‘Detroit City is the Place to Be’ Is Part ‘Blade-Runner’ Travelogue, Part Gen-X Memoir

Detroit is one of America's most notorious clusterfucks. It's also recently emerged as a perceived land of opportunity.

For decades now, Detroit has been one of America’s most notorious clusterfucks. Once the nation’s fourth-largest city, its current population of just over 700,000 is less than 40 percent of its postwar peak of 1.8 million, and it’s predicted to fall even further. More than a third, over 124,000 parcels, of the city’s residential properties are either vacant or completely abandoned. Millions of square feet of commercial property lay empty and moldering. In some sections of town, nature has totally reclaimed its domain and now wildlife freely roam.

The poverty rate of 35.5 percent is more than three times the national level, and at $25,193 the city’s median household income is half the national average. The municipal government operates under the authority of a State-appointed Emergency Financial Manager. And on 18 July 2013, it became the largest US municipality to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. Small wonder Detroit has been named “America’s Most Miserable City” for 2013 by Forbes.

And yet, Detroit has also recently been perceived as a land of opportunity. Artists and other members of what Richard Florida terms the “Creative Class” are said to be hard at work, transforming the troubled city into a postindustrial Elysium, fueled in part by rock-bottom real estate prices and a seemingly unrestricted do-it-yourself social and political environment. (See, for example, “Pssst! Did you know?”, “Riot of Perfume”, here, and “Art Motors On”.)

A few years ago, erstwhile native son Mark Binelli, who grew up in Motown’s suburbs and then moved to New York City to make good, currently as a contributing editor to Rolling Stone, returned to his hometown to take stock of the situation. The result was Detroit City is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, now out in paperback.

Binelli surveys many of the usual suspects and familiar haunts that have been featured in the national and international media. He reports on the enduring and embittered polarization between the inner city and the suburbs, fought for decades on the battlegrounds of race and class. (Detroit is among America’s most segregated cities.) He takes stock of the high crime rate, urban blight, and the virtual collapse of municipal services. He visits the abandoned factories and burned-out neighborhoods.

He also interviews various denizens of the post-Apocalyptic landscape who have dug in and plan to stick out for the duration come Hell or high water. Many of these are perfect examples of what feminist literary theorist Lauren Berlant terms “cruel optimism,” those who continue to embrace hope for a return of the good old days that have been inexorably washed away by the shifting tides of global capitalism. Others, like the urban farmers, DIY art folk, community watch volunteers, and other postmodern bricoleurs, are content to make the most out of what they’ve got, however meagre. The former are in denial; the latter at least in recovery, though I’m not sure there’s much to be more optimistic about when it comes to the long-term prospects. Along the way, Binelli reminisces about his youth growing up on the outskirts of the city with forays into it as a member of the family business and an aspiring hipster. It’s part Blade-Runner travelogue; part Gen-X memoir.

The history Binelli recounts is actually quite good. He makes effective use of some of the classic literature on Detroit, including Clarence Burton’s history of the city’s first two centuries, originally published in 1922, and Robert Conot’s 1974 American Odyssey, which as Binelli notes has shamefully been out of print for decades. And he has a way compressing this research into some really well-turned phrases. In a few sentences, he sums up the warped collective memory of the city’s demise in the wake of white flight as understood from one side of the racial divide. In writing about suburban white perceptions of Detroit’s first black mayor Coleman A. Young, who left office 20 years ago and died in 1997, he observes:

[T]he wild, disproportionate hatred of Young by white suburbanites was telling in ways that had nothing to do with the mayor’s alleged malfeasances. With hindsight, it’s difficult to understand how he managed to become so fearsome, with his cotton-mouthed, almost courtly speaking style and jowly stuffed-animal features, the twinkle in his eye perpetually giving his game away. (Like Bill Clinton, he was the sort of politician who brought to the class struggle the same skills he’d developed for years in the ass struggle.) Even today, there’s an unsettling fervency to the hatred of Young among certain white ex-Detroiters, who will tell you Coleman Young ruined this city with such venom it’s impossible not to see Young as a proxy for every black Detroiter who walks the halls of their old high schools or sleeps in the bedrooms of their childhood homes. (original emphasis)

I got a personal kick out of reading Detroit City is the Place to Be because Binelli and I share some history, however serendipitous. As a longtime Detroiter myself, I know many of the subjects, especially in the arts and culture, Binelli interviewed. We grew up nearby one another in the working-class suburbs of the northeast side, first-generation sons of Italian immigrants. My blue-eyed soul band, The Delray Blues, played a homecoming gig at the Catholic high school Binelli attended (although it was slightly before his time). Turns out my dad, a meat cutter, was a customer of Binelli’s Uncle Dave, who owned a knife-sharpening business. In fact, my father still uses a carving knife he got from Dave Binelli decades ago; I cut my index finger deeply on it when I was a kid and still have the scar. In Detroit, there are only two degrees of separation, not the six made famous by the play and, of course, Kevin Bacon.

