on November 20, 2012
Refreshingly nonpartisan and presented without the author's own ego and agenda getting muddled up in things (a flaw so common in nonfiction books that take on difficult subjects), Detroit City Is the Place to Be is simultaneously a lesson in how we got here and how we might possibly get out of here. A Detroit area native (though he now lives in New York City), Mark Binelli covers almost every angle of the problem of Detroit, including historical and current racial tensions, the explosive growth and painful contraction of the auto industry, the eroding tax base and lack of resources, the distrust of outsiders, the blight, the fires, the violent crime, the music, the ruins, the drug culture, the despair, and those small, shimmering pockets of positivity (one almost can't call them hope just yet) that while things may not have bottomed out just yet, the city really has nowhere to go but up.
Binelli weaves a comprehensive and yet somehow still comprehensible tapestry of facts, statistics, and personal stories that gives the reader the big picture of Detroit but doesn't miss the importance of the details. Even for a Michigander who has been hearing and reading about Detroit's decline for decades, there are plenty of jaw-dropping moments. In these pages we meet real Detroiters: UAW members losing hope, teen moms grasping a better life for their children, "hustlers" coming up with their own work when jobs are nonexistent, concealed pistol enthusiasts, urban prairie dwellers, guerrilla lawn mowing brigades, and many more. Whether they stick with Detroit because they can't afford to move or out of a solid sense of loyalty to their family history and their city, they are in it for the long haul and they are not (quite) ready to give up yet.
As one of those people says in Binelli's book, "Detroit isn't some kind of abstract art project. It's real for people. These are real memories. Every one of these houses has a story." And as Binelli himself says, "Detroit, if anything, is a place where the past cannot be shook loose. It hangs on, tenaciously, creeping over the city like a slow-growing mold, until--this begins to seem inevitable, if you get into a certain mood--the entire place will be nothing but past."
This is not a book of solutions. It's not a plan to rightsize a monolith of the nearly bygone modern industrial era. It's not a crunchy, hippified manifesto on returning to subsistence farming and turning abandoned houses and factories into artists' studio space. It's not a vision for a utopian society of light rails, rooftop gardens, and flashy tech jobs. All of those elements are to be found in Detroit City Is the Place to Be because there are earnest people proposing scenarios like these, but they are not exactly championed by Binelli. Rather, like a good, impartial journalist without an ax to grind (amazing, right?) he puts it out on the table for the reader to chew on, bones and all. He leaves the situation in all its absurdly complicated glory because to come to the end and present a "solution" to the problems plaguing Detroit would be the absolute most naive and insulting thing to do. Real life is complex enough. Real life in Detroit is perhaps even more so. And it's refreshing to read an author who gets it, who knows that you can't solve a problem like Detroit with a five step plan imposed from the outside.
We naturally want a tidy solution to be discovered (as though people just haven't been looking hard enough for the past, oh, let's say 80 years). But we do a disservice to the people living the nightmare on the ground in Detroit (or in other complicated, violent, and seemingly hopeless situations, as this can all be extrapolated to other post-industrial towns and even to volatile areas of the world such as the Middle East) when we imagine that a few policy changes or a few new companies moving to town will solve the problem. Short of a sudden and unprecedented inflow of free money (which doesn't exist, of course) the rebuilding of this great city will be slow and painful and no one will be completely happy with it at any stage.
As a realist in general, I cannot be wildly optimistic about the future of Detroit (and the bulk of Binelli's book certainly didn't nurse any idealistic notions that may have been trying to take root in the deep recesses of my subconscious, despite his more hopeful conclusion). I agree with Binelli's implicit message that policy changes and business tax breaks and film crews cannot save Detroit on their own. But the spirited people who refuse to leave, who patrol their neighborhoods, who create beauty from ashes--those are the ones who, one by one, family by family, can keep hope alive.
For those of us on the outside, it's good to remember that before you can save something you must care about it, and before you can care about something you must be educated about it. Detroit City Is the Place to Be is an education. It's Detroit 101. Whether readers (like myself) use what we learn to try to make a difference is up to us. But we couldn't have a more concerned, honest, and gentle teacher than Mark Binelli.
