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Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis

Binelli, Mark Author

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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.

Detroit City Is the Place to Be is one of Publishers Weekly's Top 10 Best Books of 2012

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About the Author:

Mark Binelli is the author of the novel Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! and a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. Born and raised in the Detroit area, he now lives in New York City.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction   Back when I was a boy, growing up just outside of Detroit, my friends and I beheld any mention of the city in popular culture with a special thrill. We loved how Detroit was deemed terrifying enough to be chosen as the dystopian locale of RoboCop, the science fiction film set in a coyly undated “near future,” when Detroit had become so dangerous that the outsourcing of law enforcement to an armored, heavily weaponized cyborg would seem a prudent and necessary move. And when the producers of Beverly Hills Cop decided to make the hometown of Eddie Murphy’s fish-out-of-water detective our own—because, after all, what could be more antipodal to Rodeo Drive than Woodward Avenue, what more alien presence to the Beverly Palms Hotel than a black dude from Detroit in a Mumford High T-shirt?—we delighted in that, too. We certainly tested the speakers of our American-made Dodge hatchbacks whenever a Detroit song found itself played on one of the competing local rock stations. Who would be churlish enough to flag these songs as relics of an earlier era or point out how the lyrics pivoted off the city’s reputation for chaos, riotousness, destruction to such a degree the very titles—“Panic in Detroit” (Bowie, 1973), “Detroit Breakdown” (J. Geils Band, 1974), “Motor City Madhouse” (Nugent, 1975)—could be mistaken for headlines from July 1967? To this day, when the plangent opening piano chords of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” blare from a dive bar jukebox, who among us begrudges even this most overplayed of power ballads a respectful split-second cock of the head and perhaps a secret inner smile as well, all because the protagonist of the song was “born and raised in South Detroit”—no matter that there wasn’t really a neighborhood called South Detroit or that the person living there wanted so badly to get the hell out he took a midnight train goin’ anywhere.

My parents subscribed to Time, and I can remember excitedly reading a story, at the height of the tension between Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union, detailing the effects of a single nuclear bomb dropped on a major American city. This city, the editors explained, had been chosen entirely at random—but of course it was Detroit, a choice that by 1982 probably came across to most locals as an ungallant case of piling on. Still, at twelve years old, I devoured the shout-out as if the city had won some national lottery.

The article began, “Say it is late April, a cloudless Thursday evening in Detroit. Assume further that there is no advance warning.”

Beginning at ground zero of the blast and expanding concentrically, the story proceeded to describe, in gruesome detail, the fate of Detroit and its residents. If you happened to be watching a baseball game at the old Tiger Stadium, for example, you would immediately go blind. Then you would burst into flame. “But,” the writer continued, unhelpfully, “the pain ends quickly: the explosion’s blast wave, like a super-hardened wall of air moving faster than sound, crushes the stands and the spectators into a heap of rubble.”

Skyscrapers topple. Commuters melt inside their cars. Even Canadians in neighboring Windsor—this I found particularly satisfying—would be fatally pelted with fragments of the Renaissance Center, “hurled across the river by 160-m.p.h. winds.” Following the geography of the article to my family’s own suburb, I learned that, only a minute after the blast, fires would be already raging and “tens of thousands” of people dying, survivors “crawl[ing] from wrecked homes” to see an eight-mile-high mushroom cloud in the distance.

But—survivors! See, I pointed out to my little brother, even at that early age displaying the hopeful spirit that all Detroit-area natives learn by necessity to cultivate like a rare breed of flower. One of us might live!

???

Detroit used to be the greatest working-class city in the most prosperous country in the world. With the explosion of the auto industry, it had become the Silicon Valley of the Jazz Age, a capitalist dream town of unrivaled innovation and bountiful reward. My family came from Italy, our neighbor from Tennessee, my dad’s friends were from Poland, Lebanon, Mexico. All had been drawn to Detroit, if not explicitly for the auto industry—my father sharpened knives and sold restaurant equipment—then because of what the auto industry had come to represent. The cars rolling off the assembly lines existed as tangible manifestations of the American Dream, the factories themselves a glimpse of the birth of modernity, in which mass production would beget mass employment and, in turn, mass consumption. Workers, eager to claim their share of the unprecedentedly high wages on offer, migrated to the city in droves, doubling Detroit’s population in a single decade, from 465,000 to nearly a million, making the city, by 1920, the fourth largest in the nation. The art deco skyscrapers bursting from the downtown streets like rockets must have seemed like monuments to Fordism’s manifest destiny. Everything pointed up.

