Book Reviews


Good news: A few hipsters are rediscovering Detroit. Bad news:
everything else.

By Thomas J. Sugrue

Tagged DetroitUrban Policy

Detroit City Is the Place to Be By Mark Binelli • Metropolitan Books • 2012 • 318 pages • $28

No one lives there anymore.” I have heard those five words uttered again and again over the last four decades since my parents joined the great Boer Trek from city to suburb. Detroit has lost a lot of people—about 1.3 million—since its population peak of nearly two million in the early 1950s. Between 2000 and 2010 alone, Detroit lost a remarkable 25 percent of its population, as massive long-term disinvestment, the collapse of the public infrastructure, and the near-death of the American auto industry devastated the city. Today, more than 40 of the city’s 139 square miles are empty; at least 90,000 houses stand abandoned; and neighborhood shopping districts are scarce. Once-grand factories are gutted and crumbling. A few years ago, The Onion ran a headline “Detroit Sold for Scrap.” Funny because it’s true: One of the city’s few growth industries is scrapping. Inept scavengers pulled down a substantial part of a pedestrian bridge at the defunct Packard Plant (a mile-long complex that stopped making cars in 1957) in an effort to retrieve its steel support beams. When I visited shortly afterward, an electrical crew was replacing copper wire that had been stripped out of nearby live power lines. Drivers learn to veer around sewer openings in the streets because every time iron prices rise, sewer lids disappear, leaving car-eating holes in their place.

For most of the colorful characters in Mark Binelli’s gripping, tragicomic account of Detroit, the city’s emptiness is its future. Newcomers to Detroit describe the city as “the Wild West” and themselves as “pioneers” staking claim to new land. For them, the Motor City is a tabula rasa, a place to undo, remake, rebuild, reinvent. Among them is wealthy investor John Hantz, who recently won approval for his plan to convert part of Detroit’s East Side urban prairie into a commercial tree farm—a striking turnabout for a neighborhood that was once the city’s densest. A short distance from Hantz Farms, artist Tyree Guyton has turned a few mostly abandoned blocks into a post-apocalyptic art installation, using abandoned houses as canvases, urban detritus as statuary, and half-dead trees, covered doll heads, and old shoes as totems. Detroit’s most famous radical, Grace Lee Boggs, now 97, who is still on a journey that began with Trotskyite factionalism, moved through Black Power, and shifted to neighborhood and anti-violence organizing, leads a devoted band of utopians who envision Detroit as a collective of communal farms, the world’s largest wholly self-sustaining city. That vision is more than a little far-fetched, but with at least 875 urban farms and community gardens in Detroit today, it’s no more unreal than long-dashed dreams of somehow restoring the city’s mid-century industrial might.

Detroit represents, in extremis, the realities of urban America today. American cities have long embodied the paradoxes of poverty amidst progress. They attract migrants in search of opportunity or outcasts in search of liberty, but they also repel those discomfited by insecurity, anonymity, and anomie. Detroit offers one version of this story: The Motor City was the nation’s Arsenal of Democracy and the engine of its massive postwar consumer economy, then the epitome of deindustrialization, racial conflict, and decay.

Binelli offers a brief overview of the city’s sometimes glorious and often troubled history, but primarily turns his attention to the future: How does a city reinvent itself? Is it possible for a place left for dead to come back to life? Can we save the city? Who is that elusive “we”? On each of these questions, Binelli is a pessimist of the intellect but an optimist of the will. He offers an unflinching analysis of the city’s problems but an intimate portrayal of those longtime Detroiters and newcomers alike who are trapped in the city’s present while reimagining its possible (and impossible) futures.

A contributing editor at Rolling Stone and Men’s Journal, Binelli is a former suburban Detroiter turned New Yorker. He moved back to Detroit to write his book, and quickly found himself in the company of various expatriates, from New York to the Netherlands. He spends much of his time with the city’s burgeoning cadre of hipsters—mostly white, mostly young—whose migration set the local news atwitter when the 2008 and 2009 American Community Surveys showed that Detroit’s white population had grown for the first time since the mid-twentieth century. The small upticks in those years, however, scarcely affected overall trends: In 2000, Detroit had almost 100,000 white residents; ten years later the number had fallen to 55,604, or only 7.8 percent of the city’s population.

