Americans love a good ghost town. How else can one explain the large number of abandoned settlements across the country – and particularly in the southwest – that are kept in a state of arrested decay for the benefit of tourists? We also seem to be fascinated by the process that creates a ghost town. How else can one explain the hordes of journalists who have descended upon Detroit in recent years to chronicle the city’s decline? The troubles of what was once America’s fourth-largest city have fueled a boomlet of photography books and exhibitions focused on capturing images of Detroit’s vacant industrial core, as well as a flood of stories. Favorite topics include hipsters repurposing urban decay, nature reclaiming the Motor City’s deserted urban heartland and beleaguered residents finding hope in local sports teams.
Given the sheer volume of stories about Detroit’s transformation from mid-century manufacturing behemoth to a hollowed-out city recently placed under the control of a state-selected financial manager, it might seem that Mark Binelli’s latest book, “Detroit City is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis” would be totally superfluous. But it distinguishes itself from previous works chronicling Detroit’s decline in two ways. First, Binelli is a superior writer. Second, he is a local boy who moved back to the area to tell Detroit’s story. And even though the city has been losing people at an alarming clip, it still has many, many stories to tell.
Binelli hits many of the notes already sounded by other journalists. He tells the story of the city government’s inability to effect real change and occasional outright corruption, a point brought into sharp relief recently by the conviction of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick on racketeering and extortion charges. Binelli meets with urban explorers playing sightseer amid the city’s empty buildings and warehouses. He talks about how, despite Detroit’s many woes, Lions fans still get up early on game day to drink Miller High Life and grill brats in subfreezing temperatures. But for some reason, Binelli’s telling of these stories seems more authentic than most of those published previously.
In fact, maybe what Detroit needed to tell its story is someone who would take the time to simply wander around and ask fellow residents, both old-timers and newcomers, about why they live in a place so many others have forsaken. After all, in Detroit simply mowing the lawn is an act of defiance. With so many abandoned houses, the grass in many front yards is chest-high, and cutting the lawn is an act that both literally and figuratively keeps the invading prairie at bay.
Though he encounters many residents who have the energy and optimism to give Detroit a new lease on life, Binelli is generally agnostic about the city’s future. This pragmatic attitude reflects just how difficult it is to repurpose a major metropolitan area, even one like Detroit with a rich history and undeniable accomplishments.