You hear strange things in Detroit. While I was visiting my parents this year, I watched the city's annual Thanksgiving Day parade on TV. At the end, Mayor Dave Bing, the former Detroit Pistons star, climbed up to Santa's sleigh to deliver the key to the city. “Thank you so very much for coming, Santa,” Bing said. “A lot of us thought you weren't going to come because of the problems we're having in Detroit. But because you're here, we know things are going to turn around for us.”
Bing never has been as smooth on the stump as he was on the basketball court. But his words reveal something fundamental about the psychology of a city that has struggled for decades to stop its population from leaving. I was born around the time the Renaissance Center was built in the 1970s. The tower, which dominates the skyline as it looms over the Detroit River at the foot of the city, was supposed to be a rejuvenator. Yet for as long as I can remember, we were always waiting for something to happen — for people to come, for things to get better.
Mark Binelli's new book, "Detroit City is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis," offers a portrait of a city that is more polarized than it has ever been — and that's saying something for a town known for being in the most segregated region in the nation. This is no take-down job, though. Binelli, who grew up in the Detroit suburb of St. Clair Shores, clearly loves his hometown — and he loves it enough not to engage in mindless boosterism. Instead, he digs in, attempting an ambitiously well-rounded look at Detroit's many contradictions.
From the opening pages, Binelli's book feels like home. He describes how he and his friends — and I would argue much of the city — "beheld any mention of the city in popular culture with a special thrill." Those mentions — whether it was Eddie Murphy's Mumford High T-shirt in "Beverly Hills Cop" or a Time magazine story about what would happen if the Soviets dropped an atomic bomb on the city — confirmed what we somehow innately knew: Detroit was a great city. However incongruous it may have seemed given the city's fortunes, Detroit always has maintained a strong streak of pride.
It's pride tinged with playful irony, though, and Binelli captures that. It's a coping mechanism that grows out of the cognitive dissonance inspired by decline. It functions like a family dynamic: I can joke about my brother, but you'd better not joke about my brother. Same goes for Detroit. And it's clear here that Binelli is part of the family. Consider his description of the city's once controversial, yet truly beloved, memorial to the boxer Joe Louis: "The sculpture is twenty-four-foot, eight-thousand-pound black fist pointing directly at Canada." At Canada, folks.
Binelli employs throughout a touch of gallows humor that felt familiar. When I was home for Thanksgiving, in fact, my parents made me guess which local institution had been raided by the FBI, as if it were a parlor game. To be clear, they were outraged that the Detroit Public Library might be caught up in corruption. But you use humor to cope when you hear bad news so often.
"Detroit City is the Place to Be" is a study in tension: between humor and disgust, between insiders and outsiders, between ruin and progress. Although race is still very much core to the story, class is as much the great divider today. After the economic collapse, with the auto industry still on its knees, reporters from around the world came to Detroit to chronicle the fallout. Artists looking for cheap space came, too, and a counterintuitive narrative arose. Certain pockets of the city, including the section now known as Midtown — which incorporates Wayne State University and its affiliated medical center, the Fox Theater and the ballparks — started to feel more like a livable city. Apartments filled up, and a grocery store opened. Nearby, the city's Eastern Market brims with life every weekend, drawing in small farmers and new foodie entrepreneurs.
As Binelli points out, that two-mile section of town received roughly $2 billion in investment during the past 10 years, while the other 130 square miles of the city have steadily declined, leaving behind vast fields of blight — and people without the means to move out or otherwise improve their circumstances. A drive from my parents' house, which is literally across the street from the western border of Detroit, into downtown demonstrated just how vast the gulf has become. Even the so-called Copper Canyon neighborhood — named for the Detroit police who used to live on the edge of the city to comply with now defunct residency rules — is now marked by vacant foreclosed houses and plagued by crime that's getting less and less petty.
The Detroit Free Press just reported that the poverty rate among children in the city's public schools has hit 51 percent — and 65 percent in the enclave of Hamtramck.
The strength of Binelli's book is that he takes his time examining each of the forces that are at work behind these statistics. He spends time in the neighborhoods, chatting on the porches of folks who haven't left — even when most of their block has been torn down. He heads to the union halls and to the annual North American International Auto Show, teasing out the long-term effects of an industrial decline. He looks back, taking full advantage of the long view, to re-examine former Mayor Coleman Young's legacy. He hits the history books, offering the broader historical underpinnings of the city's culture. And he hangs with the newcomers, the euro-tourists indulging in so-called "ruin porn" and artists who seek to make Detroit a backdrop to their exhibits.
This portrait of the city easily could have turned into an unwieldy mess, but Binelli keeps the plates spinning. It does, occasionally, suffer slightly from a little too much ego. I'm not sure he needed to tell us how much one of his interviewees reminded him of his grandmother or that he got too high with his neighbors to go back to watch a film crew stage an explosion on the grounds of his old high school.
At times, Binelli sacrifices depth for breadth. He doesn't have time, nor is it his goal, to provide a fully nuanced portrait of how some of the city's most destitute people manage to get by. But those are flaws I can look past to see the broader, more complicated picture.
Ultimately, Binelli ends his book with an optimistic conclusion that could feel almost disingenuous, considering the despairingly divided city he has mapped in previous chapters. He writes, "The truth is, my optimism was proving tenacious. I couldn't say why."
But then I remembered my Thanksgiving trip. Intellectually, I knew it was ridiculous to be excited that there were maybe a half-dozen storefronts open in the old Hudson's department store area of Woodward Avenue. And having driven just through the rest of the city, it almost felt ludicrous that a high-end shopping mall from the suburbs would open an outpost downtown. But the beginning has to start somewhere, right? Even when I was a student at Wayne State and there was next to nothing there, it felt like it held promise. Now that it had attracted not only a couple shops but a community organizing center, it really did engender hope.
Maybe it's a luxury granted by the fact that I grew up knowing Santa Claus would always come, even in tough years, but I still believe in Detroit. And clearly, so does Binelli.
Jennifer Day is editor of Printers Row Journal.
"Detroit City is the Place to Be"
By Mark Binelli, Metropolitan, 318 pages, $28