Detroit City Is The Place To Be: The Afterlife Of An American Metropolis
By: Mark Binelli
Poverty, Drugs & Murders…. OH MY!
To me, Detroit is the most fascinating and intriguing city in the modern world. What??? Yes, it has some of the most significant flaws and social problems, but it also has untapped potential and endless creative opportunity – all in 142 square miles.
That’s what brought me to pick up a copy of Mark Binelli’s 2012 book off the shelves in the Peoria Public Library. No, I don’t have any immediate travel plans booked, I haven’t ever lived there, nor have I even been there. However, what Detroit is at the moment has me curious to find out more.
Coincidentally, I picked up the book one day before the filing of the largest municipal bankruptcy to date. My library card must possess some sort of strange irony feature I am unaware of.
I thought the title to be interesting enough to put down another book and to pick it up without much background information. I thought it may lead me down what new, exciting projects or ideas are in the urban pipeline or to the entrepreneurial Hail-Mary zest that comes with a place on life support.
That may be too predictable, and it might not even be worth reading 300 pages of. The author, a Detroit-area native, had moved on to New York to fulfill his career dreams, but returns back to live in a city he has many memories of and paints a picture of what life at ground zero feels like. In this case, it was a good thing and I was delightfully surprised.
Living in Detroit lent him some street cred in places he probably otherwise wouldn’t have been let in. This doesn’t mean that he went to the trendy and up and coming neighborhoods, rather, he visited the hardest hit and seemingly most desperate of places. While it may be a punchline for outsiders and a low-water benchmark to compare how your city fares compared to Detroit – there is still a lot of pride and resilience left in a city that most have written off or just watch from afar.
In some sick and twisted way, those that have stuck around still really like Detroit. The author takes you to meet firefighters who should have no reason loving the place, young, single mothers who should want out, and others that from a reader’s perspective have no business left in the city. Many, unfortunately don’t have the ability or means to up and leave, but this is what strikes me as the most interesting facet of society. Living in a city with some of the worst services, heinous crimes, and terrible quality of life – people will still take comfort in living there. That goes against everything we think we know about the human species.
Some may point to the riot in 1967 as the catalyst which ruined the city, but as the Mr. Binelli illustrates, things were coming to a head long before that treacherous event. Many on the other side viewed this as the reckoning that needed to happen and in some ways liberated the citizens who had faced segregation and other hardships. So while it may be viewed as a catastrophe that would ruin a city, it can also be viewed as the event that empowered the masses.
The headlines may not be pretty, and the pictures may not seem real, but there is a hidden beauty that comes with that. For better and for worse, the city attracts visitors, artists, and dreamers alike. Human history points to several instances in which cities build themselves up and collapse. Great societies flourish and fail. The time and place may be different, but the reasons seems to be similar and yet unstoppable.
Detroit was once where everything was made. It was the central place where ideas took shape. It may have the ruins of a Rome or Athens, and it may never fully shake the image of a city that collapsed. These civilizations may have a blemish in their past, but the city still remains providing generations insight into what was.
Detroit will no doubt rebound. I may have gone into this book expecting it to tell me that people are already there doing it, or some call to action inviting me there, but what this book is about is the people that have stuck around. The people who may not have had a chance to leave. The exciting thing that comes from utter chaos and collapse is that you can no longer accept the status quo.
Innovation and creation will be forced to occur. In my eyes, Detroit has the advantage that many cities don’t have. They have hit bottom and can see where their past choices have led them. Other cities may deny their fate or their current realities which does them a complete disservice. They may think they are doing just fine, and then… they become the next Detroit.