Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis

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Dominique Morisseau’s 20/20 Vision of Detroit

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Samantha Soule, De’Adre Aziza, and Michelle Wilson in the Public Lab production Detroit ’67, written by Dominique Morisseau and directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, a co-production with the Classical Theatre of Harlem and the National Black Theatre, running at The Public Theater at Astor Place Tuesday, February 26 through Sunday, March 17. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a white Republican, announced on March 1 that the state will appoint an emergency manager to try to bring the city of Detroit, largely black, largely Democrat, and nearly broke, back from the brink of financial ruin. The night before Snyder made that racially and politically fraught announcement, as it happens, I went to the Public Theater in New York to see the world premiere of a new work by a young Detroit playwright named Dominique Morisseau. The play, Detroit ’67, is set during the city’s bloody riot in the summer of 1967, and, like Snyder’s announcement, it is a reminder that the past will always be with us. Morisseau’s play could not be more timely.

It’s set in the basement of a West Side apartment shared by two siblings, the straight-arrow Chelle (Michelle Wilson) and her ambitious brother Lank (Francois Battiste), who have just received a small inheritance following their parents’ deaths. They’ve agreed to turn the basement into an after-hours nightclub, but it’s their sharply differing dreams for a better future that will drive brother and sister apart. Caught in the crossfire are their friends Bunny (De’adre Aziza) and Sly (Brandon J. Dirden). When Lank and Sly find a battered, disoriented white woman named Caroline (Samantha Soule) wandering on the street, they bring her to the basement to recuperate. The fireworks begin.

This taut drama, crisply directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, beautifully acted, produced in association with the Classical Theatre of Harlem and the National Black Theatre, doesn’t have to stretch to make us see it as a metaphor for the racial tensions that are about to engulf the city of Detroit and much of the rest of America. It is one of Morisseau’s gifts to be able to make the personal universal, plausibly, heart-breakingly so. Another of her gifts is the ability to see that Detroit is a city burdened with misconceptions. Among the most stubborn, as Detroit ’67 states with a wicked punch, is the myth that the ’67 riot — or “the Great Rebellion,” as many Detroiters call it — was the root cause of the city’s decline. It was not. Detroit’s population peaked at 1.8 million in 1950 and then began declining as new highways greased the exodus to the suburbs. Meanwhile, the Big Three automakers started sending factory jobs to non-union states, a damaging trend that became ruinous with the advent of globalization. Today, the city’s population is about one-third what it was at its peak. As Morisseau’s play makes clear, the ’67 riot was just one symptom — and an unwelcome accelerant– of a decline that had been in motion for nearly two decades.

“I wanted to contribute a different Detroit narrative,” Morisseau told me at the Public Theater the day before I saw the play. “I want to write as I believe we are. A human being has many flaws. I’m writing from a place of love rather than a place of judgment. I have to show who we are, our humanity. We’re more than sound bites.”

Morisseau graduated from Cass Tech High School, alma mater of Diana Ross, John DeLorean, Lily Tomlin, and scores of famous Detroiters. After studying acting at the University of Michigan, Morisseau came to New York to pursue her career in the theater. Detroit ’67, developed while she was part of the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group, is laced with telling historical detail. I know much of the history because I grew up in Detroit and was a teenager during the riots, and later I spent years researching a novel set during the era. Morisseau, who was not born until 1978, knows the history thanks to family stories she heard while growing up, and to a newspaper clipping file kept by an uncle who worked as a freelance journalist.

“Then I started reading the work of Pearl Cleage,” Morisseau said, referring to the playwright, novelist and essayist whose father, Rev. Albert Cleage, was a prominent civil rights activist in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s, an outspoken advocate of the Black Power movement. “That reading led me to the plays of August Wilson. I felt his overwhelming sense of pride in Pittsburgh and what the people of Pittsburgh must feel. I love writing about Detroit, and I thought I should do a three-cycle play about my hometown. I knew the riot era had to be covered.”

