Economic Development

In Yet Another Book on Detroit, Nostalgia Rears Its Backward-Looking Head

The trouble with Detroit City Is the Place to Be is that you can hear author Mark Binelli negotiating with the Detroiters in every sentence, debating between what he wants to say and how locals will react to what he publishes.

Maybe I am just projecting, because as I start to write this I can hear people asking how I can have an opinion about what the author has written — or, by extension, of Detroit — when I haven’t lived in or visited the city. It’s like having an opinion about the rebuilding of New Orleans from the standpoint of Chicago.

Yet when a major American city goes into decline, the question of if and how it will recover it is a question for the whole country. Whatever cause is ascribed to an urban resurrection, you can be sure that two major forms of outsider investment will be necessary (if not sufficient) components of a successful recipe: Federal dollars and migration.

So, should Detroit attempt to renew what it was? Binelli seems to understand that nostalgia has become a political handicap. He writes:

Detroit, if anything, is a place where the past cannot be shook loose. It hangs on, tenaciously, creeping over the city like a slow-growing mold, until — this begins to seem inevitable, if you get into a certain mood — the entire place will be nothing but past.

A great deal of the book is devoted to all the symptoms of Detroit’s predicament. In aiming for a general market audience, Binelli doesn’t see a way to write about the city without giving an honest take on what he saw there. Which is the right call, but you can tell he regrets every page of it, and that he wants to let everyone know about how Detroit’s best years are ahead. Binelli knows he can’t justify saying this outright, so he waits until the conclusion, where he can express it with nothing more than a promise that he has a really good feeling. And at that it only comes off as an apology, at least to this set of eyes.

A reader can’t fault Binelli for documenting what he has seen that makes the city unattractive — unless that reader lives in Detroit. Locals have a name for when a journalist comes to the city to document how far it has fallen. It’s called “ruin porn.”

Binelli spends the chapter before his conclusion writing about ruin porn. It’s as though he’s looking for an excuse from his audience. I know about the ruin porn thing, he seems to be saying, but what else am I to write about? There’s nothing but hypothetical answers. I can’t pretend like I know if anyone is on the right track — it’s way too soon to say that. Yes, there’s the Midtown comeback, but that’s not nearly enough to make a real dent in the unemployment rate. What do you write about besides the ruin when nothing else has proven itself, or even come close?

In other words, the book has been very weirdly titled. You can’t get the title out of your head the whole way through. From the chapter about riots to the chapter about murder to the chapter about ridiculous political leaders to the mind-blowing chapter about fires, you keep asking yourself the question: When will he get to the part that proves this town is the place to be?

He covers a lot of starry-eyed liberals who seem to think they can build a Utopia in the ashes of Capitalism. Then there are the more down-to-earth farmers who are simply working to fill their time and make a difference — laudable, but probably not a recipe for restoring metropolis. The 1967 riot comes around in chapter six, and that’s when the book really gets going.

Binelli has gotten a positive reception from some commenters who have congratulated him for not taking sides in ongoing debates about Detroit. That’s not the book I read, though. In fact he takes many stances, softly, without much justification.

For example, in the chapter on empty space, he implies skepticism about rightsizing the city by telling the story of an especially interesting outdoor concert he happened upon one afternoon. I’m not clear on why moving people closer together precludes outdoor celebrations. Even if it did, I’m also not sure that spontaneous outdoor parties are a good enough reason not to do what it takes to make a city work again.

One person Binelli speaks to points out that Philadelphia grew by annexing suburbs, and uses that as an example of what Detroit should be doing. But the annexation happened when Philadelphia was still growing in population. As of now, the city is struggling with many of Detroit’s same problems, if not nearly to the same degree.

A similar moment occurs in a chapter on the state of the labor movement. After describing a successful labor arbitration at a plant he visits with UAW leaders, Binelli paints an overall dreary picture of the future of manufacturing in the city. Recent events make the hope of lucrative line work even more remote. Yet at the end of two chapters on the decline of the auto industry and labor, he seems to make the bizarre assertion that the general consensus about how widespread employment by Detroit carmakers is gone — never to return — is wrongheaded. And without another word, he then turns his gaze to the contradictory ways that management depicts workers, depending on what it wants to get out of them.

Fine, but what about the part where Binelli seems to suggest that Detroit’s former economy could return, if only thought leaders would consider it? Binelli doesn’t even try to give any ideas of what the consensus might be missing. No doubt lots of people would like to see the Packard plant put to productive use again, but what possible industry could it make sense for? In Bethlehem, Pa., the resuscitated Steel Works now houses a casino. How about that for an idea? Moments like these make it seem, at times, as if the voices of Detroiters that Binelli could hear as he wrote got to him, and it makes you skeptical of what he has to say.

It wasn’t till I got to chapter nine that I realized Binelli’s book never really gave me a very clear picture of the city. It gave me scenes from the city — urban farmers, battered unions, fires, Highland Park — but it didn’t help me understand the layout. Apparently the parts of Detroit now doing well (such as the downtown) are precisely the parts that never much mattered when the Motor City was revving its engines.

My bet is that this is a great sign. The Bay Area didn’t spend the last decade booming because it started another gold rush, and manufacturing isn’t likely to rank highly in whatever formula restores Detroit. There’s a great a great moment in the book when Binelli harks back to Detroit’s greatest mayor, Hazen S Pingree, who shows up at a school board meeting with cops and has all the members arrested for corruption.

It makes you wish for a leader who will come into Detroit and do the same with all the crimes of nostalgia.

The next Book Club selection is Ayana Mathis’ The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, fiction set in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood.

Brady Dale is a writer and podcaster. You can find him on Twitter at @BradyDale.

Tags: economic development, detroit, manufacturing, book club, rightsizing, mark binelli