Mark Binelli on Detroit, Los Angeles, and our urban future

Author Mark Binelli
(Corine Vermeulen)

Mark Binelli is a novelist, Rolling Stone journalist and native Michigander. Born and raised near Detroit, he returned to the city to write “Detroit City is the Place To Be: The Afterlife of An American Metropolis.” The book explores the many desolate blocks and surprising points of inspiration and revival in a city that is the most extreme example of America’s lost industrial heritage. He’ll be coming to the L.A. Times Festival of Books taking place at USC on April 20-21. Binelli answered our questions by email.

What does Los Angeles have to learn from Detroit?

Superficially you’d think the cities couldn’t be more different. Even the most noir portrayals of L.A. pivot on the rot hidden below the shimmery surface beauty of the place. Whereas Detroit’s rot is famously very much front and center. (In the book, I write about a family of French tourists I ran into at the ruins of the old Packard auto plant.)

But Detroit and Los Angeles share a surprising number of historical problems, right at the top of which I’d place unsustainable sprawl and racial unrest. The ‘67 Detroit riot was the largest in modern U.S. history — until it was unseated by the 1992 L.A. riot. As for sprawl, well, Detroit automakers basically invented it, and to this day, the Detroit suburbs continue to expand outward, while entire neighborhoods in the city proper remain surreally abandoned urban prairies (one or two houses per block, vast fields of waist-high grass, packs of wild dogs.)


The end result in Detroit has been wholesale financial collapse: as I write this, the city is on the verge of bankruptcy and might be taken over by a state-appointed emergency financial manager. So in the coming weeks, the better question might be, ‘What can Detroit learn from Stockton or San Bernardino?’ It’s funny, once upon a time, the cataclysmic Detroit news story was its own micro-genre, and tended to register as a News of the Weird-style anomaly, an easy punch line. People across the country could read about Detroit going broke, about how 40% of the streetlights don’t work and the Pontiac Silverdome sold for the price of a Manhattan studio apartment, and either shake their heads sadly or chuckle darkly. Detroit is still an extreme case, but so many cities across the country now face similar draconian budgetary choices, which is why I think the Detroit “comeback” narrative became such a powerful one, nationally, as the recession dragged on.

What have you been reading lately?

I just finished “Going Clear,” Lawrence Wright’s excellent and terrifying Scientology book. (Where I learned my favorite new verb: “to enturbulate.”) Before that I enjoyed Joshua Cohen’s story collection “Four New Messages,” and I’m just starting Mikhail Shiskin’s “Maidenhair.”

Are you looking forward to anything at the Festival of Books this year?

Seeing my friend Manuel Gonzales, who just published a terrific collection of short stories — very dark fables, really — called “The Miniature Wife.” Writers can be shy and unassuming types and not necessarily the best delivery mechanisms for their own work in a live setting. Happily, Manuel is not one of those writers — the last time I saw him read, he’d forgotten to bring a physical copy of his story and still managed to command the room while reading the entire thing from his iPhone — so I’d recommend people check him out.

Will you be doing anything in Los Angeles apart from the festival?

This might sound crazy, but coming from New York, where I don’t have a car, I actually love driving in L.A.; I’ll intentionally leave myself an extra hour to get wherever I need to be and stick to surface streets. So I look forward to doing that, and also to feasting on the many delicious foods which exist only in inferior versions in New York (sushi, thai noodles, hamburgers.) I also like sitting at the bar at Musso and Frank and pretending I’m in a Raymond Chandler novel.

Do you have a favorite book about Los Angeles?

So many to choose from! Chandler I just mentioned, and I also love “City of Quartz” by Mike Davis and just about everything by James Ellroy. But I’d probably have to go with Joan Didion’s “The White Album.”


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