One of my avowed reasons for starting this blog is to bring you reviews of books about or set in Michigan, and/or written by Michigan authors. While I intend to review both fiction and nonfiction, both new releases and those decades-old, my first review (nonfiction) is oddly timely as the book has just released. I found it calling to me uninvited on the front table at Schuler Books & Music, a Michigan independent bookstore with locations in the Grand Rapids and Lansing areas. I hadn’t planned on starting reviews until 2013, but I cannot help but press you to buy this book. Even at hardcover prices it is well worth your hard-earned cash.
Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis by Mark Binelli
Refreshingly nonpartisan and presented without the author’s own ego and agenda getting muddled up in things (a flaw so common in nonfiction books that take on difficult subjects), Detroit City Is the Place to Be is simultaneously a lesson in how we got here and how we might possibly get out of here. A Detroit area native (though he now lives in New York City), Mark Binelli covers almost every angle of the problem of Detroit, including historical and current racial tensions, the explosive growth and painful contraction of the auto industry, the eroding tax base and lack of resources, the distrust of outsiders, the blight, the fires, the violent crime, the music, the ruins, the drug culture, the despair, and those small, shimmering pockets of positivity (one almost can’t call them hope just yet) that while things may not quite have bottomed out, the city really has nowhere to go but up.
Binelli weaves a comprehensive and yet somehow still comprehensible tapestry of facts, statistics, and personal stories that gives the reader the big picture of Detroit but doesn’t miss the importance of the details. Even for a Michigander who has been hearing and reading about Detroit’s decline for decades, there are plenty of jaw-dropping moments. In these pages we meet real Detroiters: UAW members losing hope, teen moms grasping a better life for their children, “hustlers” coming up with their own work when jobs are nonexistent, concealed pistol enthusiasts, urban prairie dwellers, guerrilla lawn mowing brigades, and many more. Whether they stick with Detroit because they can’t afford to move or out of a solid sense of loyalty to their family history and their city, they are in it for the long haul and they are not (quite) ready to give up yet.
As one of those people says in Binelli’s book, “Detroit isn’t some kind of abstract art project. It’s real for people. These are real memories. Every one of these houses has a story.” And as Binelli himself says, “Detroit, if anything, is a place where the past cannot be shook loose. It hangs on, tenaciously, creeping over the city like a slow-growing mold, until–this begins to seem inevitable, if you get into a certain mood–the entire place will be nothing but past.”
This is not a book of solutions. It’s not a plan to rightsize a monolith of the nearly bygone modern industrial era. It’s not a crunchy, hippified manifesto on returning to subsistence farming and turning abandoned houses and factories into artists’ studio space. It’s not a vision for a utopian society of light rails, rooftop gardens, and flashy tech jobs. All of those elements are to be found in Detroit City Is the Place to Be because there are earnest people proposing scenarios like these, but they are not exactly championed by Binelli. Rather, like a good, impartial journalist without an ax to grind (amazing, right?) he puts it out on the table for the reader to chew on, bones and all. He leaves the situation in all its absurdly complicated glory because to come to the end and present a “solution” to the problems plaguing Detroit would be the absolute most naive and insulting thing to do. Real life is complex enough. Real life in Detroit is perhaps even more so. And it’s refreshing to read an author who gets it, who knows that you can’t solve a problem like Detroit with a five step plan imposed from the outside.
We naturally want a tidy solution to be discovered (as though people just haven’t been looking hard enough for the past, oh, let’s say 80 years). But we do a disservice to the people living the nightmare on the ground in Detroit (or in other complicated, violent, and seemingly hopeless situations, as this can all be extrapolated to other post-industrial towns and even to volatile areas of the world such as the Middle East) when we imagine that a few policy changes or a few new companies moving to town will solve the problem. Short of a sudden and unprecedented inflow of free money (which doesn’t exist, of course) the rebuilding of this great city will be slow and painful and no one will be completely happy with it at any stage.
Though I’ve never lived in Detroit, both sides of my family are part of its history and growing up we took several trips a year down I-75 to visit grandparents and cousins. Like an intercontinental funnel, various streams of my ancestors made their way first to Canada from Ireland, Scotland, England, and Germany. After pit stops in Ontario ranging from 10 to 125 years, they entered the United States through Detroit. They were farmers, machinists, shop girls, cigar rollers, cabinetmakers, printers, ad men, mechanics, and middle management in retail stores. And slowly over the past two generations they have fanned out from Detroit and are taking my family history west, north, and even to the Eastern seaboard. But Detroit feels like the center of it all to me, the crux of family history. Detroit is where my people are buried.
My great-grandparents farmed land that got swallowed up by the creeping suburbs (and may now very well be in the process of returning to nature, as it were). As a girl, my grandmother performed traditional Scottish dancing at the opening of the Ambassador bridge. My first experience with a race other than my own was playing with my grandparents’ black neighbors. My grandfather’s basement was peppered with tools he had probably pilfered from GM. A Thanksgiving pastime when we visited the Detroit area after the leaves fell was to drive around and gawk at the enormous suburban homes of basketball stars, musicians, and executives. Now people go to gawk at decay.
As a realist in general, I cannot be wildly optimistic about the future of Detroit (and the bulk of Binelli’s book certainly didn’t nurse any idealistic notions that may have been trying to take root in the deep recesses of my subconscious, despite his more hopeful conclusion). But as one who trusts in the transformation of individual lives through the work of God, I can’t be hopeless either. I agree with Binelli’s implicit message that policy changes and business tax breaks and film crews cannot save Detroit on their own. But the spirited people who refuse to leave, who patrol their neighborhoods, who create beauty from ashes–those are the ones who, one by one, family by family, can keep hope alive.
For those of us on the outside, it’s good to remember that before you can save something you must care about it, and before you can care about something you must be educated about it. Detroit City Is the Place to Be is an education. It’s Detroit 101. Whether readers (like myself) use what we learn to try to make a difference is up to us. But we couldn’t have a more concerned, honest, and gentle teacher than Mark Binelli.
I highly recommend this book to every Michigander; to anyone interested in big cities, the post-industrial age, urban planning; to anyone tempted to write Detroit off as a lost cause. It will ground you in reality even while it points to a faint light in the distance that we may reach if only we are brave enough to travel a treacherous road.
Note: The quote in the title of this post is from a description of the city of Detroit after the Great Fire of 1805, found on page 45 of the hardcover book. The quote reads in full “The town of Detroit exists no longer . . . History does not furnish so complete a ruin, happening by accident, and in so short a space of time. All is amazement and confusion.”