About a year ago I was driving through Detroit on my way to hear Springsteen play a suburban arena. As my friend and I sped up I-75 marveling at empty buildings and discussing the fate of Detroit, an empty trash can blew across the highway and nearly missed the car. It was an urban tumbleweed.
For someone who worked in city government, the phrase “becoming Detroit” was a warning and an insult. It’s the ultimate municipal epithet. When riots happened in Cincinnati in 2001, it was a phrased applied liberally. Want to scare voters? Tell them that without whatever policy, the City will be well on its way to becoming the next Detroit. A city that’s lost and gone forever. Abandoned. Ruined.
There are more than 600,000 people who live in the City of Detroit. TWICE the number of people in Cincinnati. It is still one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States. Sure, it’s bankrupt. It’s got a high crime rate. An enormous unemployment rate. They can’t even keep the damn lights on. But 600,000 of our fellow citizens live there. Beyond the circus freak show approach that many use to report on one of America’s oldest and greatest cities, what the hell is going on there?
Mark Binelli’s book is a first-person piece of journalism that attempts to answer that question. Binelli has roots in Detroit, and he rightly reminds the reader of this repeatedly, lest he be criticized for being some carpetbagging Brooklynite looking for a book project. He writes with respect for his home, but also possesses a healthy frankness about what really is wrong with the City. His cynicism isn’t overwrought and his enthusiasm doesn’t come off as naive. It’s solid writing about a City, and you’ll probably enjoy this even if you’ve never been to Detroit.
Binelli looks at big picture and details: He takes a good look at the debate over shrinking the City and offers a few contradictory viewpoints, making sure to include the obligatory questions of race, which color every decision in Detroit. And he tells us about the new urban farmers, chuckling at the irony in the fact that Henry Ford’s “absolute detestation of farmwork had driven him from then-rural Dearborn to the city and played no small role in motivating his wholesale reinvention of the American way of life.” It’s a good balance.
Binelli does a fine job writing about crime, poverty and politics in the City–three topics that you must cover when writing about Detroit. But he really shines when he tackles the subtle and difficult conflict over how blacks perceive whites who are showing up in the City–and actually growing in number–and about how those whites are often ignorant of how ridiculous they look to Detroiters who never left or never could leave. He nudges Richard Florida, scoffs at the legion of urban explorers, and saves his best snarl for Europeans who show up to marvel at our ruins (ruin porn, as it is known). How dare they!
If you’ve ever driven up Vine Street and seen fifty or so white suburbanites traipsing through abandoned buildings with expensive cameras strapped around their necks, you may have felt the uncomfortable feeling that Binelli is trying to describe. Sure–these people are interested in their city, and who knows, maybe one of them is the next investor who will renovate a building, creating jobs and opportunity. But COME ON, look across the street at the abject poverty, the open-air drug markets, and terrible building conditions. The lady who is in the second floor window, with no air conditioning and no job, what must she think of them? (Actually, what must she think of us? I’ve taken one of those tours.)
If you don’t consider this dichotomy when thinking about the future of a city, you aren’t being honest about your surroundings and your challenges. How do we balance what we want the city to be with what it is and what it was?
Though I’m hesitant to admit it, I felt another similarity to Cincinnati when reading this book (remember, no one wants to be Detroit). I couldn’t help but read the descriptions of Detroit’s Midtown renaissance and think about Over-the-Rhine. Binelli describes lofts, coffee shops, artists, young professionals, hip clubs and restaurants, and even a god damn Whole Foods, and holy hell, it sounds a lot like the way we talk about parts of downtown, OTR, and even Uptown–our core. What Binelli is quick to point out is that Midtown is a small part of Detroit, and though it seems like it is on the rise, the rest of Detroit most certainly is not.
And I have to look around and wonder if we suffer from the same over-focus on the core. Sure, we’re building streetcars, lofts, absolutely killer restaurants and award-winning parks in OTR, but when’s the last time anyone thought seriously about what’s going on in Price Hill or Westwood or South Fairmount or College Hill? Crime’s way down in OTR and when there’s a spike we allocate gobs of police overtime, but the folks in District 3 are still on hold. It’s a lot tougher to gobble up buildings and market hip, urban living in a place like Westwood. Binelli’s book is a cautionary tale for those who over-focus on downtown, thinking the rising tax base of the core will just fix everything in the neighborhoods.
Binelli found excellent interview subjects and they make the book far more colorful than had he just talked to the usual suspects. I admire his reporting. If nothing else, read the wonderful interview with Marsha Cusic, an African-American, who at a local discussion of the City attended almost exclusively by white people, raises her hand and says “I don’t want to insult anybody. But when you talk about how ‘we’ need to take this city back, I look at this room, and I’m not sure what ‘we’ you’re talking about.” Binelli approaches her and ends up on a tour with her. I’d like to meet this woman–her insights about cities are far more penetrating than anything Richard Florida has ever written. Just take her comments on the Detroit riots: “Everyone likes to point to the riot as the moment everything went wrong in Detroit. But you have to understand the idea of a nodal point. It’s the same way a tea kettle heats up and heats up and only at the very end does it whistle. It’s easy to look at the riot as that nodal point, but really, you’re ignoring all of the heat that came before.”
Check this book out if you are interested in American cities. There’s no overly academic discussion of planning zones or development districts or other wonky stuff. This is just a well-reported look at Detroit today. And while you probably still won’t want your city to “become Detroit,” you just might have a healthier understanding of what is actually happening in an important city that more than a half-million Americans still call home.
Thanks for reading.