“All is amazement and confusion.” — A Review of Detroit City Is the Place to Be

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.”

Hiking Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore: An Introduction

Thirteen years ago during a sweltering summer heat wave I joined my fiancé and my future father-in-law, sister-in-law, and brother-in-law at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore for some backcountry hiking and camping. It was my first hiking trip. I was nineteen. Despite the record heat, a huge thunderstorm the first night, and the hatching of about 7 billion black flies that loved nothing more than swarming our sweating brows and biting us fairly relentlessly, I loved it. Over the years, I went on a few more trips with my husband’s family, and once just the two of us, in various state forests and trails. But my own family didn’t hike. Or camp. Or even vacation all that much. (I realize that not everyone would consider carrying your home and food on your back for miles every day a vacation.)

Nevertheless, when I suggested to my sister a few months ago that we start going on an annual sisters’ hiking trip, just the two of us, she was totally game. What better place for our first trip than Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore?

This coming weekend, my big sister and I will be hiking along the gorgeous shores of Lake Superior, looking for fantastic rock formations and waterfalls, slapping mosquitoes and black flies, and sharing some quality time sans progeny.

The National Parks Service website for Pictured Rocks has a free 191 page PDF detailing the history of the park. In case you’re not inclined to read that much, here are a few excerpted portions that can act as a bit of a mini history lesson on how the park came to be (full text can be read here). One helpful note: it really starts on page 30 (for some bizarre reason, all the chapter end notes are at the beginning of the PDF).

The National Park Service was the last of the public agencies to turn its attention to the north woods and its problems of resource management and economic development. Isle Royale, the first national park in the north woods region, was established in 1941. Local efforts to establish parks at Indiana Dunes and Apostle Islands were frustrated by a federal establishment that failed to see the recreational potential of the inland seas. It was only with the Great Lakes Shoreline Survey in 1958 and the federal government’s expansive approach to regional redevelopment in the early 1960s that the National Park Service became a force in the protection of Great Lakes landscapes.

The national lakeshores of the Great Lakes have all had a challenging management history. In 1987 a Sierra Club spokesman referred to these units as the “orphans of the National Park Service.”

The NPS article mentions that the North Woods region had a difficult time of it transitioning the local culture and economy from one of almost exclusively logging and mining operations to one focused more on tourism than extraction.

The Pictured Rocks and the Grand Sable Banks are two of the most striking scenic features in eastern North America. The multicolored sandstone cliffs stretch for fifteen miles along Lake Superior’s south shore. The Grand Sable Banks are a dramatic four square mile perched dune created 10,000 years ago by the last glaciation. Between these spectacular features is a landscape of inland lakes, spectacular waterfalls, and miles of sand-graced strand. Had this area been located near the early population centers of the United States it would have emerged at an early date as a major tourist destination. But geography assured Pictured Rocks region a very different history. While tourism and urbanization embraced and degraded Niagara Falls, Mammoth Cave, and the Hudson River valley the Upper Peninsula of Michigan remained a remote resource frontier. The Pictured Rocks were little known and seldom seen by out of state visitors until after World War II.

Despite the serious exploration and mapping of the region in 1820 (the Lewis Cass Expedition), the shoreline still failed to gain much national interest. In the early 1800s, people were far more interested in finding copper deposits than in developing hiking trails. There were a couple attempts mid-century to develop hotels and tourist areas, but they did not succeed. It seems that Mackinac Island was about as far north as most tourists could hack.

After 1846, the Lake Superior country had to compete for attention with the vast and widely heralded vistas of the Mountain West. When Horace Greeley of the New York Herald editorialized “Go west, young man” he meant the Lake Superior country. Yet the Mexican War changed America’s conception of its frontier to the far west. The mineral resources of northern Michigan continued to be developed, but by the 1850s, the northern lakes region ceased to attract much national attention. The strongly romantic images of the Pictured Rocks created by Schoolcraft and the other scientific explorers retreated from public consciousness. While the Keweenaw became famous for copper and the Marquette Range for iron ore, neither was an attraction for the genteel travelers of Victorian America.

The handful of tourists who did visit the Pictured Rocks required heroic determination. Artist A. L. Rawson spent part of two summers exploring the area in the mid-1860s. In May 1867, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine published his extended account of the Pictured Rocks illustrated by eighteen drawings. Rawson was not disappointed by the “fairy-like forms and colors” of the cliffs which he esteemed were “a truly grand procession of wonders, not equaled in its kind in all the world.” Although Rawson strained to convince readers that the region was “a pleasant summer retreat” he had to admit to “some few disadvantages, the chief of which is the appalling fact that it is about two or three days’ canoe journey, either way, to a beef-steak.”

Over the second half of the 19th century, the area was bought up by rich industrialists who created expansive and exclusive clubs for other rich folk who wanted to try being “rustic” for a while and hunt game. But finally in the 1920s, more “normal” people got the chance to see the Pictured Rocks on regular boat tours. The Depression put a stop to most of what little tourism was happening before WWII. Luckily, though, the region was a prime candidate for reforestation by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and during the 1930s a transformation began that would eventually take the Upper Peninsula forests from clear-cut stump graveyards to a flourishing ecosystem once again. And after the war, with American industry at its zenith, there were finally the resources and the will to make it a bit easier to get around the Upper Peninsula.

In the 1950s, with the explosion of automobiles, a northern Michigan vacation was made much more accessible to the many Americans who were now taking much needed vacations. More and more people could afford summer homes Up North. And when these urban people saw how lovely and how valuable the scenery was, irrespective of its economic possibilities, they started to work to preserve and protect it.

The depth of emotion that summer cottagers began to attach to the north woods is illustrated by the memoir of James R. Bailey, a lower Michigan resident who grew-up spending his summers at a cabin on Grand Sable Lake. “When I was a child growing up in Ithaca, Michigan, it seemed that my whole life was consumed with my next visit to the Cabin. I found security in the fact that the Cabin was there, no matter what happened in my life I knew that the Cabin existed, in all its beauty, in the harsh Grand Marais winters, the grizzly Canadian winds and the unpredictable Spring rains. It was there alive, not only in my memory but in reality, I didn’t have to actually be there, just knowing it was there added to the comfort level of my state of being.” Ironically, in 1985 Bailey lost his family cottage to the Nation Park Service’s land acquisition program.

The NPS article has a detailed explanation of all the various steps that were taken, thwarted, and taken again to make the Pictured Rocks a national park, and it is an interesting read (if you’re into that sort of thing). But since I know most of you probably don’t fall into that camp, I will tell you that the first bill to reach the Senate wasn’t until 1961! And it wasn’t until 1966 that the Pictured Rocks were finally declared a National Park. It was the first lakeshore to be thus designated. And this momentous turn of events came about more than 300 years after the first recorded European visitor, a French trapper and fur trader by the name of Pierre Esprit Radisson, who first encountered the Rocks in 1658.

Now, 354 years since Radisson floated through the cold waters of Lake Superior, my sister and I will be hiking this marvelous landscape. Upon our return, you can rest assured I will have plenty of photos to share!