balances proficiently between these short and long distances, traversing empathy and realistic appraisal. His narrative also crosses through past and present, reaching back to Henry Ford’s political thought in order to grasp some current matter of unionization, or to the waves of European immigration, black migration, and white suburbanization, that left today’s demographic formation in their wake.
While those historical journeys are critical to Detroit’s story, Binelli uses them just enough to contextualize but not distract from the present. He documents extensively the city’s issues with housing. Those issues include the endless acres of abandoned land and buildings, the arson that finds its fuel in that abandonment, and the urban farming, artistic endeavors, and feeble city services that try to fight the literal and figurative fires both. The auto industry receives equally comprehensive treatment in the book. These two narratives of housing and industry are told through the stories of dwellers and laborers, as well as statistics and visuals.
Many pages are also filled with the political debates and deadlocks over Detroit’s problems, such as extending (or not) city services to the neighborhoods that have just a few inhabitants left, or shrinking the city’s borders. In those chapters, the reader will learn of the collective consciousness of one of the only major American cities to be governed by blacks – and why that makes bankruptcy and the threat of state takeover such a frighteningly existential decision.
But Binelli’s ending was not bankruptcy. It was a refreshingly optimistic monologue on what a remarkable past and tattered present might mean for an uncertain future. And indeed, maybe that’s what bankruptcy itself will be: not a fresh start but at least a revision, a reduction of expectations that will make way for more manageable standards. Maybe.