Morisseau has nearly completed her three-play cycle. Paradise Blue is set in the post-World War II jazz clubs of Paradise Valley, the thriving heart of Detroit’s black East Side that was bulldozed to make way for the Chrysler Freeway, an undying insult to many black Detroiters of a certain age. Skeleton Crew is set in 2008, as the recession was hitting, Chrysler and General Motors were sliding into bankruptcy, and many people had given Detroit up for dead.

As she was writing Detroit ’67, Morisseau never lost sight of the fact that she’s a dramatist, not an historian. “This play is not necessarily a history lesson,” she says in a note that appears in the program. “However creative I am choosing to be, I am not being unfaithful to the spirit of the city or the outrage that ignited the riots. The truth is, there were police units called the Big Four that would ride around the city and harass the black residents, particularly around Twelfth Street. The truth is, Twelfth Street was considered to be a ‘seedy’ part of town. The truth is, the riots began in this very neighborhood at a time when police brutality had run far too rampant and an after-hours joint (also called a ‘blind pig’) located above a printing shop got raided. The truth is, the city’s disenfranchised were becoming social rebels.”

True on every count. These truths come to life in what was, for me, the most poignant moment of Detroit ’67, which will run at the Public Theater through March 17, then move uptown to the National Black Theatre of Harlem from March 19 to April 14. Caroline, the battered white woman, has made herself useful in the basement after-hours club during her convalescence, helping make the business a success. But she has also run afoul of Chelle, who disapproves of the growing attraction between her brother and this white intruder, with her dark past and her taste for Bali Hai wine and Motown music. As flames flicker in the windows and Army tanks rumble past on the street, the two women spar over the racial divide, the seemingly unbridgeable chasm that is as old as America itself, the gulf that keeps us all, regardless of our skin color, from being fully alive and truly free:
CHELLE: You and Lank can pretend to be cut from the same cloth all you want. But outside this basement tell a different story. Lank got his eye on the sky but Detroit ain’t in the sky. It’s right here on the ground. A ground with a lot of dividing lines. We on one side and you on the other.

CAROLINE: And what about when the lines are blurred? When you feel something that can’t be cut up or divided? When you know you belong somewhere even if people tell you you’re not allowed. That’s where we meet, Lank and me. Somewhere without all the zones and restrictions. Some place that doesn’t care if we dance close and enjoy the same music. Some place where we’re not stuck. And maybe that’s in a place you refuse to go…maybe you’re afraid what’ll happen if you do…but that’s the place where someone like Lank and someone like me are exactly the same. And if you don’t see that, maybe you’re the one with the blind spot!

CHELLE: I’m the one with the blind spot? You can run out of here right now. Leave town with these cops chasing you. They can harass you and bruise you and even try to kill you. That may make you the same as us. But if you survive it, you can leave. You can disappear and reappear wherever else you want, in any zone you choose. Live a new life without permission or boundaries or some kinda limits to your skin. Can Lank do that? Can any of us? Everywhere we go, the lines is real clear. Ain’t nothin’ blurred about it. You might dream the same. You might listen to the same music. You might even feel the same heartbreak. But til’ he have the same title to this world that you got, you and him ain’t gon’ never be the same! And that ain’t blindness tell me that. That’s 20/20.
Much has been written lately (some of it by me) about the hopeful signs of rebirth in Detroit — a newly bustling downtown, the rise of a young entrepreneurial class, the sprouting of urban farms, the city’s irrepressible work ethic, even the stunning rebound of the auto industry. These developments are real, and they’re worth celebrating. But as Gov. Snyder’s announcement reminds us, the city’s problems are entrenched, and they won’t be fixed by eager entrepreneurs, hipsters, or good press. The city is in desperate need of three things: jobs, people, and the tax revenue that comes with them.

But at least the city’s problems — and the historical sources of those problems — are being addressed in a clear-eyed fashion by a new generation of writers who are able to see beyond the tired cliches, beyond ruin porn and rosy optimism, beyond the finger-pointing and the exhausted racial-political rhetoric. With Detroit ’67, Dominique Morisseau has added her voice to this robust chorus. Its members include Mark Binelli, author of Detroit City Is the Place To Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis. And Charlie LeDuff, author of the current New York Times bestseller Detroit: An American Autopsy. And Paul Clemens, author of Punching Out and Made in Detroit.