However small in number, Detroit’s white newcomers are both optimistic and messianic. They see Detroit as the Brooklyn of the prairies or, even more ambitiously, the next Berlin, a magnet for what urban planner Richard Florida calls the “creative class.” For struggling artists, Detroit’s bargain-basement prices are a lure, with single-family homes averaging just $21,000 and vast studios for a tiny fraction of New York rents. The city has become a mecca for Germans who revere the city’s innovative techno music scene. It is now home to several trendy art galleries, including a cutting-edge modern-art museum (MOCAD—the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit). And the hip now have watering holes, many of them retrofitted dives that serve microbrews and local food amid their iconic and now ironic knotty pine paneling, stainless steel bars, and flickering vintage neon signs that have never left the premises. Detroit’s Midtown district—perhaps the city’s hippest enclave (even if all of its residents could fit into a few blocks in Brooklyn)—has even attracted the Holy Grail of a dying Midwestern city: a Whole Foods.

But as Binelli shows, it’s not just cheap property that lures the hip to Detroit: It’s a sense of missionary zeal that they will save the city. The young white denizens of what Binelli cheekily and brilliantly calls the “DIY city” see Detroit as a blank slate—a city with the people (at least the “wrong” kind of people) mostly left out. That vision of Detroit is most evident in what wags have come to call “ruin porn,” the often stunningly beautiful photographs of empty factories, vacant classrooms, and haunted churches that look like they have been hit by a neutron bomb. Many of downtown Detroit’s glorious beaux arts and deco skyscrapers stand so empty that visionary photographer Camilo José Vergara once proposed that they be turned into an American acropolis, stabilized and preserved as monuments to a lost civilization, looming over the decaying city like the Parthenon over Athens. It is now fashionable for European tourists and local urban explorers to spelunk through long-empty factories. Scrappy urban DIYers have turned the flooded basement of a long-defunct manufactory into a subterranean hockey rink; pop-up entrepreneurs refashion the crumbling shells of old motor plants into surreptitious night clubs. The steampunk artist and the witty journalist alike look onto Detroit as did Shelley the ruins of Rome’s Baths of Caracalla or Wordsworth the bare-ruined choirs of Tintern Abbey. “I came to see the end of the world!” proclaims a German college student to Binelli, outside the rotting hulk of the grand, abandoned Michigan Central Station.

Though he finds their optimism irresistible, Binelli is justifiably skeptical of Detroit’s would-be saviors and their dreams. “Aside from burned out buildings and overgrown lots, what’s missing from the Tomorrowland renderings of Detroit 2030, with its monorails and Christmas tree farms and office parks and Apple Stores? Oh, right: poor people.” Detroit might be depopulated, but it is not a blank slate. Over 700,000 people, more than four fifths of them black, call the city home. For them, Detroit’s ruins are not romantic: They are a taunting reminder of how the city has lost capital and jobs, and how many lives have been ruined in the process.

Binelli’s skepticism is justified. For the last 40 years, American urban policy has been motivated by what I call trickle-down urbanism. Big-city mayors have long placed their bets on glitzy downtown redevelopment, providing subsidies to lure corporate headquarters back from the suburbs. They point to pockets of gentrification with their busy bistros, coffee shops whose patrons’ faces glow with the light from their laptops, and pricey lofts carved out of old factories as evidence that cities are coming back. The more desperate, underfunded city governments, including Detroit, have placed their chips on casino gambling, with hopes that they will somehow become the next Las Vegas. Even in Detroit, the impact of such redevelopment is undeniable: It’s possible to enjoy a pinot noir at a sidewalk café on downtown’s main strip, Woodward Avenue, once left for dead. Suburbanites who dared not enter the city a few decades ago now fill Detroit’s well-guarded casino parking lots. But apart from some unionized casino jobs and some extra tax revenue in the city’s depleted coffers, few city residents have seen any direct benefits from much-touted urban redevelopment schemes. For those with a little disposable income, like me, Detroit is a far livelier place than it has been in decades. For everyone else, not so much.

