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Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis Paperback – November 5, 2013
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The Amazon Book Review
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“First things first: Binelli can really write....A winning combination of humor, skepticism, and sincerity.” ―The New York Times Book Review
“A sharply observed, insightful work of love and fury.” ―The Christian Science Monitor
“Heartbreaking…Darkly funny and prophetic.” ―Rolling Stone
“Magnificent...A crackling rebuttal to ruin porn, those glossy coffee table books that fetishize Detroit's decay…A clear-eyed look at promising recent developments, without any saccharine optimism.” ―The New York Times
“The single best thing to read if you want to understand what Detroit feels like today.” ―San Francisco Chronicle
“Binelli is excellent writer and a sensitive and careful reporter.…He does a great job of presenting the arc of Detroit's 20th century: its rise as automotive capital of the world, its economic apex in the 1950s and its thudding diminishment.” ―The Wall Street Journal
“I can't think of a better work of nonfiction in 2012 than Mark Binelli's Detroit City is the Place to Be....Nothing has come as close to realistically documenting the wackiness of contemporary Detroit.” ―The New York Observer
“Excellent…A stylish, clear-eyed, subtly absurdist panorama...Binelli's engrossing book captures the beauty and nobility of Detroit, and the warmth of its communal life amid hardship and chaos. Binelli also takes full measure of the bizarreness of Detroit's predicament--which is also the bizarreness of a whole nation contemptuously disregarding its achievements.” ―Bookforum
“Mark Binelli's Detroit City Is the Place to Be is part history, part explanation and part profile of a city he knows intimately--he grew up in the Detroit area. Sounds complex? It is, and it should be. The city doesn't need any more labels or quick summaries. It needs someone to put a face on Detroit, to show that it's not rolling over and playing dead. Binelli proves he's up to the task in this refreshing, intriguing work.” ―BookPage
“Terrific…A long-overdue and hugely welcome corrective to the one-dimensional narrative of urban decay that has been spewing out of Detroit roughly since 1970…Binelli is equally skeptical of breathless hype and received wisdom, and he can also be very funny.” ―The Millions
“Binelli went to Detroit and lived there. Does that sound boring? It's not.…Binelli is a good storyteller, an entertaining historian, and an insightful commenter.” ―Slate
“Remember that trend of major newspapers publishing slideshows of decaying Detroit?…Detroit City Is the Place to Be doesn't shy away from these unflattering realities, but it is a far more thoughtful exploration of what it means to be a fallen city. In a sense, it is the antithesis of those lazy slideshows…An impressive portrait of the city, balancing gumshoe research and interviews, some brisk but thorough history, and a nice dose of personal narrative.” ―Grantland
“As fascinating as Detroit's current, tentative renaissance is, Binelli masterfully provides a broader story, a 300-year tour through the formerly wondrous and now wondrously devastated metropolis....A wildly compelling biography of a city as well as a profound commentary on postindustrial America.” ―Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Binelli is a charming writer, and his periodic humorous asides and innate good nature are a welcome contrast to the darker sections.…An informative, often-heartbreaking portrait of a once-great American metropolis gone to hell.” ―Kirkus Reviews
“I like Mark Binelli's book a lot. He covers the shrinking of Detroit, its downfall from the lofty peak as Arsenal of Democracy, with clear, expository prose and no axe to grind. A firefighter asks the author, ‘You going fiction or non-fiction?' Binelli answers, ‘Non.' And the reply comes back, ‘No one's going to believe it.'?” ―Elmore Leonard
“With the acuity of Joan Didion and the controlled hilarity of Ian Frazier, Mark Binelli investigates the portents and absurdities of America's most infamous urban calamity. Exhilarating in scope, irresistible for its intricate, scrupulous portraiture, Detroit City Is the Place to Be is the masterful performance of one of our generation's most humane and brilliant writers.” ―Wells Tower, author of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
“Let's face it. Detroit City is not the place to be. But if you care about America you have to see it, to walk its desolate streets, to talk to the people who make it their home, to hear what it means to live on the wrong side of the post-industrial divide. And you're not going to find a smarter, tougher, more entertaining guide than Mark Binelli. If you give a damn you've got to read this book.” ―Kevin Boyle, author of Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age
“At once hilarious and sharp, sweeping and intimate, Detroit City Is the Place to Be is an oddly delighted warning from the recent future. Mark Binelli writes with the tender scrutiny of a returning exile, in a style that manages to infuse Rolling Stone vigor with Spy wit, Baffler skepticism, and n+1 intelligence. This is a nonfiction novel about our American experiment--grand and grandiose, unprecedented and absurd--and it's the most entertaining and persuasive book about this country I've read in a very long time.” ―Gideon Lewis-Kraus, author of A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and Hopeless
“Mark Binelli has succeeded in synthesizing both the tragedy and absurdity that Detroiters face each and every day in America's fastest shrinking city. Yes, things are dire in Motor City, but the author refuses to perform an autopsy on a place that still radiates rage, pride, hustle, and hope. Detroit, he discovers, is very much alive.” ―Heidi Ewing, director of Detropia
“Before turning the buffalo (or the artists) loose on the haunted prairie that was once Detroit, we should ponder why a great American metropolis was allowed to die. Mark Binelli, Motor City native returned, provides a picaresque but unflinchingly honest look at the crime scene. Like Richard Pryor, he has the rare talent to make you laugh and cry at the same time.” ―Mike Davis, author of Ecology of Fear
“Mark Binelli is a first-rate reporter, gifted with the ability to get almost anybody to open up. Detroit City Is the Place to Be is searching, wide-angle, honest, deeply moving, and unshakably dark. It is a vivid slice of our time and implies a disquieting prophecy of the future.” ―Luc Sante, author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York
“Detroit City is the Place to Be is a brilliant kaleidoscope of everything that is great, broken, inspiring, heart-breaking, and ultimately remarkable about Detroit. This is a portrait of a city unlike anything you've read--funny, profoundly intimate, with characters who lodge themselves into your heart and mind. Mark Binelli has turned the story of Detroit, and by extension America, into a glorious, unforgettable work of art.” ―Dinaw Mengestu, author of How to Read the Air
“First things first: Binelli can really write....A winning combination of humor, skepticism, and sincerity.” ―The New York Times Book Review
About the Author
Mark Binelli is the author of the novel Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! and a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. Born and raised in the Detroit area, he now lives in New York City.
Top customer reviews
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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.
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 suspect that many people who intend to read this book are Michiganders who have grown up hearing stories about the "good old days" of Detroit. I'm sure many of you are tired of hearing about Detroit's problems, and maybe, like me, are getting tired of the media circus that surrounds the city and seeks to profit from its demise. For all of you, let me tell you what this book is not.
Instead, Binelli's book is a hard, honest (dare I say, "Midwestern"?) look at what's happening in the city and how it got to where it is today. Binelli manages to tie together the threads of Detroit's history so eloquently that the complexities of the city, which are often barely visible to outsiders, come into magnificent focus with each chapter. This book is more than an evenhanded account of Detroit; it is one of the definitive accounts, bowing only to Sugrue's "Origins of the Urban Crisis."
In short, I highly recommend Binelli's book. If you are at all interested in Detroit, this one is not to be missed.