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Detroit City

November 14, 2012 Leave a comment

People embarrassed to be found with a copy of Playboy would explain they read it for the interviews. (And by the way, as the famous 1976 Jimmy Carter interview, demonstrated, the interviews were worth reading.) When caught with the Wall Street Journal, I explain that I read it for the book reviews.

Just a week ago, I wrote about putting aside the new book I was reading, Theodore Ross’s Am I a Jew?: Lost Tribes, Lapsed Jews, and One Man’s Search for Himself, in favor of Richard Russo’s new memoir Elsewhere, thanks to Amy Finnerty’s WSJ review. I finished Elsewhere on Saturday, the same day that Cameron McWhirter’s WSJ review of Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis appeared. I was tempted to downloaded the book immediately, but it wasn’t available, the publications date being yesterday. Thus I returned to Am I a Jew?, anticipating that I would put it aside yet again with the publication of Binelli’s book.

Turns out, I finished Ross on the airplane ride home from Chicago Monday night, and with not a minute to spare. Just seconds after I read the last page, the flight attendant told us to put our electronic devices away. On awakening yesterday morning, I downloaded Detroit City Is the Place to Be.

What’s the book’s attraction? I’ve written before about the affection Gail and I have for Detroit. About reading Paul Clemens’ Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant. And reading his earlier masterpiece Made in Detroit: A South of 8-Mile Memoir. About two visits to Detroit in the winter of 2009. No point reviewing all that. As for Binelli’s book, here is the publisher’s description:

Once America’s capitalist dream town, Detroit is our country’s greatest urban failure, having fallen the longest and the farthest. But the city’s worst crisis yet (and that’s saying something) has managed to do the unthinkable: turn the end of days into a laboratory for the future. Urban planners, land speculators, neopastoral agriculturalists, and utopian environmentalists—all have been drawn to Detroit’s baroquely decaying, nothing-left-to-lose frontier.

With an eye for both the darkly absurd and the radically new, Detroit-area native Mark Binelli has chronicled this convergence. Throughout the city’s “museum of neglect”—its swaths of abandoned buildings, its miles of urban prairie—he tracks both the blight and the signs of its repurposing, from the school for pregnant teenagers to a beleaguered UAW local; from metal scrappers and gun-toting vigilantes to artists reclaiming abandoned auto factories; from the organic farming on empty lots to GM’s risky wager on the Volt electric car; from firefighters forced by budget cuts to sleep in tents to the mayor’s realignment plan (the most ambitious on record) to move residents of half-empty neighborhoods into a viable, new urban center.

Sharp and impassioned, Detroit City Is the Place to Be is alive with the sense of possibility that comes when a city hits rock bottom. Beyond the usual portrait of crime, poverty, and ruin, we glimpse a longshot future Detroit that is smaller, less segregated, greener, economically diverse, and better functioning—what could be the boldest reimagining of a post-industrial city in our new century.

And an excerpt from the WSJ review:

[Binelli] is also an excellent writer and a sensitive and careful reporter. Mr. Binelli tells us early in his book that he wants to do something more than simply recount Detroit’s decline. “Detroit-as-whodunit had been done, ad nauseam,” he writes. “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? Who sticks around and tries to make things work again?”

Along the way, Mr. Binelli gives the reader a condensed history of the city, from French settlers to Prohibition mobsters to today’s corrupt politicians. 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. Mr. Binelli paints vivid portraits of key figures in the city’s past …

We learn what it is like to live in Detroit’s decimated neighborhoods, as Mr. Binelli wanders about talking with various eccentric characters, all with personal horror stories about getting by in a city in free fall. …

A return trip to Detroit beckoned, with Binelli as my guide, and I didn’t resist. I’m about 30 pages in, as Binelli sets the stage. So far so good. The big question: what will I do when Ian Rankin’s latest, Standing in Another Man’s Grave, arrives from the UK? The estimated arrival date was today. No deal. Maybe tomorrow, in which case I may leave Detroit temporarily for Edinburgh.

Categories: Books

Wells on Fieri

November 14, 2012 Leave a comment

I make it a habit whenever a restaurant gets a four-star review in the NYT to devote a post to it. At the other extreme, I also highlight the pans. Today was a pan day. Indeed, Pete Wells’ pan of Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar is historic. With David Pogue and Andrew Sullivan, among others, beating me to the punch, and with the review currently listed at the NYT site as both the most emailed and the most viewed item, my linking service is probably unneeded. Nonetheless, in case you have yet to see the review, which has spent the day reverberating around the internet, have a look. And check out the slide show as well.

From the restaurant homepage:

Located right in the heart of Times Square, we’re all about big flavors and good times. Off-the-hook scratch-made food, hand crafted signature beers, killer cocktails and rockin’ tunes are on tap here at my joint and I look forward to havin’ ya over to my house!

From the review, which should be read in full:

Guy Fieri, have you eaten at your new restaurant in Times Square? Have you pulled up one of the 500 seats at Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar and ordered a meal? Did you eat the food? Did it live up to your expectations?

Did panic grip your soul as you stared into the whirling hypno wheel of the menu, where adjectives and nouns spin in a crazy vortex? When you saw the burger described as “Guy’s Pat LaFrieda custom blend, all-natural Creekstone Farm Black Angus beef patty, LTOP (lettuce, tomato, onion + pickle), SMC (super-melty-cheese) and a slathering of Donkey Sauce on garlic-buttered brioche,” did your mind touch the void for a minute?

Did you notice that the menu was an unreliable predictor of what actually came to the table? Were the “bourbon butter crunch chips” missing from your Almond Joy cocktail, too? Was your deep-fried “boulder” of ice cream the size of a standard scoop?

What exactly about a small salad with four or five miniature croutons makes Guy’s Famous Big Bite Caesar (a) big (b) famous or (c) Guy’s, in any meaningful sense?

Were you struck by how very far from awesome the Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders are? If you hadn’t come up with the recipe yourself, would you ever guess that the shiny tissue of breading that exudes grease onto the plate contains either pretzels or smoked almonds? Did you discern any buttermilk or brine in the white meat, or did you think it tasted like chewy air?

Why is one of the few things on your menu that can be eaten without fear or regret — a lunch-only sandwich of chopped soy-glazed pork with coleslaw and cucumbers — called a Roasted Pork Bahn Mi, when it resembles that item about as much as you resemble Emily Dickinson?

When you have a second, Mr. Fieri, would you see what happened to the black bean and roasted squash soup we ordered?

Categories: Journalism, Restaurants