I highly recommend this book to every Michigander; to anyone interested in big cities, the post-industrial age, urban planning; to anyone tempted to write Detroit off as a lost cause. It will ground you in reality even while it points to a faint light in the distance that we may reach if only we are brave enough to travel a treacherous road.
on December 16, 2012
Author Mark Binelli tells a well-written and engaging story of America's most maligned city. He explains his purpose in writing the book:
For people of my generation and younger, growing up in the Detroit area meant growing up with a constant reminder of the best having ended a long time ago. We held no other concept of Detroit but as a shell of its former self. ... Would my kids one day grow up thinking the same thoughts about America as a whole, about my ponderous tales of cold war victories and dot-com booms....A malaise spreading through the rest of the country....
After I moved back to the city, people I met in dozens of different contexts described Detroit as "the Wild West." Meaning, it's basically lawless. Meaning, land is plentiful and cheap. Meaning, now, as the frontier quite literally returns to the city-- trees growing out of tops of abandoned buildings! wild pheasants circling the empty lots!-- so, too, has the metaphorical frontier, along with the notion of "frontier spirit."
...just as Greenland might be called ground zero of the broader climate crisis, Detroit feels like ground zero for ... what, exactly? The end of the American way of life? Or the beginning of something else? Either way, that is why so many divergent interests are converging here right now. Who doesn't want to see the future?
Detroit is late to the urban revitalization party. In the early 1980s other decrepit inner cities like Baltimore and Cleveland began replacing their boarded-up crumbling downtown areas with new commercial developments and "gentrified" neighborhoods of upscale real estate. These renewing inner cities attracted prosperous African-Americans, reverse-migrating White suburbanites, and foreign immigrants. I lived in Chicago during the twenty years when developers transformed its Near South Side from an urban wasteland of slums and crumbling warehouses into a brand spanking new neighborhood of glitzy high rises, fine restaurants, and multi-million dollar condos.
Detroit remains massively slummy and scummy. In 2010 Mitt Romney's birth mansion was demolished, like many others in the city, because it had become a blighted crack house. The property in Detroit is so beyond repair that the city has abandoned much of its 139 square mile area, withdrawing police protection and city services. Even many of the suburbs are rancid. The abandoned Silverdome way out in Pontiac was auctioned off for next to nothing.
Recently private developers have attempted to revitalize the city by buying up real estate for pennies on the dollar and rehabbing it. The big developers tend to be followed by individual investors who buy one property at a time and start improving it. The rising fortunes of the city then become a magnet for other property owners and businesses to start moving in. The cycle of urban decay is replaced by a virtuous circle of renewed growth.
This book chronicles the beginning of that process in Detroit. It is funny in a self-depreciating way. It doesn't pull any punches about the mountain of problems that Detroit is buried under. But it also tells the happier times in the city's history --- those days from the 1920's through the 1960's when it was a boomtown that offered blue collar prosperity to the Italians, Poles, and Slavs who left the poverty of Eastern Europe, and also prosperity to the country boys from Appalachia and the destitute Southern Blacks who built the vibrant "Motown" music industry. Millions have prospered in Detroit.
Binelli personalizes the history of the city through stories of his multi-generational Italian immigrant family. He tells about his life of growing up in the 1980s, leaving the city in the 1990s, and then returning as an "urban pioneer" in 2000s. He tells poignant stories about other Detroiters, heroes and villains. He tells the stories of labor unions vs. managements and of drug gangs against police. He tells the story of the city's politics, both of vision, and too often of corruption.
You will take away from this book an experience of what it is like to live in Detroit and try to make sense of the economic and political issues affecting the town.
After reading the book my feelings about Detroit's prospects for revival are:
* Detroit is an "accidental city" rather than a "City of Destiny" like Chicago, St. Louis, or even Cleveland. These other cities were founded upon great natural transportation corridors, had trade areas extending hundreds of miles, were centers of distribution of natural resources, and attracted outstanding civic leadership. Detroit, on the other hand, is an "accidental city." It is a megalopolis only because Henry Ford happened to live there. Until he came to town it wasn't destined to be anything more than a middling city like Toledo or Grand Rapids. Now that the auto industry has dispersed the city must decline to a more "natural" size. Thus Detroit is NOT a metaphor for the rest of America. It is the exception, not the rule.
