BookReviews

The rise, fall, and resurgence of an iconic rust-belt city

The story of a once industrial powerhouse of the Midwest now blighted by drugs and crime

Reviewed by Jonathan Bradley

I was introduced to America’s motor city in the winter of 2005, landing at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport at dawn off a red-eye flight. I was there to visit a family friend who lived, like so many other white folks in the city’s metropolitan area, not in the city itself, but in one of the less dysfunctional suburbs that ring the outskirts — in her case, a working class neighbourhood in the Westside enclave of Livonia.

It was getting ready to snow that day, and the grey skies did little to brighten the city. As my host and I drove around downtown — Detroit long ago gave itself over entirely to the automobile — the overcast conditions lent even the parts of the city yet to succumb to urban decay an air of hard scrabble gloom. The refurbished Fox Theatre, the gleaming Renaissance Center hulked over the river, the gigantic sculpted tigers prowling the outskirts of the pristine new ballpark, the uncharacteristic bustle of Greektown, and the rare neighbourhoods in which lavish mansions left over from the city’s more prosperous days were still well-kept seemed less a sign of life and more a stubborn refusal to succumb to the popular conception of Detroit as a 139 square mile urban hospice.

My host didn’t try to pretend Detroit was not disintegrating, and tolerated well my prurient fascination with its evacuated boulevards and its acres of inner-city prairie interrupted by the odd boarded-up shopfront or what locals call “party stores” — outlets catering for the ever-resilient demand for liquor, lottery tickets, and payday loans. But she insisted that I also see the parts of the city that defied the death sentence the rest of the nation had written for it. Detroiters, understandably, get prickly if you start to pretend theirs is a city that exists as a relic rather than a real place where actual people — seven hundred thousand of them, in fact — live and, in lesser numbers, work.

There are plenty of writers willing to discuss the death of Detroit: a near cottage industry has sprung up around cataloguing the town’s failures as a cautionary tale for the rest of America. But the challenge for Rolling Stone reporter Mark Binelli lies not in dissecting a corpse but in describing the town as it lives. Detroit City is the Place to Be is subtitled “The Afterlife of an American Metropolis”, and Binelli promises in the introduction to look towards the city’s future, or at least its present. “Detroit-as-whodunit had been done, ad nauseum”, he writes in the introduction. “Rather than relitigate the sins of the past, I hoped to discover something new about the city — specifically, what happens to a once great place after it has been used up and discarded?”

To answer this question, Binelli, who grew up in the area’s suburbs, buys one of the many cheap houses available within the city proper and sets about making himself a local — or, at least, getting to know the locals. Some of the characters that fill these pages are familiar types: union members trying to hang on to decent conditions as their jobs ebb away; corrupt, money-grubbing local politicians; incompetent and impenitent auto executives; civil-rights era activists still suspicious of interfering interlopers; coteries of crooks, crack dealers, and scrap iron scavengers; and Detroit’s newest bête noire, the wave of young white artists attracted by cheap rents and the creative opportunities afforded by a blank civic canvas.

But this cast cannot account for Detroit in its messier, less-satisfying reality. Despite the temptation to see the city as something apart from the rest of America, an accident that can be quarantined and forgotten about, Detroit is more than a warning: just as its 20th century successes were America’s, so too do its failures belong to the rest of the country.

“People came to the city because Detroit represented an idea about America they wanted to believe,” says Binelli. Where New York is America’s melting pot crammed entirely within five boroughs and Los Angeles a sprawling expanse dedicated to turning fantasy into reality, even at its peak Detroit’s ambitions were more modest. It developed as a town of efficient factories and tidy middle class homes, not glittering skyscrapers or palaces on palisades. “Progress was inevitable, was the ethos,” says Binelli. “Personal salvation could be achieved through hard work.” He quotes New York Times columnist Anne O’Hare McCormick in 1934: “It belongs to a period of democratised luxuries, with gas stations on every corner, chain stores, moving-picture palaces, glittering automats, broadcast symphonies...” Detroit was remarkable less for the scale of its prosperity and more that it could spread that wealth so far and wide.

But not widely enough. Even when Detroit was prosperous, it was riven by segregation and racial hatred, both of the city and its metropolitan surrounds. Many of the pathologies that infected other American cities of the time, particularly racially discriminatory housing policy, applied to Detroit as well. By the time the city’s white residents began vacating for the suburbs and the 1967 riots flared up, the rot had begun to set in. Racism still shapes the city’s dysfunction today; the wealthy regions refuse to subsidise the poorer core's services, surrounding suburbs maintain their own public transport networks, and the sorts of integrated regional policies that could reduce wasteful duplication of services and break the vicious cycle that besets cities with diminishing tax bases are barely considered. “In Detroit,” acknowledges Binelli, “the chances of this ever happening were slim — okay, nonexistent — but daydreaming about the real benefits of such a move could be a tantalizing exercise.”

Daydreaming is a favoured pastime for some Detroiters: what utopia might be built once the city finally extinguishes itself? Some, like the preposterous collection of artists and cultural consorts Binelli trails from industrial performance art setpiece to “ruin porn” photo-op, are eager to embrace the city as a post-modern playground. More realistically, though still somewhat absurdly, are those who dream of establishing inner city farms on the vacant lots left behind when abandoned houses are torn — or, all too often, burned — down. Part of the motivation behind the great migration from the South to the northern industrial cities was people’s desire for a life better than that of their sharecropping past. The US is a first world country; is subsistence farming really a solution for any of its economic woes, even those of Detroit?

Binelli relates these utopian ideas, but he also makes room for Detroit’s dreadfully mundane grotesques as well. A pair of drug dealers murder and dismember an addict and scatter his body parts around their neighbourhood as a warning to rivals, in one of the daily murders the city experiences, and Binelli is the only journalist to show up for the trial. A group of citizen crime fighters, the Detroit 300, hunts down crime suspects, and the police welcome the extra support rather than condemn the vigilantism. A gun safety trainer warns his students to be prepared to kill twelve-year-olds for self-defence. One plan proffered by politicians to save the city involves refusing to provide services to the most run-down parts of town. Whatever opportunities Detroit might offer, daily existence there sounds arduous and immiserating in a way that makes the city’s decline seem logical and irreversible. Why would you want to live there?

Detroit City is a curious amalgam of travelogue, urban history, and feature reporting. Binelli’s approach is a granular one, and at times the book reads as if it were a series of magazine articles, each devoted to a new take on the one subject: Detroit and crime; Detroit and politics; Detroit and urban planning. Binelli is not a historian, and his dips into history best serve as anecdotal asides rather than an explication of a solid narrative framework of the city’s history. His greatest attribute is his reporter’s eye — he has a knack for spotting a compelling yarn or pungent detail.

“Detroit isn’t some kind of abstract art project,” one resident tells Binelli. “It’s real for people.” Making it thus is Detroit City’s greatest accomplishment, and the most important part of any discussion of Detroit. This, after all, is a city underpinning the twelfth biggest metropolitan area in the US, and a whole lot of Americans rely on it — and will continue to do so for many decades to come. Forgetting it is not an option. The US has watched Detroit’s decline with a lurid fascination. But as much as America can’t take its eyes off a collapse, it also loves a comeback story. Detroit could have an afterlife yet.