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Detroit City, 2

November 18, 2012 Leave a comment

Wednesday night I wrote about a book I was a short ways into, Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis. As much as I was enjoying it, I anticipated putting it aside once Ian Rankin’s latest Edinburgh crime novel, Standing in Another Man’s Grave, arrived from the UK (which it was supposed to do by Wednesday, according to UK Amazon). It came Friday.

I had a long day Friday, first teaching, then spending almost all of the next ten hours with a long-awaited visitor from Texas State University. On arriving home, I was excited to see the Amazon package. Without delay, I read the first ten pages, in which Rankin’s great character John Rebus makes his return five years after retiring in Exit Music. But I was missing Binelli, and Detroit. Yesterday morning I surprised myself by putting Rebus aside and returning to Binelli, finishing his book this morning.

The book is unexpectedly powerful. Not a systematic study of the politics, economics, history, or sociology of Detroit. No grand theories. No vision. Just a series of stories of the lives lived by Detroit residents. For example, chapter 10 tells the tale of a murder, the trial of the two young men accused of the crime, and assorted family and friends. Especially notable is the portrait of the mother of one of the accused murderers, who reports him to the police on learning that he may have done it. After the trial, Binelli catches up with one of the likely murderer’s friends. (I should perhaps explain that these young men are all unemployed. They deal drugs. They take metal from abandoned buildings. They get by.) Binelli writes:

Overman said he was still scrapping, but he also planned to build a three-wheeled bicycle cart—he’s a skilled welder—large enough to carry five hundred bottles of water, which he could sell for a dollar a bottle at some of the free outdoor concerts downtown. As we approached his apartment, Overman pointed to a sign advertising new condominiums “starting in the 150’s.” He shook his head. “Everyone waiting on a list as long as a scroll to get into low-income housing, and they building these condominiums? It seems to me like they moving the upper class here and the lower class across 8 Mile [the northern boundary of Detroit].”

His voice shifting to a skeptical murmur, he read the sign’s tagline: “Be Part of Detroit’s Revitalization.” Then he chuckled. “You know they not talking to us.” By “us” he wasn’t including me, of course.

“Unless that’s a hundred and fifty dollars,” he said. “You feel me?”

A few pages earlier, Binelli wonders why no one else in the media is covering the trial.

The unspoken attitude toward violence in Detroit today isn’t radically different from that of Mayor Charles Bowles, who held office during the [bootlegging] Purple Gang’s heyday. “It is just as well to let these gangsters kill each other off, if they are so minded,” he said in 1930, after a murder spree in which twelve bootleggers were shot and killed over the course of eleven days. “You know the scientists employ one set of parasites to destroy another. May not that be the plan of Providence in these killings among the bandits?”

David Morgan Jr. [the murder victim] was no bandit, of course. But expand Bowles’s sentiment only slightly and even some of the best-intended ideas for reinventing the city begin to take on a disturbing purgative aspect, undertones of a cleansing that leaves no room for the likes of Morgan or Jermaine Overman or Mary Howell [the murderer’s mother]. Aside from the burned-out buildings and overgrown lots, what’s missing from the Tomorrowland renderings of Detroit 2030, with its monorails and Christmas tree farms and office parks and Apple stores? Oh, right: poor people.

You come to feel for many of these people, such as the students and principal at Catherine Ferguson Academy, a Detroit public school for teenage mothers that has a high graduation and college acceptance rate. Or the people taking second jobs as firefighters in Highland Park, the tiny city (in land area) surrounded by Detroit where Henry Ford first built a factory a century ago. With the closing of the factory, the building of a highway right through the middle, and ultimately the loss of a financial base, Highland Park became an even worse version of Detroit. So many fires were set that firefighters from around the country would come to visit and learn.

Not all the stories are depressing. Even those that are leave you admiring the character of the people Binelli introduces. It’s tempting to draw conclusions about the morality of political leaders who turn their backs on our cities. Like Binelli, I will refrain from doing so.

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Categories: Books, Life

Angell Reflections

November 18, 2012 Leave a comment

When I got home Thursday evening, I paged through the newly arrived New Yorker and found a short piece by Roger Angell, which I immediately read. In it, Angell writes movingly about his late wife Carol, in ways I can’t intelligently capture except by quoting. And even then I would do Angell a disservice, as the piece should be read in full.

Alas, the online version is behind the New Yorker’s paywall, so the link to it won’t get you very far unless you’re a subscriber. If you are, read it. If not, though I have misgivings about quoting fragments, here’s a taste:

What the dead don’t know piles up, though we don’t notice it at first. They don’t know how we’re getting along without them, of course, dealing with the hours and days that now accrue so quickly, and, unless they divined this somehow in advance, they don’t know that we don’t want this inexorable onslaught of breakfasts and phone calls and going to the bank, all this stepping along, because we don’t want anything extraneous to get in the way of what we feel about them or the ways we want to hold them in mind. But they’re in a hurry too, or so it seems. Because nothing is happening with them, they are flying away, over that wall, while we are still chained and handcuffed to the weather and the iPhone, to the hurricane and the election and to the couple that’s recently moved in downstairs, in Apartment 2-S, with a young daughter and a new baby girl, and we’re flying off in the opposite direction at a million miles an hour. It would take many days now, just to fill Carol in.

What Carol doesn’t know now is shocking, let’s face it, and I think even her best friends must find themselves thinking about her with a certain new softness or sweetness, as if she were a bit backward. Carol, try to keep up a little, can’t you?

Categories: Life, Writing