Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Fabulous Ruins: Mark Binelli's "Detroit City Is the Place To Be"



For the past several months, I've wanted to read a book about Detroit, and I wasn't sure if I wanted a complete history or a more contemporary look at a consistently analyzed, poked, and prodded city. I've read handfuls of (now) forgettable articles about the area, but I have no immediate memory of these pieces, save for the general consensus of: "Detroit has fallen apart, let's see how this mirrors/represents the recession, etc. etc." In the last year, several new book releases have popped up. I kept meaning to check out last year's Detroit: A Biography by Scott Martelle, since at first glance it seemed like a more academic, complete exploration. I never got around to it, and the recent publication Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff has been getting a lot of press lately. Judging the titles alone, the two books are stark polar ends of what I wanted to read. One is an overall history, one is another layer in the vast documentation of Detroit analysis/head-shaking reporting. On a whim, I instead opted for Mark Binelli's Detroit City Is the Place To Be. The jaunty title is juxtaposed by a grim, postcard-like illustration of industrialization. In hindsight, I think I decided to read this book because it struck me, at least visually, as a Detroit version of Neil Steinberg's You Were Never In Chicago. Having grown up outside the city, Binelli returned multiple times to research how Detroit has grown and regressed since bottoming out. In retrospect, I feel I know more about the city than I did going in, but there were times when I wasn't sure what kind of book Binelli wanted this to be.

In his very good introduction, Binelli gets the obvious thoughts out of the way, the ones I've referenced above. Detroit has become a "new obsession," to borrow his words. Internationally, journalists, photographers, and writers have journeyed to the city to explore and highlight its desecration, but in the end, are readers really learning anything about the city? Andm most importantly, are there any real answers on how to bring Detroit back to sustainability, both economically and socially? Months ago, I was putting away photography books at work, and ended up paging through a glossy coffee table collection of abandoned, crumbling infrastructures. Artistically, Detroit is irresistible. Ruins (or, as Binelli references later, "ruin porn") are great fodder for visceral reactions. But there are serious problems that need to be addressed. Detroit and its outside perception is very complicated.

"The new obsession with Detroit did not end with journalists, at least not according to the journalists themselves, who reported on how artists were also colonizing the city. Could this be a first wave of bohemian gentrification? Was Detroit the next Williamsburg? One young couple from Chicago had bought a home in Detroit for a hundred bucks. Brooklyn artists came and froze another house in a block of ice. Thanks to a nearly 50 percent tax incentive being offered by the state, Hollywood film crews also arrived, along with actors like George Clooney and Richard Gere. A glossy French fashion magazine even produced a special 'Detroit issue' featuring shots of models in ruined industrial backdrops. The magazine cost twenty dollars in the United States--or, in local terms, one-fifth of the price of a home in Detroit (Binelli 15)."

Binelli offers some excellent historical research into Detroit's founding and some of the very early issues plaguing the city. He pokes fun at the sometimes strained attempts by writers and historians to bridge the gaps between the past and the present, but his research did teach me about some of the historical events in the very early days of Michigan. He offers some big examples, but I found the smaller, less known depictions to be much more enthralling. Since I was hoping the book would be a balance between the old and the new, there's just enough information to satisfy before moving on the bigger, more current pictures.

"Aside from Pontiac's Rebellion, the most well-trod historical marker of Detroit's frontier century is the Great Fire of 1805. Just as the Michigan Territory of the United States was officially established with Detroit as its capital, the fort was almost entirely destroyed by a freak conflagration. The temptation to ascribe Detroit's misfortunes to conspiracy is apparently an old one, and a theory quickly developed--arson!--supposedly committed by lumber barons up in Black River, now Port Huron, who wanted to sell the city more wood. In fact, the fire was started by an employee of John Harvey, a baker, who knocked some ashes from his clay pipe, igniting a pile of hay. Detroit was made up of old wood buildings built very close together on narrow streets, and by the middle of the afternoon, the entire village was ablaze. There was only one fire truck. Citizens tried to put out the fire with river water and 'swabs at the ends of long poles.' Eventually they evacuated the fort in canoes and watched the settlement burn (Binelli 44-45)."

After this and more historic details, Binelli gets into the heart of his book. He travels through the city and takes part in a variety of activities--he sits in on a gun class, interviews urban farmers, attends a murder trial, and sits in with a group of firefighters, to name a few. He doesn't attempt to leave himself out of the proceedings, not that this is distracting. He's a consistent first-person narrator, offering his opinions and reactions to conversations and happenings in real time. This is acceptable, since he never stops to offer any "this is what I would do" type analyses. Instead, he focuses on the big picture, and isn't afraid to tackle sensitive racial issues head-on. The city's population is predominantly African-American, and some critiques border precariously on racial lines. While tailgating at a Detroit Lions game, Binelli struck up a conversation with another tailgater, expressing optimism over Detroit's health and outlook. The unnamed person