None of these writers buys the simplistic old myths — that the riot single-handedly ruined Detroit; that the city’s first black mayor, fiery Coleman Young, was either a devil or a saint; that the racial divide can be bridged with good intentions; that the auto industry’s soaring profits will be the city’s salvation.

The truth is much more complicated than any of that. Dominique Morisseau is a young talent worth watching because she’s seeing our troubled, fascinating, resilient hometown with vision that’s 20/20.

Image courtesy of The Public Theater.

Detroit Fiction: On Rightsizing American Literature

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Fiction is the next Detroit. Have you been there? I haven’t, but I’ve read plenty about it, which surely counts for something. Most of it is pretty grim stuff. For that matter, so is most of what you read about the state of contemporary American fiction, what with the demise of publishing and our whole world pixelated and digitized, not to mention Thursday night football and Sunday morning brunch, and just who the hell has the time to read a whole book anyway?

Eulogies for high literature have become a sort of genre of their own. These have sometimes been unrelentingly dour, like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, and sometimes amusingly hectoring, like “Where Have All The Mailers Gone?”, a New York Observer essay in which Lee Siegel calls fiction “a museum-piece genre most of whose practitioners are more like cripplingly self-conscious curators or theoreticians than writers.” The most famous entry in this genre, though, probably remains Jonathan Franzen’s 1996 essay in Harper’s, “Perchance to Dream,” in which he presciently (and without any of the usual histrionics) predicted what would happen to fiction in the ensuing years: “The institution of writing and reading serious novels is like a grand old Middle American city gutted and drained by superhighways,” a hulking beast that has outlived its utility. The great city was abandoned, Franzen writes, because “the average man or woman’s entire life is increasingly structured to avoid precisely the kinds of conflicts on which fiction…has always thrived.”

The technologies introduced in the 17 years since Franzen (a native of that most “Middle American” of cities, St. Louis) wrote those words have only exacerbated the situation, letting the soul select and “like” her own society to a previously unimaginable degree. The Internet and all its attendant gewgaws have only further atomized communities, essentially reducing vast swaths of human discourse to the swipes and clicks of a finger. Having abandoned what Franzen called “the depressed literary inner city,” we have pushed out from the suburbs into even more discrete exurbs, our literature as ersatz as the McMansion subdivisions that riddle the landscape, our homes decorated with the inoffensive West Elm trappings of workshop fiction. This is obviously a very tricky place from which to write the sort of sweeping, universal literature that generally gets called art — in fact, given all the forces aligned against you, both cultural and economic, you’d almost have to be a fool to try. Might as well just scroll through your Netflix queue.

In one of those happy accidents of fate, I reread the Franzen essay almost right after having finished Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis. Binelli is a native of that much-mourned city, and while he enumerates the many signs of its postwar decline, his is a strangely optimistic narrative of those have stayed or actually moved to Detroit, messianically convinced that emptiness, rubble and neglect are the ingredients of a visionary new city upon the lake. Hipster farmers, European architects, African-American community activists — they have all taken Detroit’s thoroughly confirmed irrelevance as an asset that will let them rebuild as they want, free of both corporate and popular dictates.

That’s what I meant with the fiction-as-Detroit conceit. It is well known that the fortunes of the Motor City declined when, in the postwar era, Japan and Germany started making much better cars than we did. What happened to the American automotive industry some half-century ago is happening today, more or less, to American publishing: declining interest in the product, high legacy costs, cheaper competitors (i.e., ebooks), a workforce slow to adapt. By that logic, literature is dead or dying, doomed to the sort of irrelevance that left Detroit looking like firebombed Dresden.

This, however, does not have me worried. I, for one, am happy to occupy that gutted and forgotten city, much as Franzen was back in 1996, much as some college graduate right now is dreaming of escaping his parents’ basement for a coldwater loft. Literature could not find itself in a better place from which to escape the confining and picayune interiority of the last half-century.

