BOOK REVIEW: Detroit City Is the Place to Be

Here is something very seldom said: Consider me spoiled by academic books. Whatever you or I think of their prose, the fact remains that academic books almost always declare two important things at the outset: their purpose, and their method. Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be lacks both. It makes for an extremely frustrating reading experience when you can’t tell what the book wants to do and how it’s going to do it.

Oh, I guess if I were generous I might suggest that the purpose of the book is to determine the veracity of the Renaissance in Detroit; is the city really coming back, or is it merely part of a marketing campaign in order to lure corporations to the downtown area? That is a binary, yes or no proposition, aggressively boring and incurious, and I would contend that that is not even what the book is truly about. In the conclusion of the book, Binelli expresses his own optimism after talking to two young staffers for a local council member. The real subject of the book, indeed, is its author’s ambivalence about the city of his birth. About being white in a majority black population. About this duality of being from Detroit but having left. About sharing more in common with the interlopers than with the local activists whom he interviews.

But Binelli is remarkably reluctant to express any opinion of his own in a book so centered on its author. He usually defers to his interviewees, or to newspaper articles, or to other authors. The most interesting observation in the book came from not Binelli himself but from Geoff Dyer, who suggested that “Ruins don’t make you think of the past, they direct you towards the future. The effect is almost prophetic. This is what the future will end up like.” Detroit City is the Place to Be is threaded together by Binelli’s anxiety, but stacked with other people’s opinions, thoughts, and feelings. It’s very fragmented, and very lost.

After reading the book, I felt as if I knew more about Detroit without understanding it, if that makes sense. Imagine seeing the city through one of those coin-operated tower binoculars, randomly, restlessly zooming into neighborhoods and lives blotted with both urban blight and urban revival. You certainly can’t understand the city this way, but you feel as though you have grasped onto something essential about it for the mere act of looking. That is this book.

Binelli does, certainly, look. He also reports everything he sees, and everything he reads. Non sequiturs clutter many chapters (one section about the Roman Emperor Caracalla comes to mind), but not nearly as much or as egregiously as long-winded descriptions of Detroit’s ruins. This is in a chapter about shrinking Detroit:

The following Sunday, Corine picked me up in her ancient, boxy Volvo, a lush Detroit techno track, awash in synthesizer, playing on her stereo. We drove past the ruins of the Packard plant, heading deeper into the east side. It wasn’t an especially cold day, but the sidewalks and front yards were mostly devoid of life. We passed a house with no windows or doors; a poster on the front of the house warned “This Building Is Being Watched.” You’d see these posters on forsaken structures throughout the city, their words splashed above a menacing pair of human eyes, presumably meant to scare off scrappers or arsonists, but having the odd effect of making entire rows of ravaged homes resemble scarred, angry faces glowering at passersby, as if the potential home invader were Being Watched by the buildings themselves.

There is no selection of details whatsoever, because in a study that lacks a method, you don’t know where to even begin to collect data. The approach is all-inclusive, spanning from Detroit’s political maneuverings, to the public school system, to the arts scene, to Detroit as the subject of ruins porn. Each of these chapters is disconnected to one another, minus a few recurring characters–Mayor Dave Bing, for instance–and while some chapters are more focused and interesting than others, their subjects required much more attention and a more comprehensive approach than they received.

The result is that Binelli has misplaced his optimism. He published the book in 2012. In 2013 Detroit filed for bankruptcy. The city was muscled into this proceeding, forced to cut its seniors’ pension and relinquish control of its water. But Binelli has already documented the state’s attempts to take control of the city dutifully in chapter 11 (HMMMM). One might ask what, exactly, in the midst of this unremitting bleakness for the future of the city’s machine politics and its unions, what could possibly have been the cause for the optimist? Binelli cites the success of Catherine Ferguson Academy, a Detroit Public School with high graduation rates that was saved from closing by activists in 2011, privatizing as a charter instead. It has since closed.

 

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