Detroit City, 2
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.