Inside the Motor City

Mark Binelli
Detroit City is the Place to Be
(Metropolitan 2012)

What to make of a city like Detroit? Once a thriving metropolis that lured working-class strivers with solid paychecks and stable neighborhoods, it now attracts attention like a deadly pile up on the freeway, with journalists (and readers) slowing to crane their necks and gawk. It’s a mess by nearly any measure. Half the city’s adults are functionally illiterate, half its children in poverty. Three out of four public school students drop out, while some estimates put the true unemployment rate at nearly 50 percent. So many people have fled in the wake of plant closings and violent crime that 40 square miles of the city are now vacant, roughly the size of Paris. Packs of wild dogs have been spotted roaming the empty streets.

And yet despite the dysfunction, there’s an unmistakably optimistic spirit running through Detroit City is the Place to Be, journalist Mark Binelli’s incisive and deeply reported portrait of the city and its people. As I made my way through the book—a modest 300 pages that still managed to feel sprawling in the best sense of the word—what initially seemed an ironic title came to resemble something approaching earnestness. “What happens to a once-great place after it has been used up and discarded?” Binelli asks. The answers, it turns out, aren’t all bad.

Binelli grew up in a working class Detroit suburb—his father sharpened knives and sold restaurant equipment—and returned in 2009 after visiting while on assignment for Rolling Stone. He found an apartment in a building near downtown, shared by an eclectic group of neighbors that included the founder of the Detroit chapter of the Black Panthers and a young married couple—artists—who had moved, improbably, from Hawaii. “This is the last frontier in this country,” one of the artists tells Binelli. “What else is left?”

It’s nearly impossible not to get swept up in the Detroit-as-symbol motif. It is the frontier, the Wild West, the Mad Maxian future come to life. When the economy collapsed, Detroit became the collapse, the logical assignment for journalists searching to put a face on the emergency. The images—abandoned skyscrapers, shuttered auto plants, empty streets—are so rich that it can be easy to forget that Detroit, for natives, isn’t a symbol. And while Binelli explores the more fantastic and well-covered storylines of the city during the three years he lived there (crime, awe-inspiring ruins, urban gardens, white artists moving in), the soul of his book is found in the conversations he has with everyday people quietly doing what they can to make the city a slightly more livable place.

I was particularly struck by the firefighters of Highland Park, a small city entirely surrounded by Detroit that is, unbelievably, in even worse shape. (As Binelli writes, it’s “the Detroit of Detroit.”) Their old firehouse declared an environmental hazard, they now operate out of a warehouse, with some sleeping in tents and most earning between $8 to $10 an hour. Meanwhile, Highland Park is going up in flames, often at the hands of arsonists seeking insurance money. City officials aren’t particularly interested in tracking down the culprits, so one firefighter, Irwin, uses his own money to become licensed as a fire investigator. “I have a hard time sitting around,” he says quietly. “I was just looking to do stuff.” On a follow-up visit, Binelli learns that Irwin’s investigations have led to four cases being prosecuted. “I’m actually feeling good about things here,” Irwin admits.

This is the stubborn spirit by which dying cities are reborn, and alongside tales of heartbreak and hardship, Binelli captures many of the D.I.Y. efforts to turn the city around, from citizen anti-crime patrols to the Motor City Blight Busters, who demolish abandoned buildings that can’t be salvaged. These efforts lack the look-at-me entitlement of some recent transplants, who view Detroit as little more than an aesthetically pleasing backdrop for their artistic vision. It’s no wonder locals might feel put off. A New York Times article labeled Detroit “a Midwestern TriBeCa,” in a story entirely filled with pictures of young white people. And there’s the precious Cupcake Girls collective, from either Portland or San Francisco, who arrange small cupcake statues in the window of a closed bakery.

Towards the end of the book, Binelli finds himself sitting in a crowded warehouse listening to a local blogger talk about the city’s ruins. The speaker, a relative newcomer, is quick to criticize the media’s tendency to swoop into Detroit for a day and use the ruins as cheap props to dramatize the recession. It was time, he tells the group, to “take ownership of the ruins. We’re not gonna let New York City reporters come here and define us!”

Detroit is 85 percent African American. The gathering in the warehouse was 98 percent white. After the talk, an older black woman named Marsha Cusic stood up. “I don’t want to insult anybody,” she said. “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 later tracks Cusic down, and she gives him a tour of the Detroit of her childhood. (One of the great strengths of the book is Binelli’s ability to get so many people—political aides, autoworkers, plucky teenage mothers, the mother of a convicted murderer—to speak candidly.) It turns out that Cusic’s father, Joe Von Battle, had owned a popular record store and was the first person to record Aretha Franklin. They pass the old site of the store, now a string of vacant lots. “All burned,” Cusic says. “It’s missing an entire layer of history.” They continue on to Cusic’s childhood home, also recently consumed by an electrical fire. “Detroit isn’t some kind of abstract art project,” Cusic tells Binelli. “It’s for real people. These are real memories. Every one of these houses has a story.”

Despite some good news from the auto industry, Detroit is still in a deep hole, the complicated result of racism, disinvestment, a shrinking tax base, corruption, and simple bad luck. From a distance, the city looks hopeless. Up close—well, it can still seem mighty gloomy. The challenges are monumental, the kind that require a dreamer’s sense of the possible: folks who believe they can beat back the arsonists and turn the city into a garden and somehow attract new jobs to the area. And if it turns out those people exist, what right do we have to write off Detroit?

More Articles by the Author

Gabriel Thompson