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Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The…
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Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis (2012)

by Mark Binelli

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I grew up in the industrial midwest, the 'rust belt', and near Cleveland, OH, which was just as much the butt of jokes about urban decline in my youth as Detroit is now. Later I moved to Toledo, less than an hour south of Detroit, but I have still not explored the city. As such, this book was a great introduction to what the city was, is, and could be. It's written by someone with an obvious love of the city, but I didn't read boosterism in his tone so much as cautious optimism, and a celebration of what makes Detroit what it is (mostly, the people) without buying into any particular futurist scheme for what it could become. I was very much taken by the book, and would recommend it to anyone in the region who is ambivalent about Detroit and wants to get a view from the neighborhood level.
  wademlee | Jan 8, 2013 |
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.

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…

Rated at: 3.5 ( )
2 vote SamSattler | Jan 4, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Binelli, author of the novel Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! and a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and Men's Journal, returns to his hometown to examine Detroit after its much publicized fall. In a book comprised of thirteen loosely connected chapters, Binelli provides personal stories of those people who've remained in the Motor City living, working, and hoping brighter times are just around the bend. At the same time Binelli can envoke rage and tears about the current state of Detroit, he manages to wedge in a sizable amount of humor to balance out the stereotypical dreary chronicles of Detroit's downfall.

While Binelli writes that he had no desire to "relitigate the sins of the past" (p. 6) instead focusing on the people who've remained, his book includes regular dissections of what happened in Detroit's past and what led to its current state of affairs. For those with even a cursory understanding of Detroit's history, those sins are well known. Thanks to the automobile, Detroit became a classic example of urban sprawl where two-thirds of residents lived in single-family homes spread out over a 139 square miles (the city would be larger if the cities of Highland Park and Hamtramck—which are completely surrounded by Detroit—hadn't split from the city as a tax dodge for Ford and Dodge respectively). Additionally the infamous 1967 riots brought to a head years of racial animosity and expedited the white flight from the city. No longer was Detroit the symbol of American progress but rather the symbol of its failures, "the apotheosis of the new inner-city mayhem sweeping the nation like LSD and unflattering mutton chop sideburns." (p. 3) In the years that followed, as Detroit became divided from the surrounding suburbs and plagued with a diminishing tax base and a population comprised of those who simply could not flee the city, the city arose as the premier mecca for "ruin porn photography," "urban explorers," and "urbanists" who proposed a myriad of solutions to Detroit's ails.

What becomes clear in Binelli's book is that the biggest issue for Detroit is the politicians elected to lead the city. While Binelli makes a convincing case that much of the discourse on Detroit's politics is racially motivated attempt by whites to retake their former city, it's also clear residents have too often bought into politicians like former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick only to have them underperform, or in Kilpatrick's case, run the city like "mafia capos" and settle a police whistle-blower case to cover up an affair with a chief staffer. While some of that is simply the corrupting nature of power, it's hard to find good leadership for a city when politicians and city employees live outside the communities they serve (thanks to a Michigan law). Nevertheless, with his generally evenhanded approach the the politics of Detroit, Binelli is clearly on the left of the political spectrum and his views at times cloud the narrative and bring in some poor hyperbole. For instance, writing about the Emergency Financial Manager law that allows Michigan's governor to throw out the elected government and appoint a new manager, Binelli compares Detroit to the a foreign enemy isolated by US foreign policy.

Even with all the problems, Binelli finds small reasons to be optimistic about the future. Urban farming and a growing Bohemian art scene have brought some improvements to the city (even though elected leaders have at times attempted to stymy the movements) and more younger Detroiters are beginning to realize Detroit as a shell of its former self shouldn't be treated as normal. Nevertheless, one is left to wonder how much good these events will actually have for the city. The tax base is growing, but with failing public schools and poor general education, the majority of Detroit remains mired in issues with little apparent movement to help. Instead much of the development in the city is focused on the core downtown area and the neighboring University district along with small tony neighbors largely inhabited by white residents. As current mayor Dave Bing continues to push for "righsizing" (although on a lesser level than when he took office) one is left to wonder if Detroit will further become a tale of two cities in one with the improved core growing increasingly distant from the no-man's land between the core and the suburbs. Neverthless, glimmers of hope, no matter how small, shouldn't be ignored.