* Detroit is one-dimensional. It rose and declined with the auto industry. The auto industry is reviving and there are many outstanding industrial and engineering firms remaining in the area. But it may not be able to develop a truly diversified economy as its more successful neighbors like Chicago, Indianapolis, and even Cleveland have done.
* It's hard to imagine that small-time businesses like "urban farming" or artist colonies will gin up anywhere enough economic activity to replace the lost industrial powerhouses. Nevertheless it is better for people to be TRYING to add value to the city, even in humble ways, than to be sitting home collecting welfare or turning to crime. If Detroit is really going to recover significantly it will be through more traditional projects like the proposed new bridge linking the city to Canada and thereby making the city a giant truck stop on the NAFTA Superhighway.
* The positive aspect is that the people of Detroit are nice. Contrary to all the stories about them shooting at you, the typical Detroiter is a friendly White, African-American, or immigrant who will be pleased to give an out-of-towner directions, recommend restaurants, or chat in a bar about the Lions, Tigers, Pistons, or Redwings. All those Appalachian Whites and Southern Blacks who came to town during the prosperous years give the city a folksy, down-home feel. I can imagine anybody who does go to live in Detroit will find it a welcoming place. These people seem capable of working together to restore a modest prosperity if properly led by the city governing officials and perhaps getting a boost from the investments of private developers.
This book will definitely hold your interest if you're from "The D" or the State of Michigan or just want to know what's going down in the city. Detroit may not seem like the most entertaining subject to write about, but Mark Binelli is a great writer with many meaningful stories about the past, present, and possibly brighter future of the city.
Binelli is a good writer and has produced an interesting if breezy overview of efforts to make something of Detroit.
The author, a Detroit native, moves back to the city to chronicle the people who hope to reinvigorate what is arguably America's most desperate urban area. This is not "ruin porn", as apparently people call profiles of Detroit that focus on the mayhem, arson, desolation and abandonment that have bled a once booming metropolis of over 2,000,000 people down to today's count of 700,000 inhabitants. The desolation, failures, and rotten characters are a part of the story, but they form the backdrop for a book that recounts Detroit's rise, fall and present state of hope a midst the hopelessness many feel for the city.
The reader gets early chapters on the carving out of the wilderness of the French trading post that became Detroit, its rise as an industrial center and peak as the home and production site of automobiles. The movement of autos first to the suburbs, then to the South and overseas, social unrest in a bi-racial metropolis, the 1967 riots and corrupt urban politics each acted as accelerants upon each other, fueling an unhealthy urban environment that led to the flight of whites and middle class blacks away from the metropolis. These people took with them from the city much of the entrepreneurship that can sustain jobs, the tax base and the density that every city needs to pay for basic services and infrastructure in urban areas.
For some reason Detroit's fall has been uniquely physical among American cities. Detroit residents have an inexplicable romance with fire; the number of arsons that claim buildings exceeds that of other cities by a large amount. Lately mayors have taken to demolition of large numbers of abandoned buildings. What official Detroit doesn't get, scrappers do - entrepreneurial citizens who take homes and buildings apart for copper tubing, fixtures and any other building materials that can be reclaimed and sold.
This has produced a city that is largely abandoned in many areas. What exists, doesn't work well. A history of corrupt politics along with a shrunken tax base means that citizens are largely without basic services - Binelli chronicles one 911 "center" that is a fireman on the porch of a run-down station with a telephone. That public official attempts to direct the one ambulance in his area to multiple situations nightly. That means that stroke and heart attack victims wait sometimes hours for a response.
With buildings being taken down, there is enough open land within the city limits that agricultural industries and farming are serious proposals to reinvigorate the economy. This would be on top of the many small farm-plots that dot the city presently, inhabitants using a cheap available resource (open land) to produce income by the planting of crops.
