Down in Detroit

The Last Days of Detroit: Motor Cars, Motown and the Collapse of an Industrial Giant, by Mark Binelli, Bodley Head RRP£20, 336 pages

Urban blight usually takes a concrete form: boarded-up blocks of once tenderly maintained row houses; hulking, decaying council estates; car parks and big-box stores where small shops once stood.

Detroit – the home of US carmaking and Motown music – has plenty of that. But it is the absences that have, in recent years, turned this Midwestern city into a poster child for urban devastation. In some neighbourhoods there are 10 empty lots for every shambolic old house still standing and the skyline itself seems to be crumbling back into the Michigan flatlands.

Once a fur-trading centre and French fort, Detroit was America’s fourth biggest metropolis by 1920. Black families came up from the south and immigrants from Europe, creating neighbourhoods as culturally vibrant as New York’s Lower East Side or Chicago’s Wicker Park, while the burgeoning auto industry and strong unions helped expand the ranks of the middle class.

But in the latter half of the 20th century, the unfortunate confluence of a weakening local economy and nationwide racial tensions wrought devastation on the city, while corrupt local politicians and the draw of the suburbs (reducing the tax base) later robbed it of the means of repair. By 2009, the US automakers’ annus horribilis – when two of the Big Three required government bailouts – the city led the country in murders and fires per capita.

Mark Binelli, a New York-based journalist who grew up in the Detroit suburbs, returned that year to write a piece for Rolling Stone centred on the city’s auto show, then rented an apartment there to turn that article into a book. The timing was ripe: the global economic crisis meant Detroit, with its decrepit finances, broken public services and heartbreaking crime statistics, was starting to look like the shape of things to come.

He wasn’t alone. “I joined the wagon train,” he writes in The Last Days of Detroit, “alongside the hustlers and the do-gooders, the preachers and the criminals, the big dreamers looking to make names for themselves and the heavily-armed zealots awaiting the end of the world.” He gets to know these fellow gawkers and grandstanders, some of whom argue the city might actually be once more on the ascent. Those include urban gardeners who have used empty lots to grow food, becoming media darlings as news outlets decided they wanted a flipside to the Detroit-based “devastation porn” that has proliferated in recent years.

But Binelli also visits the city’s longer-time residents, who tend to have a more jaundiced view. “It’s interesting how white people can move into a neighbourhood and walk down the street and think it’s okay,” one black resident tells Binelli, underscoring the strange dynamic of a city in flux. “What makes them think they can do that? ... Do muggers think, ‘Shit, this might be more trouble than it’s worth?’”

Binelli approaches thorny issues such as gentrification and social decay with Midwestern equanimity (if I do say so myself, having also grown up in Michigan), unwilling to put the city’s woes down to one group – too often, in the hands of other writers, the whites who left or the blacks who stayed. And he charms the reader, showing his work in footnotes and asides but still playing the tongue-tied non-expert. “The lawyer, after delivering [his] punch line, gave me a gnomic grin,” he writes of one encounter at a political debate. “I smiled back and nodded foolishly, as if we’d shared a moment of wisdom. After that, I didn’t feel like I could ask what he’d actually meant.”

That ingénue’s approach can grate at times, particularly when Binelli is up against the auto industry‘s professional spinners or the city’s slippery politicians. But elsewhere it succeeds in bringing out angles on Detroit that at least this casual observer hadn’t heard before – for example, the idea that, instead of downsizing in the face of a dwindling population, Detroit ought to make a land grab, annexing the suburbs and the tax dollars that come with them, as cities such as Philadelphia and Los Angeles have done.

In the end, though, the book’s chapters succeed or fail on the back of the people inhabiting them. Katherine Boo, the author of last year’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, about life in an Indian slum, cautioned in a recent interview against the sort of easy reporting on poverty that finds its subjects through local charities. “It gives you a lopsided cosmos in which almost every poor person you read about is involved with a NGO helping him,” she said. Early in The Last Days, Binelli appears to fall into a version of this trap, talking to bloggers-cum-tour guides, school reformers, members of a volunteer dog-catching team – to the point that it seems everyone living in Detroit is there to try to help Detroit.

But later, when we meet working firefighters, not volunteers, or the mother of a convicted murderer who stoically declines to blame poverty for her children’s problems, the place begins to feel like something more than a Petri dish full of well-intentioned but flat characters. Urban planners, politicians and activists can only take a city so far. We’ll know Detroit’s full-blooded revival is in train when it, like London, New York or Shanghai, is primarily the setting for its residents’ victories and failures, and not the story itself.

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