While the book for the most part is very well researched, there are a few factual errors that need to be corrected. Community activist, social theorist, and local legend Grace Lee Boggs got her PhD in philosophy at Bryn Mawr College in 1940, not Yale, which although it had allowed women to take certain graduate-level classes from time to time didn’t officially go co-ed until 1969. The vehicle fished from the water at the confluence of the Rouge and Detroit Rivers as part of international art star (and Bjork partner) Matthew Barney‘s performance project KHU, based on Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings, wasn’t the Pontiac Trans Am driven off the Belle Isle Bridge earlier in the piece but a 1967 Chrysler Imperial. (A third vehicle, a Ford Crown Victoria, was featured in the final act of the performance so that all the Big Three car makers could be represented. For my Brooklyn Rail review of Barney’s performance, click here.) The reference to Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd with regard to the garish neon light installation on the exterior of the Motor City Casino is surely meant to be Dan Flavin. Those inaccuracies say more about the current state of copyediting than they do authorial oversight.

The book is great on reportage but falls short on providing insight into the larger context. That’s not really Binelli’s fault, per se, but rather a function of journalism in general. Journalism privileges the first-person testimonial above all. (“Who” is the first term in the journalist’s mantra.) Structural analysis only comes in here and there if at all. (“Why” is the last of the four “W’s”. “How” is tacked onto the mantra as kind of an afterthought.) While Detroit City is the Place to Be excels at providing a street-level snapshot of the D in its latter-day manifestation, the topic still warrants more thoughtful consideration. Binelli does cite one of the best histories out there, Thomas Sugrue’s award-winning Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, which sees the city’s current travails as an outcome of race relations and the attendant housing and job discrimination that, among other things, helped foster disinvestment in the city and its ultimate abandonment by industry seeking to diminish union influence in no small measure by using race as its cover. (For more background on that strategy in American business history, see David R. Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class.But to really understand how Detroit got to its present state, you need to know about the change from what’s called the Fordist to the post-Fordist economy.

Fordism, as the term implies, is named for auto pioneer Henry Ford. Founded on the productive capacity of mass manufacturing, the Fordist system pays high wages in return for high output, allowing workers to share in the rising tide of goods and services of the modern factory system. In the early days, it helped Ford increase productivity some ten times while reducing employee turnover and at the same time halving car prices, all the while enabling him to become one of the richest men in world history. It relies on vertical integration, the direct control of the mechanisms of value creation every step of the way. (Ford’s Rouge Plant saw raw materials — iron ore, rubber, fabric, etc. — come in at one end and completed Model T’s come out the other. He owned every aspect of the process, including selling the waste material in the form of Kingsford Charcoal.) Ford hated the unions but eventually made peace with them as did the other major American automobile manufacturers. The period of High Fordism comes after the Second World War as a result of the Treaty of Detroit when unions agreed to halt annual strikes and give up certain bargaining rights in exchange for management’s promise to provide secure employment, good wages, and benefits, including pensions. For decades, Detroit blue-collar workers enjoyed the highest living standards in the nation for their class.

Post-Fordism, by contrast, relies on flexible production and a disaggregated value chain, the ability of companies to shift work, and more importantly investment capital, around in response to market opportunity. Technological innovations in information-processing and communications systems have enabled producers to manage operations in far-flung corners of the world in order to maximize profit under what we now call globalization. Arising in response to the falling profit rates of Fordism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, post-Fordism relies on freeing capital from all restraints, including national borders and virtually anything else that might get in the way of making the most return on investment. If the colossal moving  assembly lines of Henry Ford were the epitome of the system named for him, the representative environment of post-Fordism is the outsourced sweatshop and now the 24/7 work cycle. Part and parcel of the spread of the post-Fordist system has been the dismantling of its predecessor’s crowning achievement, the city of Detroit.

The paperback edition of Detroit City is the Place to Be includes a new afterword written by author in mid-2013 after the city filed for bankruptcy protection. Binelli moved back to the Big Apple after finishing the book and, one presumes, on to bigger and better things. Perhaps he found that Detroit city isn’t the place to be after all, just the place to write about. No matter. The book is a pretty good read, especially once you know the backstory.

RATING 8 / 10
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