I am going to push this urban metaphor a little further, not for the sake of trying to be clever but because it gets at the very problem facing fiction. The audience for literature today is generally well-off and suburban — these are the people, after all, who have time to think about their profoundly personal problems and read books that purport to solve or at least mirror them. So, then, if the ruined metropolis is the sort of serious fiction that Franzen championed, then the suburbs are the predictable comforts of memoir like Eat, Pray, Love, or its fictional equivalent.

There is something freeing in neglect, in the knowledge that literature has lost its centrality in the American experience, that we neither have new Mailers, nor yearn for them, that we have been abandoned for more the more passive pastures of the digital age. With that knowledge already beneath our skin, why bother trying to attract Starbucks to Gratiot Ave? Let us brew our own, stronger coffee: Joshua Cohen’s Witz; A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven. Elizabeth Gilbert can keep her millions.

I guess what I am calling for is the literary equivalent of “rightsizing,” in the lingo of urban planners. The concept suggests that we reclaim cities by returning them to their core functions, by shedding the sprawl that doomed them in the second half of the 20th century — the same cultural sprawl that has diluted American fiction. Writing of Detroit’s plan to rightsize back in 2010, The Economist was glad that “harsh realities have produced radical thinking,” praising Mayor Dave Bing for recognizing the “painful necessity” that the Detroit of bustling factories could never be again.

In fact, Detroit’s automotive industry has become back: not enough to return the city to its halcyon days, not enough to heal the scars of its decline, but certainly more than doomsayers would have expected a decade ago. It has done so by becoming leaner, smarter, no longer peddling Hummers, thinking of green energy and efficiency as more than just the fads of coastal elites. Publishing will have to do the same thing if it wants to save the literary city. It will likely have to look at smaller presses that are publishing less, but editing more, that are repacking classics in unexpected ways, that are finding ways to be beat Amazon at the ebook game.

And the city will be saved. Because while the city may shrink, it cannot be allowed to die, either — cities, like books, will always attract those who reject more anodyne pastures. The city is where real problems reside, along with the people who suffer from them — and those who, to borrow from Auden, cannot help but act as “an affirming flame.” Today’s suburbanized literature — a dim light bulb — has largely cast aside the sweeping social concerns that animated, say, The Grapes of Wrath and Native Son. A big social novel is like a great old train station; a nice thought, but impractical in this day and age. Who will go there, anyway? A bus shelter will do.

Both of the above novels are Detroit fiction: unruly, uncouth, imperfect, tragic, frequently beautiful, sometimes ugly. Which isn’t to say that Detroit fiction always has to be 600 pages long and cover the entire arc of American history. Henry Miller’s furiously personal Tropic novels are squarely Detroit in their ambition to catalog “the hot lava which was bubbling inside me.” So are the cerebral short stories of Lydia Davis, who gets at the human condition in seven stabbing words: “Heart weeps. Head tries to help heart.” That’s about as far from the suburbs as you can get.

Suburban novels are, in the end, a double illusion: the basic one of fiction, followed by the more poisonous promise that reading, say, Paulo Coelho is really going to improve your life. Their counterpart is the McMansion with its ersatz Tudor accents and assurances that within is everything you could ever needed. This is obviously not true. The world is out there. Detroit awaits.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

A Year in Reading: Bill Morris

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The big literary event for me this year was a dictionary upgrade — from a 1974 first edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language to the new, improved fifth edition. The book itself is a thing of beauty: 2,084 colorfully illustrated pages between sturdy cream-colored covers. Among its many delights are the breezy, informative essays about how select words evolved. Here’s a sample Word History:

The word outlaw brings to mind the cattle rustlers and gunslingers of the Wild West, but it comes from a much earlier time, when guns were not yet invented but cattle stealing was. Outlaw can be traced back to the old Norse word utlagr, “outlawed, banished,” made up of ut, “out,” and log, “law.” An utlagi (derived from utlagr) was someone outside the protection of the law. The Scandinavians, who invaded and settled in England during the 8th through 11th century, gave us the Old English word utlaga, which designated someone who because of criminal acts had to give up his property to the crown and could be killed without recrimination. The legal status of the outlaw became less severe over the course of the Middle Ages. However, the looser use of the word to designate criminals in general, which arose in Middle English, lives on in tales of the Wild West.

