Ground zero, Detroit, scene of the demise of the Industrial Revolution. Decrepit, decaying abandoned buildings including homes, warehouses and factories dot the landscape. Among the rubble drift the discarded human beings.
They try to survive the desolation, unemployment, drugs, and violence that smother Detroit. They expect little help from a corrupt and failing government. Grossly underfunded police and fire departments usually arrive too late. Streets are dark at night because the city can’t afford to keep them running. People must fend for themselves.
This description sounds like an apocalyptic movie. However, this is actually a story of rebirth, but the ending has not yet been written. Green sprouts of hope live among the detritus of the industrial era. This is the world Mark Binelli takes you to in Detroit City Is the Place to Be.
As a recent Detroit suburbanite, I had neighbors who will tell you Detroit is already dead. They have written it off. They refuse to go down there but with this attitude, they also miss many good things. Binelli didn’t listen to them.
Binelli immersed himself in the urban center, the disaster zone. He is a native, moved away after graduation from University of Michigan. He returns to his old downtown neighborhood after many years to find not much remains of the places and people he knew.
He arrived back at the peak of the recession in 2008. He spent three years in Metro Detroit slightly overlapping with the auto industry bailout. He wanted to determine if his old hometown stands a chance of survival. Join him on his quest of discovery.
Before you can understand Detroit in its current state, you must first understand its history. You must be able to see things through the eyes of the occupants, their collective social and contextual perspective.
Detroit began as a fur trapper town. Forged from violence, bloodshed and fire. The French and the British fought many battles for ownership of this strategically placed piece of land. It’s located along the Canadian border and directly on top of a major water route.
Eventually, the British took control. Shortly thereafter, it burnt to the ground for the first time, but not the last. Throughout Detroit’s history, fire has been the primary means of urban renewal.
Due to its proximity to the Canadian border, Detroit served as a smuggler’s haven throughout its history. Slaves passed through it on the Underground Railroad. They hoped to achieve freedom and a better life. Some of them moved on to Canada, but many stayed and worked.
Jump ahead to the 1920s. Gangsters fought bloody turf wars over smuggling rights to bring booze across the border. Some say the river not only serves as a major water route, but it could be Detroit’s largest cemetery. Binelli combines this colorful history with current circumstances to give readers an understanding of the social as well as the financial problems faced by Detroit.
Since before the American Civil War, racial tensions have run high in Detroit. While the residents did not agree with slavery, they were not ready to live in equality. Several times in Detroit’s history the races violently clashed.
Racial tensions boiled over once again in the summer of 1968 after the assignations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Violence erupted, the city burned, and it is still burning. The whites moved to the suburbs and the blacks stayed behind.
During the 2008 recession, factories closed and the population plummeted even more. The tax base became almost non-existent. The little tax revenue there was found its way along with state and federal aid into the pockets of the politicians. City services dwindled to a trickle. The remaining residents needed to take charge.
Anarchy ruled the streets of Detroit, and residents express their pride in being autonomous and surviving where so many have fled. In some cases it’s drug dealers and pimps. In other cases it’s people who take pride in their Detroit, and want to return the City to its greatness.
Binelli visited several communities within Metro Detroit. He interviewed good people and some “dangerous” people. He went to places you and I might not dare go, nor would we be welcome. Detroit City is the Place to Be offers the reader an opportunity to get to know Detroit’s residents and local hot spots. He tells their story mixed with the history so the reader can put it all in perspective.
All is not bleak. In contrast Binelli offers many success stories as well. In the urban prairies where homes and businesses used to stand, residents plant community gardens. It helps put a little income in their pockets and food on the table.
The Catherine Ferguson Academy, a school for pregnant girls and teen mothers represents another success story. They boast a 90% graduation rate, and in order to graduate students must be accepted into a college program. In 2012 the Academy became a charter school, and everyone hopes they can make it financially.
Binelli offers a liberal viewpoint of Detroit’s story. He puts blame on the politicians and the auto industry. He sides with the workers. Granted, Detroit’s politicians bring new meaning to the term graft and political corruption, especially former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. He has already been convicted on numerous counts, and is currently on trial for rigging county contracts.
In reading Detroit City Is the Place to Be, it becomes clear thathe African-American residents would like to see Detroit improve, and jobs return, but they worry about the changes. They have controlled the city for nearly 40 years both politically and by population. They are not a minority in Metro Detroit.
They fear an improved Detroit will cause whites to move back and take over the government. They are scared there will be no room for them. They envision a possibility in which they do not benefit from the improvements. Even worse, they might be displaced from their meager life, and get left with nothing. In the 2010 census, the population of urban whites actually increased for the first time since 1968.
Detroit City Is the Place to Be is Mark Binelli’s second book, his first being Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!, a story about Italian immigrants. He also contributes to Rolling Stone magazine. His research on Detroit and its history is impressive. He writes an informative and entertaining book on Detroit that is worth your time.