Binelli's book is largely about the people who look for solutions - like the small urban farmers above and Mayor Bing, who is trying to physically move the spread-out population back to a tight urban core in order to deliver services more efficiently (this plan calls for abandonment of largely sparsely inhabited outlying areas). Hope does spring eternally and one will find himself rooting for these schemes even if they seem like long-shots.
The other characters the author highlights include firemen, who he accompanies on runs and around the station house; neighbors - each of whom seems much more colorful than an average group one would find living on your block, and politicians. The politicians are of course, both a symptom and cause of some of Detroit's woes. Recent Mayor Kilpatrick proved incredibly corrupt as well as incredibly bad at hiding his personal aggrandizement. He and some other powers-that-be remind one of the corrupt third world countries that steal most international aid for their own profit and are quite brazen about it.
On the whole Binelli's survey is interesting and well painted. The reader gets enough glimpses at the severe decay and abandonment within which the city exists to satisfy the urge to know what Detroit is really like in detail. The glimpses of hope offer that; the personalities is some cases are testaments to the will to survive; in others examples of the depths people can sink to when parasiticly trying to steal, cheat and scheme their way through life.
A minor annoyance is Binelli's seemingly reflexive tilt to the left. A couple of gratuitous George Bush and conservative swipes were uncomfortably placed in his text. The major fault I found was that he blamed the de-industrialization of Detroit wholly on the managers of GM, Ford and Chrysler. No mention of the effect that strong labor unions had on pushing costs up to the point where they were anti-competitive with the rest of the world and other areas of the United States.
On the whole, an interesting read.
I have never been to America, let alone Detroit, but I have a vested interest in America because of a shared culture, and some of that culture came from Detroit. It is so sad to learn about the state of the city in 2013, but even as the author (who was born in Detroit after the good times were over, and lived there for many years) paints a grim picture, he sees hope for what he found on a return visit.
Prior to buying this book, I only knew of Detroit specifically for its car industry (now a shadow of its former self), Motown (who were already beginning a long, slow decline when they moved to Los Angeles in the seventies, but failed to arrest that decline) and the song Detroit City, which became an international pop hit for Tom Jones. Those specifics aside, I knew where to find Detroit on a map of North America, and I assumed it was fairly typical of large American cities, with a multi-racial population and plenty of skyscrapers. In 2013, I heard about the city going bankrupt and soon afterwards bought this book. I was appalled to find out the truth about Detroit, which is very different now from what it once was.
I think most, perhaps all, of the individual problems described in this book have occurred at some time or other elsewhere, including in Britain. However, the sheer scale of the decline is on a far greater scale. However, like the author, I see some hope for the future, but it won't be easy. Given that I am somewhat older than the author, I don't think I'll live to see Detroit return to greatness, but I might live long enough to see clear signs of a recovery.
The author does not devote a lot of space to the early history, but gives a basic outline. Most of the book is, as I'd expected, about the decline of this once mighty city, with its ideal location where a river flows into one of the Great Lakes near the international border between the USA and Canada - an ideal location for an industrial city. Industry thrived until the second half of the 20th century. The author suggests the decline may already have started by the time the first Motown record charted, but the first sign of decline that the outside world noticed was the riot of 1967. From what this book says about that riot, I think there have been plenty of bigger riots in Britain. As such, I am inclined to agree with the author that the riot did not begin the decline.
As the decline continued, it fed upon itself as those who could afford to move out of Detroit did so, leaving the inner city area to those who couldn't. This kind of thing has happened in Britain, but not on the same scale, possibly because Britain is a very small country by comparison, and therefore suburban sprawl is more limited. Detroit could not expand to the south or east, but when people wanted to leave, there was room to the north and west.
Detroit, like the old Roman Empire, is becoming famous for its ruins, the most famous being the old Michigan Central Railroad station. It was built in a grand style, but closed in 1988 and now decays gradually. All very sad, but at some point it will either be demolished or restored for some other use. Restoration would cost a fortune so I assume it will be demolished eventually.
