Mark Binelli has no solution for Detroit. Yet, in this sharply observed, insightful work of love and fury, he suggests that the story of his hometown has lessons for the rest of us. These lessons are particularly salient when some cities are sputtering back to life, while others are considering bulldozing the shells of former neighborhoods. The federal government has little if any urban policy, let alone funds to help, and state government – in this case, Michigan’s – can take over city management with mixed, sometimes punitive results.
Detroit used to be flush with people, money, power and drive; now, much of it is a ghost town. Walk out of the Renaissance Center – that awkward, steroidal blend of hotel and auto company headquarters – down Jefferson Avenue, then along Woodward Avenue to Campus Martius and Cadillac Square, and what hits you is the grandeur of the giant office buildings, many of them closed. The scale is gigantic, the roads built for traffic that no longer exists. It’s too easy to get around.
Subtitled “The Afterlife of an American Metropolis,” Binelli’s book offers broad coverage, touching on many facets of the city's current state: union shrinkage, the rescue of the auto industry, urban farming, the power of “ruin porn” to draw tourists to dead industrial buildings gone surreal, brutal crime, and political corruption so profound it’s cartoonish. Detroit, he suggests, has made failure chic.
Binelli draws a picture of a city so busted that members of the “creative class” can buy a house for a few hundred bucks, move in, do their artistic thing and, if they hit, make a living with startlingly low overhead. In Detroit, the gap between “property” and “values” is nearly unbridgeable. Such a deal.
A contributing editor at Rolling Stone who now lives in New York, Binelli grew up outside Detroit. As a young man, he thrilled to Detroit’s place in popular culture: in the first iteration of “Robocop,” a great 1987 science-fiction movie about a crime-ridden Detroit patrolled by cyborg police run amok; in David Bowie’s “Panic in Detroit” and Ted Nugent’s “Motor City Madness”; and in its reputation for success, largely due to the auto industry.
Now, when it comes to city services, you can’t even count on streetlights. As for police response, don’t hold your breath, Binelli writes.
One day, he joins his brother Paul for a breakfast beer and sausage prior to a Detroit Lions game. The convivial company is largely male and overwhelmingly white. Binelli looks for a trashcan in which to discard his empty. His brother tells him to crush the can and toss it in the middle of a parking lot. He does. He sees a handful of black men “trolling the area, gathering up the empties,” each worth a dime when turned in.
“If there was national schadenfreude about the failure of Detroit, regional schadenfreude was even stronger, and it hinged in large part on race,” he writes. “In that moment, I thought of certain aspects of United States foreign policy – the practice of isolating enemy states financially and then watching the leader whom we’ve likely labeled a tyrant act more and more like one as his regime begins to crumble under the pressure of the embargo. The leader and his state must fail in order to confirm the triumph of our own ideology; and if his people do not rise up against him, their suffering is, at least in part, their own fault. Here, Detroit was the rogue state, defying the bullying hegemony of a superpower that wanted to install its own hand-picked leader, making the transfer of any remaining natural resources that much smoother.”
Where Detroit used to be this country’s industrial heart, it’s now an outlier. Perhaps that’s why the tagline of an ad for a rejuvenated Chrysler says “imported from Detroit.” Buzzworthy, indeed. But, as Binelli so effectively documents in a book as essential to understanding the Motor City as Micheline Maynard’s “The End of Detroit,” slogans don’t cure what ails Detroit and other post-industrial American cities.
Freelance writer Carlo Wolff lives in Cleveland, a city that shares many hopes and problems with Detroit.