Friday, January 04, 2013

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

The city of Detroit has quite a history.  Once it was America’s boomtown, a beacon of opportunity that, for decades, attracted countless job seekers from less prosperous regions of the country.  Now, Detroit is the stereotypical representative of everything that could possibly go wrong in an American city.  It may not be the only American city to have taken an economic beating, but no other city has fallen farther than the city of Detroit.  Mark Binelli, himself born and raised in the Detroit area, decided to take a look at what was happening there, and what he found is even worse – and, in some few ways, better – than what I expected.

Detroit’s problems, according to Binelli, started (with the decline of the auto industry) at least a decade before the 1967 riot that is generally marked as the pivotal moment during which the city was pushed over an edge from which it has never recovered.  But in the minds of most Americans, that 1967 rampage in the black community forever marked Detroit as “a hopelessly failed state, a terrifying place of violent crime and general lawlessness.”  And the long-lasting flight from the city began.

Who can blame people for fleeing this place?   By 2008 the highly corrupt school system was an utter mess, the city had the highest per capita murder rate in the country (an astounding 40.7 murders per 100,00 residents), and reported twice the number of fires that the eleven-times-more-populous city of New York reported.  Forbes magazine made it all official by crowning Detroit “the most dangerous U.S. city” based on its rate of 1,220 violent crimes per 100,000 citizens. 

Mark Binelli
That was Detroit at rock bottom, a bottom so low that those in charge of the city (corrupt as the city administration still was) had little to lose by trying anything suggested by outsiders – many of whom were dreamers who came to the city to test theories in the real world that would otherwise have never seen the light of day.  People are even coming from Europe to tour the ruins of Detroit because there is no other non-war-zone urban landscape like it.

Detroit is rather desperately trying to reinvent itself.  Factory buildings, long abandoned, are being repurposed by “artists” of all types, whole blocks have been razed and turned into community organic farms, the most dangerous and damaged neighborhoods are purposely being neglected by the city in an attempt to force residents to live closer together in areas that the city can afford to service, and whole swaths of Detroit now resemble “urban prairies.”

I did not come away from Detroit City Is the Place to Be nearly as hopeful about Detroit’s future as I expected to be after reading the book.  Much of what Binelli says about his city is touching, some of it even humorous, but what does it all mean for a city in which corruption of all sorts, top to bottom, seems still to be the rule?  I hope I am being more a pessimist than a realist, but…

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)


  1. Detroit loomed large in my childhood since I grew up on the Canadian line of the New York Central Railroad that ran between Buffalo NY & Detroit. My dad worked on that railroad and his job took him often to the Detroit terminus.

    Binelli's book has been on my radar for some time, and I'm disappointed to hear that it doesn't leave one hopeful for the city's future.

  2. Debbie, I do get the impression that Mr. Binelli is a good bit more optimistic about Detroit's future than I am. He just didn't persuade me that things are going to get better any time soon. I hope he's right, and I'm wrong.

  3. They do have a nice airport, though. It's my favorite hub when I re-enter the USA each year. I'm very interested in reading this book.

  4. I would actually love to drive around Detroit to see what it is like today except for two things: I would feel like a vulture, and I would probably get car-jacked or shot.