Often, people incorrectly isolate the 1967 riot as the pivotal Detroit-gone-wrong moment, after which nothing ever went right. In fact, the auto industry had been in a serious economic slump for at least a decade prior, with tension in the black community festering for even longer and the axial shift of jobs and white residents from city proper to suburbs solidly under way. What the civic unrest, aside from hastening the process, did permanently change was the national story line about the city. If, once, Detroit had stood for the purest fulfillment of U.S. industry, it now represented America’s most epic urban failure, the apotheosis of the new inner-city mayhem sweeping the nation like LSD and unflattering muttonchop sideburns. The fires of the rebellion launched a long-running narrative, one that persists today, of Detroit as a hopelessly failed state, a terrifying place of violent crime and general lawlessness. As John Lee Hooker, who had come north to work on the assembly line at Ford and later made his name as a bluesman in the juke joints of Detroit’s Hastings Street, sang in “Motor City Is Burning”:

My hometown burnin’ down to the ground

Worser than Vietnam . . .

That, for as long as I can remember, might as well have been the unofficial slogan of the city. WELCOME TO DETROIT: WORSER THAN VIETNAM.

Things proceeded apace—that is to say, horribly—despite a brief lull of hope offered by the election, in 1974, of Coleman Young, the city’s first black mayor. With the emergence of crack, drug violence bloodied the city, while Devil’s Night, the night before Halloween, traditionally a time for relatively harmless pranks involving toilet-papered trees and soaped car windows, turned into an annual citywide arson festival, peaking in 1984 with an estimated eight hundred fires. As a media event, Devil’s Night proved irresistibly photogenic, the smoke hanging over the city seeming to taunt its distant twin in 1967. Rather than two lit ends of a time line, the fires came to feel like a single conflagration, one that had never been extinguished, the time line itself—the entirety of the seventies—merely a long, slow-burning fuse.

???

Detroit has long been a city observers find endlessly fascinating, often to the irritation of people who actually live in Detroit—the kind of place easily conscripted for overblown metaphorical theses or described as being a “symptom” of something bigger. Whenever I told people I’d grown up in metropolitan Detroit, they expressed a morbid curiosity, as if I’d revealed having been raised the next town over from Chernobyl or in the same apartment building as Jeffrey Dahmer. Other urban centers face very similar problems, but none have plummeted from the same heights as Detroit. The story of the city, of its meteoric rise and stunning fall, possesses the sort of narrative arc to which people seem hardwired to respond. It’s an almost classically structured tale of humble origins transcended by entrepreneurial moxie and much diligent toil, all eventually brought low by tragic flaws (hubris, greed, long-simmering prejudices come home to roost).

Of course, on a basic level of storytelling, people also love tales of Detroit because there’s just something inherently pleasing about having one’s plot expectations so consistently fulfilled. When the chief of police takes to Facebook to warn Christmas shoppers in Detroit not to carry cash (because of the high probability of being mugged) or when, over the course of a single fiery afternoon, eighty homes in the middle of the city go up like trees in an old-growth forest, it does not disrupt the equilibrium of the world. In fact, such events reinforce existing ideas in a way that’s perversely reassuring. These are the sorts of stories people want to read about when they read about Detroit—especially, perhaps, at times of economic instability, when a reminder of the existence of a place so much more profoundly screwed than your own offers a cruel comfort, one which, thanks to the moral aspect of the city’s downfall, viz. the aforementioned hubris, greed, and prejudice, can be indulged more or less guilt-free, even with a dash of schadenfreude.

And yet Detroit’s almost mythic allure isn’t solely about misery. People have been drawn to The City Where Life Is Worth Living (an actual non-ironical historical nickname*) since the golden age of the automobile. To commemorate the 1927 rollout of the Model A, for example, the modernist photographer and painter Charles Sheeler was hired by an advertising firm to spend six weeks at Ford’s gargantuan River Rouge plant, the largest factory in the world, with ninety-three buildings, sixteen million square feet of floor space, and 120 miles—miles!—of conveyor belt. Sheeler shot the plant the way an eighteenth-century painter might have depicted the interior of a cathedral, the elemental, almost sanctified vastness a seemingly intentional reminder of man’s insignificance in the presence of God—or, in this case, Mr. Ford. “Our factories,” Sheeler later wrote, “are our substitute for religious expression.” † While touring America in 1935, Le Corbusier also stopped in Detroit, requesting immediately upon his arrival his own tour of the Rouge. In his book Cathedrals, he wrote of being “plunged in a kind of stupor” after leaving the plant. He was convinced Detroit’s factories would be where his mass-produced “homes of the future” might one day be built.