Problems became ever more difficult to address, and these were complicated by the different political units at city level, suburban level and state level. The federal politicians scarcely get a mention, but they try to stay out of local issues as far as possible. So Detroit struggles on with a decreasing population and a decreasing income, with no easy way to reverse the trend - but as the author indicates, there is hope.
Some plots of land have been returned to agriculture, while artists and others have moved in out of curiosity. I'm not sure if these are the answers, but there is plenty of space, and orthodox methods of regeneration are also being tried.
There are other books about Detroit's problems, but this one told me what I wanted to know. I really hope that solutions are found to Detroit's problems.
on January 4, 2013
The city of Detroit has quite a history. Once it was America's boomtown, a beacon of opportunity that, for decades, attracted countless job seekers from less prosperous regions of the country. Now, Detroit is the stereotypical representative of everything that could possibly go wrong in an American city. It may not be the only American city to have taken an economic beating, but no other city has fallen farther than the city of Detroit. Mark Binelli, himself born and raised in the Detroit area, decided to take a look at what was happening there, and what he found is even worse - and, in some few ways, better - than what I expected.
Detroit's problems, according to Binelli, started (with the decline of the auto industry) at least a decade before the 1967 riot that is generally marked as the pivotal moment during which the city was pushed over an edge from which it has never recovered. But in the minds of most Americans, that 1967 rampage in the black community forever marked Detroit as "a hopelessly failed state, a terrifying place of violent crime and general lawlessness." And the long-lasting flight from the city began.
Who can blame people for fleeing this place? By 2008 the highly corrupt school system was an utter mess, the city had the highest per capita murder rate in the country (an astounding 40.7 murders per 100,00 residents), and reported twice the number of fires that the eleven-times-more-populous city of New York reported. Forbes magazine made it all official by crowning Detroit "the most dangerous U.S. city" based on its rate of 1,220 violent crimes per 100,000 citizens.
That was Detroit at rock bottom, a bottom so low that those in charge of the city (corrupt as the city administration still was) had little to lose by trying anything suggested by outsiders - many of whom were dreamers who came to the city to test theories in the real world that would otherwise have never seen the light of day. People are even coming from Europe to tour the ruins of Detroit because there is no other non-war-zone urban landscape like it.
Detroit is rather desperately trying to reinvent itself. Factory buildings, long abandoned, are being repurposed by "artists" of all types, whole blocks have been razed and turned into community organic farms, the most dangerous and damaged neighborhoods are purposely being neglected by the city in an attempt to force residents to live closer together in areas that the city can afford to service, and whole swaths of Detroit now resemble "urban prairies."
I did not come away from Detroit City Is the Place to Be nearly as hopeful about Detroit's future as I expected to be after reading the book. Much of what Binelli says about his city is touching, some of it even humorous, but what does it all mean for a city in which corruption of all sorts, top to bottom, seems still to be the rule? I hope I am being more a pessimist than a realist, but...
on December 6, 2013
I wish I could give this book 4.5 stars, but I feel that it is closer to a 5, so I am giving it that.
Honestly, had I not moved to a city near Detroit and seen it for myself I wouldn't believe this book. I didn't believe half the things that people said about the city in general, thinking that it was a sensationalized darling of the media. I'm from a big city, and have seen a good share of them-and Detroit is like nothing I've seen before. Empty skyscrapers and high rises, some beautifully structured, gape at you, yet many of the city's cultural institutions are open and uniquely worth a visit. Huge mansions are available for the standard price of a house in Los Angeles and regular homes are available for less than a laser printer, while new condominiums are being built and sold for the same price as the historic mansions. That's in the city proper, the only part I've visited. In the living part of downtown, the new Whole Foods proudly advertises itself.
