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Detroit City

November 14, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

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.

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