The grim reality is that Detroit is home to one of the poorest, most segregated urban populations in the country. Detroiters are disproportionately unemployed, impoverished, and in poor health. The city—infamous for its murder rate—still ranks among the most violent places in the United States. Detroit averaged 90,000 fires in 2008, twice the number of New York City, even though the latter is 11 times more populous. The nearly complete disappearance of industry and commerce and the collapse of the housing market have devastated the city’s tax base, making it almost impossible to provide even rudimentary police and fire protection. Binelli notes that the average police response time for a life-threatening crime in the city is a scarcely believable 24 minutes. In the enclave of Highland Park local firefighters must buy their own equipment and work for $10 per hour, with little training and no capacity to investigate arson.

The fundamental question facing Detroit is how to deal with the mountain of social and economic problems the city faces. And that is the tragic part of Binelli’s story. He chronicles the efforts of Detroiters, from mayors to union leaders to teachers, to grapple with the city’s troubles. All of them have the will, but none have the capacity to make more than a difference on the margins. Some of Binelli’s stories are moving, like that of charismatic Asenath Andrews, the principal of the Catherine Ferguson Academy, a high school for pregnant teenagers and mothers with a 90 percent graduation rate. He follows John Zimmick, president of UAW Local 174 (once led by labor giant Walter Reuther), who helplessly laments that “the middle class really is going away and I don’t have the answers for it.” And he attends the pathetic trial of Kevin Howell, a hapless crack dealer who goes to jail for murder, after his mother testifies against him. These single moms, struggling unionists, and the perpetrators and victims of crime are the other side of the DIY city, all stranded with little help in a city of failing schools, collapsing wages, and endemic violence.

Ultimately, the causes of Detroit’s problems—and their solutions—are far bigger than the city itself. For the last 40 years, cities have fallen mostly to the bottom of the list of national policy priorities. After a burst of spending on community development and social services in the 1960s and early 1970s, federal urban spending has steadily spiraled downward. President Ford told cities to drop dead, President Carter sacrificed an urban policy to his anti-inflation agenda, and President Reagan cut urban spending from 12 percent to 3 percent of the federal budget. The first Bush Administration’s Enterprise Zone programs—repackaged as Empowerment Zones under Clinton—did little to create new jobs or reinvigorate impoverished neighborhoods. Even the Obama Administration, which ceremoniously created an Office of Urban Affairs, put cities on the back burner (even if, for a time, city governments and school districts did benefit from the infusion of stimulus money).

Detroit has also fallen prey to suburban indifference or outright hostility to cities, their residents, and their problems. Advocates of regional cooperation like Bruce Katz, Myron Orfield, and David Rusk have made a persuasive case that the fates of cities and suburbs are intertwined and that metropolitan economic growth depends on improving central-city economies and schools. The balkanization of the big metros creates separate and unequally funded school districts, duplicative services, and bureaucratic inefficiencies. But the obstacles to regionalism are huge, especially in places like Detroit where generations of racial hostility have poisoned city-suburb relations. As Binelli pointedly argues, for decades suburban Detroiters “saw themselves as displaced persons, refugees of a race and culture war forced to build dissident strongholds, where the true way forward would be demonstrated.” Not surprisingly, Detroit’s black majority looked outward with distrust, fearful that regionalism would simply be another mechanism for suburban control.