This book contains obviously contains many years of research on the history of Detroit, as well as a lot of interesting interviews and concepts. It's far from a coolly written academic text, being infused with the descriptions and opinions of the author who is often times a wry commentator and, in fact, grew up in the city himself. It's an extremely interesting, up-to-date, and raw read. In fact, I would have given it an outright five had I not disagree with a couple points regarding his treatment of racial politics, which he generally handles well throughout the book. As is widely known, Detroit's history is intertwined with the history of race in this country, and it is essential to discuss this in any book on the city-the discussions in the book about the riots are particularly interesting-and attempting to avoid controversy by avoiding the topic would be to miss a large part of the city's culture and evolution. However, I disagree with his treatment of a particular mayor. He defends him by virtue of his charisma and the continued interest of the city in him-which is obviously sort of like people's interest in reality TV-but never shows any reason why the hatred of him within the suburbs/city is connected to racial politics. Indeed, stealing, gang politics, and the other "interesting" activities he engaged in are more than enough to make people hate him, no matter his persona.
But, this one topic out of many aside, I definitely recommend this book.
on March 12, 2013
Creative writing, interesting insights and nice human interest stories that show the complexity of the issues faced by Detroiters today. He was too quick, however, to demonize the auto manufacturers who have poured massive amounts into the city over the years. There is little to back up his assertions.
on June 7, 2013
I read this book because I was interested in the state of Detroit since I left there. It confirmed my worse fears and I learned facts about Detroit that happened before 1996. I would never go back and do not see any future for the city. Maybe it should be destroyed completely and wiped off the map. The school system is a disgrace to our nation and has been for a long time. Now I hear they are bankrupt and thinking of selling the Art in the Art Institute there. That is a world class Art museum and would be completly gone. It contains a mural by Ravo that I don't see any way of saving if the building was distroyed. The city is run by and populated by ignorant people that have no education or work skills.
on February 1, 2013
Detroit City Is The Place To Be by Mark Binelli is the latest in a long series of books and magazine articles chronicling the decline of industrial cities of the American rustbelt. None seems as shocking as this new book.
Binelli summarizes the picture with one startling fact: 30 percent of Detroit is empty space, some 40 square miles of former residences and businesses, compared to 47 square miles the size of all of San Francisco! Detroit had 90,000 buildings left abandoned.
How can a citizenry allow such widespread decline to happen? Binelli treats all of the factors: white flight, public education, economy, crime, declining tax base, racism, and politics and politicians. There is enough blame to spread around.
Binelli moved back to his home town to join writers, artists and others who want to reclaim the abandoned parts of the city. Their successes are and will be minimal compared to the size of the problem.
Binelli and his friends sneaked into the five story Packard plant, some 35 acres, abandoned in 1958 and now a plundered hulk to savor the urban ruins photographed by people from all over the world who compare it to the Acropolis as a destination point! The suggestion to make Detroit a tourist attraction may have more hope than any urban renewal programs.
The Afterlife of an American Metropolis is the subtitle of the book and assumes a need for a resurrection which will require radical new thinking about race and metropolitan government, something not expected anytime soon. There seems to be little hope for the city,
Mark Binelli has just the right sensibility to write this book. As someone who grew up in the Detroit area, whose family worked there, and who returned to live in the city while he did his research, he has the required blend of detachment and empathy to report on what some see as an American ruin.
Right away, he tells you he's not framing things by the usually listed causes--the 1967 riots, white flight, political corruption, decline of the auto companies, over-reaching unions, white suburbanization, and so forth. Not that these aren't part of the picture, but Binelli is not a political scientist but a storyteller tuned to the voices of people whose experience is not mitigated by political and professional interests or theories. I loved the people he picked, and as time goes by, you can see that all kinds of people are drawn to share their stories with him.
He's unblinkingly incredulous about the city's crime and criminals, its feckless and reckless politics, yet there's no moralizing, just insightful description. I suspect you have to be a fan of cities to resonate with his descriptions of urban abandonment and decay. So much of it is poignant, especially the pain it brings to people who cannot afford (or choose not) to leave. One woman tells him that she dare not visit her son in California or her sister somewhere else for fear she'll never return.
Yet you can see why people find Detroit mesmerizing. Like many of the black residents he interviews, Italian-American Binelli is not particularly impressed that Europeans are fascinated by the aspects of ruin. Nor is he entirely enthusiastic about white urban farmers, hipsters and artists who move into an essentially black city as though it's their birthright. But you couldn't find a better guide to Detroit today. I feel better prepared to visit myself.