On the opposite end of the reactive spectrum, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, then a young doctor working for the League of Nations, visited Detroit in 1927 to report on the health conditions of workers at Ford’s factories. Appalled by what he witnessed, Céline recorded the degradations of the assembly line in his report and, subsequently, in his novel Journey to the End of the Night. The book’s protagonist, Ferdinand, describes the factories where he seeks work as resembling “enormous dollhouses, inside which you could see men moving, but hardly moving, as if they were struggling against something impossible. . . . And then all around me and above me as far as the sky, the heavy, composite, muffled roar of torrents of machines, hard wheels obstinately turning, grinding, groaning, always on the point of breaking down but never breaking down.” Later, while receiving a medical examination preliminary to being hired, Ferdinand informs the doctor that he, too, is an educated man. “Your studies won’t do you a bit of good around here, son,” the doctor says, shooting him a dirty look. “We don’t need imaginative types in our factory. What we need is chimpanzees. . . . Let me give you a piece of advice. Never mention your intelligence again!”

In 1929, the New York monthly Outlook sent the poet and journalist Matthew Josephson to cover the auto show. A leftist intellectual (and a fierce critic of Henry Ford) who had just published a biography of Zola, Josephson writes of the city with scorn and condescension, but also with undeniable awe, in the same manner one might marvel at the aesthetics and scale of, say, an SS rally as filmed by Leni Riefenstahl. After noting Detroit’s unlikely possession of one of the original castings of The Thinker, which still glowers distractedly from the steps of the Detroit Institute of Arts, Josephson proceeds to frolic in the irony of Rodin’s masterpiece brooding at the heart of a city in which thought, to Josephson’s mind, “has somehow been circumvented”: “Something that was automatic, something that ran by an internal combustion engine had taken its place. In fact a new word was needed to express the trance, the fearful concentration with which all men awaited the approaching Automobile Show. . . . No one thought of the human body, or the body politic. All minds were bent wholeheartedly upon the new Fisher or Chrysler bodies.”

And yet, unhappily, Josephson also recognizes the brute power of a metropolis that he says has “no past . . . no history.” He calls Detroit “the most modern city in the world, the city of tomorrow.” This is not meant as a compliment.

???

In January 2009, precisely eighty years after Josephson’s hysterical dispatch, I returned to Detroit on an identical assignment, to cover the approaching Automobile Show—and, more broadly, the collapse of the domestic auto industry—for Rolling Stone. My family still lived in the suburbs, so even though I’d moved away in 1993, I had continued to visit regularly. All the while, Detroit had remained Detroit, a grim national punch line. In the eight decades since Josephson’s account of the city’s vulgar ascendance, my hometown had gone from being a place with “no past . . . no history” to becoming one that barely possessed a present and certainly had no future. At least not the version of the city Josephson witnessed, that city having become entirely history by this late date, the very word Detroit threatening to turn into one of those place-names that no longer immediately signifies place but rather, like Pompeii, Hiroshima, or Dresden, the traumatic end of one.

When Josephson reported his own story, in January 1929, the stock market crash was nine months away. Detroit’s fortunes plummeted during the Great Depression, and it required nothing less than the outbreak of World War II, when the car factories were retooled as tank and aircraft plants and Detroit became known as “the Arsenal of Democracy,” for the city to recover. In the case of my visit to the auto show, on the other hand, the economic free fall had been occurring in real time since the preceding summer. I arrived on the week of Barack Obama’s inauguration, an incautiously hopeful moment, despite the seismic tremors of financial uncertainty. In Detroit, though, all minds were bent wholeheartedly not upon the new Fisher or Chrysler bodies—Chrysler, in fact, debuted no new models at the 2009 auto show and would declare bankruptcy three months later, with GM to follow shortly thereafter—but upon questions of basic survival, as the city faced its worst crisis in decades.

For Detroit, this was saying something. Where to begin? The most recent mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, had just begun serving a three-month jail sentence, having resigned in disgrace following a sex and corruption scandal. Meanwhile, the heads of the Big Three automakers, just weeks earlier, had appeared before Congress to publicly grovel for a financial lifeline—this after personally making the nine-hour drive from Detroit to Washington in hybrid cars, atonement for flying to the initial hearing on corporate jets. (All the humiliating stunt lacked was Burt Reynolds racing them in a souped-up Prius and they might have pulled in some extra cash with a reality TV pilot.) At just over 15 percent, Michigan would have the highest unemployment rate i...

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