In this climate of hostility, Detroiters were largely left to fend for themselves—and the story is not a happy one. Binelli takes a long look at the pervasive corruption in Detroit’s city government, but he swiftly and persuasively debunks the time-honored myth that Detroit’s woes are primarily the consequence of black misrule. Many journalists, policy-makers, and white suburbanites still point their finger at supposed race-baiters like Mayor Coleman Young, who held the office from 1974 to 1993. Binelli is too smart to fall into that common journalistic trap. “Even today,” he writes, “there’s an unsettling fervency to the hatred of Young among certain white ex-Detroiters who will tell you Coleman Young ruined this city with such venom it’s impossible not to see Young as a proxy for every black Detroiter who walks the halls of their old high schools or sleeps in the bedrooms of their childhood homes.” After all, Young built close working relations with corporate leaders, set aside city positions for whites, and oversaw the (controversial) construction of two major auto plants and a downtown corporate complex. But there simply wasn’t a lot that a mayor could do when he took over a city that had already been on the skids for a quarter century, a city whose economy depended on the auto industry during the oil shocks and was forced to endure the massive restructuring and Chrysler bankruptcy of the 1970s. Young had the misfortune to rule when legislators in both Washington and Lansing alike shunted cities to the margins.

Binelli does justifiably skewer some of the city’s urban policy follies, like the “People Mover” monorail that loops through the downtown in a ghostly parody of an urban transit system and a vestige of the suburban opposition to a regional transportation policy. He has scarcely a good word—and correctly so—for former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, the charismatic “hip-hop mayor,” who was (at first) heralded by the Democratic Leadership Council as one of a new generation of fiscally conservative, culturally relevant big-city leaders, but was caught having an affair with his chief of staff, using city police to cover up the mess, and lying about it until hundreds of tawdry text messages surfaced in the investigation.

But Binelli’s most devastating criticism falls on the inept rather than the corrupt. He offers a detailed and unsparing discussion of the half-baked efforts by Detroit’s current mayor, former basketball star Dave Bing, to “right-size” the city. Bing, who fashioned himself (like so many big-city mayors these days) after New York’s Michael Bloomberg, stumbled partly because of incompetent staff and poor political skills but primarily by falling back on the tired shibboleth that somehow, if the city were run like a business, it could rebound. At “listening” meetings held throughout the city to consider what Detroit would look like in the future, Bing showed up late and offered little more than vague plans for improvement: Provide better city services to a “demonstration area,” and leave behind others in an “Urban Homestead Sector,” where “in return for giving up services such as street lights, the homeowner would get lower taxes (in exchange for experimenting with alternative energy and, where possible, using well water.)”

In the meantime, the state government has stepped in, first assigning Detroit schools an emergency financial manager charged with closing the city’s undersubscribed schools, and reducing administrative staff, wages, and benefits. This story too was one of irony—at the same time that the school manager, Robert Bobb, painted the school district as ill-fated and corrupt, he had to recruit parents to enroll their children because state and federal funding is contingent upon head counts. In 2012, just as Binelli was finishing his book, Republican Governor Rick Snyder threatened to take control of city government, on the premise that it would take an outsider to dismantle city employment, reorganize government, and privatize some of the city’s few relatively well-paying jobs—those in the public sector. But the feedback loop—fewer city services, fewer middle-class workers in the city, and ongoing depopulation and disinvestment—doesn’t bode well for the city’s future.

Binelli offers no policy prescriptions—and for good reason. There are no obvious solutions to the city’s problems, at least in the short to medium run. It may be that, over time, as old central cities regain population, they will regain some of their lost political clout on Capitol Hill. It may be that as suburbs grow increasingly diverse and struggle with what were once seen as distinctly urban problems, such as rising poverty, aging schools and infrastructure, and declining tax revenues, they will form coalitions to push for greater public spending. For now, though, Binelli has it right. In the absence of an approach to urban and metropolitan problems that goes beyond state receivership and austerity, Detroit’s fate, for better and worse, has been left in the hands of its hardscrabble residents, its leftist utopians, its underpaid firefighters and teachers, and its inept would-be reformers. It’s hard to imagine a story grimmer than the one Binelli tells, yet in the end he captures something about Detroit and its people that flies in the face of the city’s squalor. Detroiters—and Binelli himself—are hard-edged optimists, fighting against the odds for the city that, for all its troubles, haunts their imaginations. That optimism might, in the end, be the only thing Detroit has left going for it.

Read more about DetroitUrban Policy

Thomas J. Sugrue is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University. His most recent book is These United States: A Nation in the Making, 1890 to the Present, with Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore.

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