I should also mention a wonderful discovery, Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, a new non-fiction book by fellow Detroit-native Mark Binelli. It’s an overdue and hugely welcome corrective to the narrative of doom and decay that has been pouring out of Detroit, like toxic sludge, for the past 40 years. Binelli, a dogged reporter and deft writer, moved back home for two years to do research, and he came away believing that “Detroit’s luck, despite such unimaginable obstacles, might still turn.” It’s a brave, smart, and important book.

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Mark Binelli Explains Why Detroit City Is the Place to Be

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1. Two Guys Walk Into a Bar
We agreed to meet in a dive called the Motor City Bar, a couple of Detroit guys drawn together by a rare chance to watch our hometown Tigers play in the World Series. The bar is located, oddly enough, on New York City’s Lower East Side, 650 miles from Detroit but just a few blocks from where we now live. Beer and baseball were merely an excuse for getting together. The real reason Mark Binelli and I met in the Motor City Bar was to talk about his terrific new book about our hometown, Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis.

The book is a long-overdue and hugely welcome corrective to the one-dimensional narrative of urban decay that has been spewing out of Detroit roughly since 1970, the year Binelli, the son of Italian immigrants, was born. My family had moved away from Detroit a year earlier, after I’d spent the first 17 years of my life there. In other words, Binelli and I are a generation apart and we experienced the two very different sides of the Detroit coin: I was lucky to surf the glory years of Mustangs and Motown and the MC5, while Binelli rode the relentless downward spiral of layoffs, factory shutdowns, declining population and rising crime, and the wholesale transfer of blue-collar jobs to non-union southern states and to worker-unfriendly countries like Mexico and China.

“For people of my generation and younger,” Binelli, 42, writes, “growing up in the Detroit area meant growing up with a constant reminder of the best having ended a long time ago. We held no other concept of Detroit but as a shell of its former self. Our parents could mourn what it used to be and tell us stories about the wonderful downtown department stores and the heyday of Motown and muscle cars. But for us, those stories existed as pure fable.”

Despite this divide, it turns out that Binelli and I have much in common. His book grew out of an assignment for Rolling Stone magazine, which sent him home in early 2009 to cover the American International Auto Show and, more broadly, Detroit’s teetering auto industry. The omens at the time were dire: Binelli arrived the week of Barack Obama’s inauguration, as the world was plunging into a vicious recession; Michigan’s unemployment was above 15 percent; the former mayor of Detroit was in jail after resigning over a sex and corruption scandal; and the leaders of Chrysler and General Motors, two of the domestic auto industry’s so-called Big Three, had just returned from Washington, where they’d gotten down on their knees and begged for a federal bailout.

After finishing the magazine assignment, Binelli decided to stay in town and keep digging. For the next two and half years he lived near the Eastern Market, where, as a teenager, he had made deliveries for his father’s knife-sharpening business. (Binelli’s only novel, Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!, stars a pair Italian slapstick comedians who specialize in throwing very sharp knives and very messy pies at one another.) Binelli talked to everyone he met – businessmen who had moved their operations from the suburbs into vacant downtown buildings; creative young people who had recently arrived, eager to take advantage of cheap rents and the city’s anything-goes atmosphere; natives who had fled, attended top colleges, then come home to try to make a difference; urban farmers and gardeners; the students and staff at a successful magnet school for pregnant teenagers and young mothers; plus a colorful gallery of firefighters, autoworkers, artists, metal scrappers, vigilantes, entrepreneurs, bloggers, and activists.

The deeper he went into the story, the more convinced he became that the negative old narrative had played itself out. In its place was emerging a new sense of purpose and possibility. “It didn’t make rational sense, I knew, but I found myself edging over to the side of the optimists,” Binelli writes. “I couldn’t say why; it happened gradually, on the level of anecdote: I caught myself noticing and relishing slight indicators that in aggregate (or perhaps viewed through lenses with the proper tinting) couldn’t help but make you feel Detroit’s luck, despite such unimaginable obstacles, might still turn.”