Binelli's book is a highly readable overview of Detroit and provides a bundle of personal narratives that bring names and faces to Detroit's problems and potential recovery. While readable, and probably one of the better looks at Detroit today, it nonetheless has a cursory feel to it. Binelli makes little attempt to connect the chapters together and his use of a wide variety of literature on Detroit tends to go no farther than highlighting interesting anecdotes or making shallow claims about the underlying issues. Nevertheless the personal narratives found within the book and Binelli's narrative abilities make the book worth a read. ( )
2 vote IrateBeagle | Jan 3, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Pick this up if you have any interest in Detroit (or modern urban environs in general). Just know that this isn't about failure; it's about opportunity, about the possibilities of a future Detroit. It's an optimistic, hopeful read. ( )
1 vote mark | Dec 28, 2012 |
This series of essays attempts to describe the afterlife of a major industrial city, Detroit. I have always lived in the suburbs of Detroit and my husband and I currently own a business there (in the Midtown area). This book was helpful for me to read. I have a particular perspective, as I have only lived in the suburbs and work in an up and coming area of Detroit. The book is much darker than my experiences, but it rings true. The author addresses topics such as the shrinking of Detroit, crime, politics, the resurgence of an art community, the controversies surrounding the push for urban agriculture to replace vacant land, and so much more. All that the author says is true, and it is often quite depressing, almost to the point of hopelessness. When asked about his book by a Highland Park firefighter (Highland Park is a separate city located within the boundaries of Detroit), whether it is fiction or non-fiction, the author replies, 'Non.' The firefighter says, 'Nobody's gonna believe it.' Even the humor is grim. So imagine my surprise when the author, in his conclusion, finds himself optimistic about the future of Detroit. This is something hard to understand unless you have spent significant time in Detroit. Detroit is a 2-sided coin - poor, crumbling, scrambling for answers; and yet it attracts many who are dedicated to its future, such as myself. Maybe it is its imperfections that make it such a compelling city and this such a significant book. A city that is not thriving, shiny and new, but struggling, shrinking, adapting, changing. Detroit is going through a painful process of change, and has been for a while. It may not be pretty but at least it's real. ( )
  peggybr | Dec 24, 2012 |
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Epigraph
"And Marco answered: 'While, at a sign from you, sire, the unique and final city raises its stainless walls, I am collecting the ashes of the other possible cities that vanish to make room for it, cities that can never be rebuilt or remembered. When you know at last the reisdue of unhappiness for which no precious stone can complensate, you will be able to calculate the exact number of carats toward which that final diamond must strive. Otherwise, your calculations will be mistaken from the very start.'" -- Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Dedication
For Lydia and Evan, with much love
First words
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. (Introduction)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805092293, Hardcover)

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

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:59:04 -0400)

"The fall and maybe rise of Detroit, America's most epic urban failure, from local native and Rolling Stone reporter Mark BinelliOnce 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, neo-pastoral 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 and Rolling Stone writer 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 the signs of blight repurposed, from the school for pregnant teenagers to the killer ex-con turned street patroller, from the organic farming on empty lots to GM's wager on the Volt electric car and 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 future Detroit that is smaller, less segregated, greener, economically diverse, and better functioning--what might just be the first post-industrial city of our new century"-- "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, neo-pastoral 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 and Rolling Stone writer 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 the signs of blight repurposed, from the school for pregnant teenagers to the killer ex-con turned street patroller, from the organic farming on empty lots to GM's wager on the Volt electric car and 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 future Detroit that is smaller, less segregated, greener, economically diverse, and better functioning--what might just be the first post-industrial city of our new century"--… (more)

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