"...shook his head and said he'd been hearing that for the past thirty years. The main problem, he claimed, was leadership, that the city really screwed up by electing the worst people ever, that nothing would change unless you changed things at the top--a not uncommon assessment from white suburbanites, 'leadership' often signifying 'thieving blacks who demanded the keys to the shop, and now look what the fuck happened.' If there was national schadenfreude about the failure of Detroit, regional schadenfreude was even stronger, and it hinged in large part on race.
In that moment, I thought of certain aspects of United States foreign policy--the practice of isolating enemy states financially and then watching the leader whom we've labeled a tyrant act more and more like one when his regime begins to crumble under the pressure of the embargo. The leader and his state must fail in order to confirm the triumph of our own ideology. And if his people do not rise up against him, their suffering is, at least in part, their own fault. Here, Detroit was a rogue state, defying the bullying hegemony of a superpower that (in the eyes of many Detroiters) wanted to install its own hand-picked leader, making the transfer of any remaining natural resources that much smoother (Binelli 113-114)."



Passages like these represent Binelli at his finest. He's able to make complicated analogies and civic policy understandable, but at times, he'll stop and quickly move into another area of discussion. His ability to get himself into hard-to-reach places with hard-to-reach individuals is admirable, but there were far too many times in my reading when I simply didn't know what his ultimate goal was supposed to be. Binelli might have been better off with a strictly oral history of the city--he manages to get fascinating memories and insight out of anyone he interviews. Late in the book, he mentions research for what was supposed to be a novel about Detroit. He has a definite flair for the dramatic, even in seemingly offhand paragraphs.

"[Firefighter Eric] Hollowell sat nearby, chain-smoking and drinking coffee from a thermos. A trim black man with a cleanly shaved head and a wispy mustache, he wore a blue Highland Park Fire Department polo shirt tucked into dark slacks. Hollowell was thirty-seven. He'd grown up in Highland Park, just a few blocks from the warehouse; so few houses remained on Hollowell's old street, one of his coworkers told me, 'I call that block We Lost It.' Hollowell's mother had been a teacher at Highland Park High. His father died when Hollowell was only ten years old. An electrician, he'd been doing work in a friend's basement as a favor and stepped into a puddle of water, not realizing someone had cut the power back on (Binelli 189)."

Detroit City Is the Place To Be is much better when Binelli profiles Detroit's two most recent mayors, Kwame Kilpatrick and Dave Bing. The two men are contrasts in physical and political styles: Kilpatrick was younger, bigger, and affectionately (and not so affectionately) dubbed the "hip-hop mayor" before political scandals brought him down. Bing is older, more reserved, and in most opinions, sometimes too timid or laid back for a city dealing with such upheaval and needs. Binelli also travels with a group of artists to a warehouse exhibition, and in the process shows how even the most forward-thinking artists can be terribly out of touch with reality. The artists seem bemused with the surroundings, even making offhand jokes about buying up cheap properties for creative purposes. Binelli doesn't judge them outright, but lets their actions and words show how good intentions came come across and cringe-inducing and insulting to struggling citizens. He later expands his thoughts on "ruin porn," the seemingly exploitative nature of people seeking enlightenment and meaning in crumbling infrastructures.

"Ruin porn was generally assessed the same way as the other kind, with you-know-it-when-you-see-it subjectivity. Everyone seemed to agree that Camilo Vergara's work was not ruin pornography, though he'd arguably been the Hefner of the genre. Likewise, the local artist Lowell Boileau, who, around the same time Vergara proposed his American Acropolis, began posting his own photographs on a website called the Fabulous Ruins of Detroit, also received a pass, perhaps because he approached his subject from a native's perspective, and with unabashed nostalgia. Photojournalists, on the other hand, were almost universally considered creeps pandering to a sticky-fingered Internet slide-show demographic. To some extent the critique had been just: as with stories about misbehaving teenage starlets, editorial love of Detroit came with obvious exploitative commercial reward: a link to a titillating shot of Detroit's architectural dishabille could always be counted to rise to the top of your website's 'most emailed' lists, which, of course, was the bottom line (Binelli 272-273)."

In the end, I wanted more of this kind of analysis. There are so many stories to tell, and Binelli tells all of them admirably. Perhaps he's still so attached to the city as a native citizen that he doesn't want to go on his own nostalgia trip. This is a very well-researched book, but after, I still don't know exactly what his intention was as a whole. Entire books could be written about contemporary Detroit politics and the subject of ruin porn, and perhaps I was so drawn to those subjects that I wanted more. I feel I know more about the city than I did going in, so as a sort of introduction, Detroit City Is the Place To Be works well. It would be silly to expect a single volume to encompass everything, but Binelli tries. In this, he succeeds and stumbles. It's an admirable project, but it left me wanting more concrete analysis rather than just some sketches. Devoting equal footing to all of his subjects would have led this to be a multi-book project, but in the end, we're left with some vivid people and the hope that a once bustling city has the pieces to rebuild.

Work Cited:
Binelli, Mark. Detroit City Is the Place To Be. Copyright 2012 by Mark Binelli.

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