2. “The Messiah Is Us.”
As our first beers arrived and the World Series game began, I told Binelli that I’d had a weirdly parallel experience. In January of this year, just as Binelli was wrapping up the research for his book, I got an assignment to write a series of articles for Popular Mechanics magazine, positing that Detroit’s future is actually beginning to look intriguing and surprisingly bright.

I hadn’t been back to Detroit in more than a decade, so my editor laid out the encouraging signposts for me. There is strong support to build a second bridge linking Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, the busiest international trade crossing in North America, which is now serviced by an ancient bridge owned by a miserly billionaire who pockets all the toll money. There is a growing entrepreneurial class, high-tech businesses are flocking to downtown, and the city’s vast open spaces are already being turned into farms and gardens, wild forests and bike paths. My editor, who had visited Detroit numerous times in the past year, promised me that the city is well on its way to becoming an urban environment unlike anything anywhere else in the world.

I arrived in time for the 2012 Auto Show, sweating bullets of dread. What would I do if my reporting led me to the conclusion that the rosy story I’d been assigned to write was nothing but a pipe dream? Like Binelli, I knew that Detroit has stubborn, seemingly insurmountable, problems, including high rates of crime, unemployment, and illiteracy, a school system hobbled by years of corrupt and inept management, and a city government so financially strapped that basic services are spotty at best, and sometimes non-existent. For good measure, there are as many as 50,000 stray dogs roaming the streets and empty spaces.

To my enormous relief, there was more to see than the well documented blight. I ran into the same energy and determination Binelli had encountered, and before long I, too, found myself edging over to the side of the optimists. It certainly helped that the local auto industry, with a boost from a federal bailout, had not only survived but was suddenly, almost miraculously, turning record profits. But what truly amazed me was that Detroiters shrugged at the news of those profits, and the news that Chrysler was adding a shift and hiring more workers at its humming East Jefferson plant. This was my epiphany. This told me that Detroiters had stopped waiting for salvation from above – a new auto factory, a new government program, a new housing development – because they were too busy saving themselves down at street level.

This do-it-yourself ethos was beautifully expressed to me by Jack Kushigian, a native Detroiter who grew up working in his family’s machine shop, then went off to San Francisco after college to work as a computer software engineer. Like the members of the reverse diaspora Binelli had encountered, Kushigian came back home to try to make a difference. I met him in the woodworking shop he’d set up in a church basement on the city’s hard-hit East Side, where he was teaching neighborhood people how to make furniture out of wood harvested from abandoned buildings, a virtually limitless source of raw materials. “Detroit for years, during its decline, has been hoping for a Messiah,” Kushigian told me. “Detroit has finally given up on that. A lot of people in Detroit have a fire burning inside them that I don’t see anywhere else. My feeling is that the Messiah is us.”

3. America’s Mecca
After ordering a second round of beers and noting that the Tigers had fallen behind the San Francisco Giants by two runs, I said to Binelli, “I think the thing I hate most about the way people perceive Detroit is ruin porn – you know, all those books full pictures of gorgeous abandoned buildings and open prairie.”

“Yeah,” Binelli said, “people from Detroit get so inured to it. It’s like a New Yorker walking past the Empire State Building and not bothering to look up. I used to think ruin porn in Detroit was voyeuristic and creepy. But it’s not necessarily invalid because, let’s face it, that’s the way the city looks.”

The remark says a lot. While I reject ruin porn out of hand, Binelli has the subtlety to dislike it but admit it has its place in the narrative. “Why not embrace the mystique?” he went on. “Tourists come to see those ruins. They’re a legitimate part of the history of American industry. They’re like our Acropolis.”

When Binelli encountered a group of German college student poking through the gutted Packard plant, he asked what had inspired them to vacation in Detroit. One gleefully replied, “I came to see the end of the world!”

A more nuanced reading was offered by a Dutch photographer named Corine Vermeulen, who came to Detroit in 2001 to study at nearby Cranbrook Academy of Art, then stayed on to document the opposite of ruin porn: urban beekeepers and farmers, lowrider car nuts, storefront mosques, and the artwork of the late Detroiter Mike Kelley. “I feel like Detroit is the most important city in the U.S., maybe in the world,” Vermeulen told Binelli. “It’s the birthplace of modernity and the graveyard of modernity…. Detroit in the present moment is a very good vehicle for the imagination.”

