The city of Detroit is pretty meta right now. Merely talking about Detroit and its unprecedented decline is old hat. We've all seen the ruin porn, breathlessly emailed across the internet and splashed across design and news sites to generate clicks and ad sales. We're now into the phase where we dissect why we're all so fascinated with Detroit, and mock those who spend an inordinate amount of time gaining schadenfreude or perverse thrills from watching a city that has hopelessly, helplessly imploded. Former resident Mark Binelli decided to write an entire book about it – a journalistic tendency so many others have of late have shared, either making documentaries or writing their own books about the city. As one of those people sitting on the other side of the internet with his hand on the mouse, clicking on picture after picture of destroyed train station and trashed high school and weed-choked house, I figured I probably needed to get his take on the matter, so I bought his book.
"DETROIT CITY IS THE PLACE TO BE" is a new (mid-2012) book that's pretty up to date on Detroit's situation – its decline into near-state receivership, the supposed rebirth of the auto industry, the "let Detroit return to the land" plan by Mayor Dave Bing; and most interestingly, the rebranding of Detroit as a hip, cheap, art-friendly place for slow foodies, sculptors, musicians and other underground types. The book sets up tension between the viewpoint that Detroit is a total goner and the more optimistic view that the seeds of its rebirth are being planted. Along the way, Binelli takes chapters-long detours into topics like the city's obscenely high crime rate; its gun culture; its ruins; its car industry's sordid history; the popularized techno and arts scenes and the many Europeans who still make pilgrimages to the city to find them, and much more. Every chapter evinces the tension and the debate he's set up in a very entertaining and story-laden manner: Dead, or Being Reborn?
It's probably important to note that Binelli is what my conservative father might call a "pinko". That is, his hard-left politics get a little too much in the way of telling a factual and well-rounded story. Seems that every time he's about to unload his journalistic guns on incompetent and ridiculous political boobs like former Detroit mayors Kwame Kilpatrick and Coleman Young, he instead finds a way to extract some silver lining that exonerates them nearly in full, based on their swagger or their mouthiness or some other ludicrous characteristic, and blames Reagan or Wall Street or yuppies instead. So when you're reading Binelli, just know that in his world, the unions and their leadership are mostly blameless for Detroit's predicament, and the mayors were primarily victims of the white establishment, who didn't want them to succeed and therefore brought about their downfall for racist or subconsciously racist reasons. When he got into this mode, that's when I went into book-skimming mode, waiting for Binelli to start telling good stories again – which he thankfully does more often than not.
All Binelli needs to do is record the things that people he meets in Detroit say, or quote some outlandish things that politicians of the present and past have said, and the book is nearly a laff-a-minute. He's a good writer and storyteller, and he brings the right perspective to his former hometown. He's saddened, chagrined, and a little angry about what's happened to the city (which was in sorry decline during his 1980s boyhood and is far worse now), and he's a very good historian of the sordid and the seedy when he's not on his high leftist horse. He speaks truth to power, as long as the power aren't the ones pretending to be shilling for the working man and the downtrodden. Binelli makes it abundantly clear that even though the media are hyping these white back-to-the-land urban farming types , with their artisanal coffee collectives and outdoor art exhibits, Detroit is a black city through and though, and what's getting media attention is about 5% of what's really going on in Detroit.
Detroit doesn't really have an African-American middle/upper class the way Atlanta does; they all moved away. It's a poor city, with very little tax base, no infrastructure, awful weather, and a singular industry propped up by the beneficence of government and American taxpayers that makes cars that no one really wants (or when they do, it's gas-guzzling enormo-trucks). Whole sections of the city lack public services and are being reclaimed by nature – even while people continue to live there, for lack of money or the will to leave. That Binelli strikes a hopeful note in the conclusion, however, is not altogether disingenuous. He makes a strong effort at documenting how, when you've hit bottom, everything is "up", and he convincingly outlines a future for Detroit. It may not look anything like the past – nor like the green paradise that some people might wish upon it – but a future nonetheless. I'm buying it. I just might not be around to see it when it arrives in 50-100 years.