Vermeulen’s favorite movie is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which is set in a very Detroit-esque post-industrial netherworld called “the Zone,” a desolate, forbidding place where it’s possible for intrepid visitors to have their deepest desires fulfilled. Vermeulen offered to show Binelli one of Detroit’s “Zones,” and off they went to a 189-acre prairie on the East Side officially known as “the I-94 Industrial Project,” a federally designated tax-free “Renaissance zone,” where all the buildings got torn down and the only things that got reborn were grass, wildflowers and a single factory. Vermeulen and Binelli climbed a hill to survey this vast savannah. “From up here,” he writes, “it was difficult to believe we were minutes from the downtown of a major American city.”

In a footnote he adds:
Corine had never heard of Geoff Dyer, but in his collection Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, he makes the same connection, sprinkling his account of a trip to the first Detroit Electronic Music Festival with references to Stalker and the Zone.
(My footnote to Binelli’s footnote: Geoff Dyer has since published an entire book about Stalker called Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, which we wrote about earlier this year.)

Binelli’s footnotes are among his book’s great pleasures. He knows Detroit’s history cold, but he also understands its lore, which may be even more vital to his project’s success. Here is his footnote on the source of an early Detroit nickname:
See, for example, Newsreel LIX, of John Dos Passos’s The Big Money: “the stranger first coming to Detroit if he is interested in the busy, economic side of modern life will find a marvelous industrial beehive…DETROIT THE CITY WHERE LIFE IS WORTH LIVING.”
To commemorate the roll-out of Ford’s Model A in 1927, the modernist photographer and painter Charles Sheeler was hired to photograph Ford’s mammoth River Rouge complex. After noting that Sheeler shot the plant the way an 18th-century painter might have depicted the interior of a cathedral, Binelli added this footnote:
The most famous shot in Sheeler’s series, Criss-Crossed Conveyors, invokes neither grit nor noise but instead an almost tabernacular grace. The smokestacks in the background look like the pipes of a massive church organ, the titular conveyor belts forming the shape of what is unmistakably a giant cross. The photograph was originally published in a 1928 issue of Vanity Fair, where the caption read: “In a landscape where size, quantity and speed are the cardinal virtues, it is natural that the largest factory, turning out the most cars in the least time, should come to have the quality of America’s Mecca.”
That word tabernacular is absolutely perfect.

After explaining that Edsel Ford paid Diego Rivera $20,000 to paint the famous Detroit Industry murals in the Detroit Institute of Arts, Binelli notes that Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo, managed to get in a dig on Edsel’s father, cranky old, anti-Semitic Henry. Here’s the footnote:
At a dinner party, Kahlo mischievously asked Ford if he was Jewish.
4. Eminem and Clint
The Tigers, meanwhile, were stringing together so many zeroes that the scoreboard was starting to look like a rosary. Naturally I started seeking a scapegoat and decided I wanted the head of the Tigers’ hitting coach on a platter. That’s another difference between Binelli and me. He doesn’t look for scapegoats.

Instead, he rejects the conventional reasons for Detroit’s decline: greedy labor unions, the 1967 riot (or “uprising,” as many black Detroiters still call it), the white flight it supposedly inspired, and the first black mayor it supposedly helped elect, fiery, divisive, foul-mouthed Coleman Young. As Young put it in his memoir, he was able to take over the city administration in 1974 because “the white people don’t want the damn thing anymore.” If Binelli sees a scapegoat, it’s the provincial Midwestern burghers who ran the American auto industry into the ground, cloistered in their enclaves in Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Hills, oblivious to foreign competition, playing golf while Detroit burned – “the preposterously overpaid executives, with their maddening, sclerotic passivity in the face of their industry’s demise.”

To his credit, Binelli points out that Detroit’s decline was a long time in the making, and racial tension was not something that arrived in the 1960s. Since its founding in 1701, the city has always been a racial and ethnic stew, spicy and violent. There was a nasty race riot in 1863, another in 1943 that left 34 Detroiters dead. The city’s population peaked in 1952 at about 2 million and has been falling ever since, sometimes gradually, sometimes precipitously. Today it’s around 700,000, or about one-third of what it was at its peak, and it’s 85 percent black. So the 1967 riot didn’t scare off the white people, it merely accelerated an established trend. The auto industry and “urban planners” finished the job, with their ever-bigger cars, their ever-bigger highways, and their zoning laws and red-lining that encouraged suburban sprawl while keeping black people safely sequestered below 8 Mile Road. Oh, and let’s not forget the Big Three’s willingness to “outsource” jobs, final proof that corporations are not people, they’re machines driven by the profit motive and very little else. Certainly not by loyalty to local workers when it’s possible to pay somebody in Alabama or Mexico far less to do the same job.

The Motor City once had mass transit – until automotive interests realized that people who ride trolleys don’t drive cars or ride buses. While covering that Auto Show in 2009, Binelli took a ride on what passes for mass transit in Detroit today – “the People Mover, an elevated tram that runs through downtown Detroit in a three-mile, one-way loop. The city used to have an extensive trolley system, but it was purchased by National City Lines, a front company formed by GM, Firestone, Standard Oil and other automobile interests, after which the trolley tracks were ripped up and replaced with buses. The People Mover began running in 1987 and seems, in its utter uselessness, as if it might have been built by another secret auto industry cabal, as a way of mocking the very idea of public transportation.”

Such observations show that Binelli, like all accomplished journalists, is equally skeptical of breathless hype and received wisdom, and he can also be very funny. As the TV camera panned across the packed stands in Comerica Park in downtown Detroit, which opened in 2000, Binelli and I had to admit that though we miss long-gone Tiger Stadium we’ve both developed a grudging admiration for the new park. But his book makes clear that Binelli doesn’t buy into the facile media fantasy that sports are an accurate barometer and metaphor for a city’s fortunes, such as this serving of horseshit from a CNN columnist: “History has shown that when the city’s sports teams start doing well, it’s a sign of healing in Detroit.” When I mentioned that line from the book, Binelli laughed and said, “It’d be nice if it was true. But it’s not.” And he rightly lumps Comerica Park and neighboring Ford Field, home of the NFL’s Lions, with the dozens of shiny new stadiums littering the land, calling them “state-subsidized giveaways to corporations in exchange for their willingness to locate in the city.”

Yet there’s no denying that cars and sports are still central to the lives of most Detroiters. Nowhere was the convergence – and the narrative power – of these passions more revealing than in the recent Chrysler ads starring Eminem and Clint Eastwood.

“It’s funny how much people loved those Super Bowl ads,” Binelli said. “I think it’s because Americans want Detroit to succeed. It’s like we need the idea of our worst place coming back. If Detroit can turn it around, then Stockton can too, and Las Vegas, and all those cities in Florida that got hammered by the recession. Now outsiders want to cheer Detroit on.” What those Chrysler ads were pitching, he wrote, “had far less to do with cars than an elemental, nearly lost sense of American optimism.”

My elemental American optimism got snuffed for the night when I watched the final Tiger batter strike out swinging, a fitting exclamation point to a limp 2-0 loss. A loss the next night would complete a dispiriting four-game sweep by the Giants.

But as Mark Binelli and I finished one last round and said our goodnights, I wasn’t thinking about baseball. I was remembering his remark in the book that he’d been drawn back to Detroit by the chance to influence the story of the century. “It might very well turn out to be the story of the last century, the death rattle of the twentieth-century definition of the American Dream,” he wrote. “But there could also be another story emerging, the story of the first great post-industrial city of our new century. Who knows?”

Nobody knows – yet. But based on what I’ve seen with my own eyes and what Mark Binelli and other perceptive observers have written, my money’s on the second horse. The longshot. The spavined one that’s coming from the back of the pack, coming on strong, and showing signs that she just might emerge as the world’s first great post-industrial city.

Image credit: Daily Invention/Flickr

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