Sept/Oct/Nov 2012

Down and Out in Motown

Sorting out the ruins of deindustrialized Detroit

Will Boisvert


You would have to look back to the fall of Rome for a spectacle of urban collapse to rival Detroit over the last sixty years. The city’s population, which brushed the two million mark in 1950, is now barely seven hundred thousand and falling. Depopulation and economic decline have created a desolate landscape of burned-out businesses and busted houses sagging in on themselves around open roofs and vacant windows. Whole districts have reverted to grassland, with a few fortified homesteads and useless fire hydrants to mark where bustling neighborhoods once stood. Looming over the urban prairie are the vast, crumbling auto factories, the ravaged coliseum of old Tiger Stadium, and the iconic slab of the train station, trees growing through its floor; these monuments, lugubrious and grand, have made Detroit the epicenter of a photographic genre of postindustrial “ruin porn.”

What’s most striking about the city to people (like me) who grew up there isn’t the picturesque devastation but the haunting sense of abandonment. There’s a solidity to much of what remains in Detroit—especially downtown, where lofty Art Deco skyscrapers stand intact, elegant and empty—that makes its isolation and decay all the more perverse. Detroit wasn’t sacked or bombed or inundated; it was left behind. Its residents streamed out on its overbuilt expressways, never to return. Likewise, downtown’s commerce didn’t dry up; it just decamped to a suburban stretch of the Lodge Freeway where dozens of tinted-glass towers with marquee logos—IBM, General Electric, Siemens—now preside over countless office parks and professional plazas whose tenants once would have thronged the city. Detroit was abandoned by whites who feared and hated blacks, by companies that feared and hated the town’s aggressive unions, and by anyone who could afford to flee the deepening poverty and crime.

Mark Binelli’s excellent Detroit City Is the Place to Be is ostensibly about everyone who didn’t leave Detroit behind. It’s a stylish, clear-eyed, subtly absurdist panorama of the contemporary city and the people who hold it together in appalling circumstances, and of the dreams, both visionary and hucksterish, for its recovery. But even as the author focuses on the city’s present and future, he also takes stock of its fraught past—a past that stubbornly resists abandonment.

Click to enlarge

Shuttered pawnshop, Detroit, 2010.

Binelli, a Rolling Stone reporter and novelist (Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! [2006]), grew up in a Detroit suburb and returned to the city in 2009. Prowling its ruins and pedaling its deserted streets on his bicycle, he excavates its uniquely precarious life. The economy, which in poorer neighborhoods is little more than drug dealing and stripping metal fixtures from derelict buildings, is dicey even at the top: Binelli notes that a newly elected city council president had to use the certified election returns as proof of income to halt foreclosure proceedings on his house. Detroit’s bankrupt finances no longer fund even a pretense of public services. Beset by the nation’s second-highest big-city murder rate, the skeleton police force responds only to extreme emergencies; rather than investigate a nonfatal shooting spree, the cops on Binelli’s ride-along simply advise the targets on how to shelter themselves from gunfire. A half-inspiring, half-deranged frontier culture has taken hold, he observes. Volunteer groups perform everything from crime patrols to dog catching, while even the city’s clergymen pack pistols. One heavy-lidded schoolgirl tells Binelli she was kept up all night by home invaders trying to come in through the roof.

Binelli sets the Motor City’s current state of nature within the conflicted legacy of its once-mighty car industry. He surveys the auto show, festooned with forest motifs to advertise its eco-consciousness, and talks to the designers of the Chevy Volt, the electric car being built in one of Detroit’s two remaining auto plants. He tours the comfortably ergonomic assembly line at Ford’s legendary River Rouge plant, contrasting it with Diego Rivera’s Depression-era socialist-realist murals of the factory at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and tags along with a UAW official, last of the labor paladins, valiantly defending the contract. The resurgence of the bailed-out Big Three is a rare bright spot in Binelli’s account, but it’s a wan one. He notes that the companies owe much of their newfound profitability to massive union givebacks, and employ just a sliver of their old workforce. Talk of reeducating Michigan’s blue-collar workers for the high-tech “brainiac economy” that will allegedly replace the dwindling manufacturing base strikes him as “the feeblest of platitudes.”

If Detroit’s industrial efflorescence once made it, in Binelli’s words, “the greatest working-class city in the most prosperous country in the world,” he argues that the city’s economic and political order also sowed the seeds of implosion. Detroit was the city where factory workers first aspired to, and then demanded, a middle-class lifestyle, but the struggle to meet those demands tore the city apart. As the booming factories drew in immigrants and African Americans, Detroit became a cauldron of racial animosity, with blacks who sought to spend their high union wages on housing in better neighborhoods facing violent resistance from white homeowners. After the 1967 riot, Detroit’s liberal establishment gave way to a law-and-order regime and was then overthrown by the city’s first black mayor, Coleman Young, a sharp-tongued radical who started out as a labor militant; many whites considered him a cross between Nat Turner and Fidel Castro. Binelli’s portrait of Young and the racial politics that swirled around him is piquant, nuanced, and tragic. Young presided over twenty years of galloping blight, as white flight and the exodus of businesses for greenfield sites and union-free climes devastated the city, yet many black Detroiters viewed the Young years as a kind of liberation, saying good riddance to the whites who left. In reality, Young’s legacy was disastrous: His reign cemented the polarization of the metropolitan area between the superghetto of Detroit proper and the wealthier suburbs, a hostility that still blocks collaborations that could benefit all sides.

Not surprisingly, the schemes for Detroit’s renewal that Binelli investigates repudiate its tormented industrial heritage. The city is a center of the urban-farming movement, featuring hundreds of small plots and proposals for commercial farms and Christmas-tree plantations. Leftist utopians such as Rebecca Solnit, who celebrated “Detroit Arcadia” in the pages of Harper’s Magazine, see these developments as a return to an agrarian paradise. Dave Bing, the former NBA star who is now Detroit’s mayor, has made the drastic shrinkage and greening of the city the centerpiece of his policy agenda. Under his Detroit Works proposal, city services would be concentrated in viable neighborhoods while underpopulated ones would be evacuated and demolished; consultants envision a “bio-urban hub” featuring “Naturescapes” and “Green Venture Zones” with nurseries and aquaculture centers. But by converting even more housing to field and further hollowing out the urban core—in the name of urbanism!—these initiatives simply recapitulate the dynamic of racially driven sprawl that wrecked the city, and Binelli is appropriately skeptical of them: Most Detroiters, he observes, show no enthusiasm either for farming or forced relocation.

The other and even unlikelier strand of Detroit futurism posits the city as a cultural mecca. Artists have arrived, drawn by the town’s grungy authenticity, postapocalyptic visuals, and rock-bottom rents—the very “creative class” that urban theorists prize as the shock troops of gentrification. So chic has Detroit become—“a Midwestern TriBeCa,” gushed the New York Times—that it has attracted the avant-garde likes of Matthew Barney. Binelli reviews Barney’s meditation on the city, staged before an audience of tastemakers and movie stars, which featured a cast of ersatz autoworkers fashioning junkyard musical instruments on an assembly line; for an encore, a Pontiac Trans Am was melted down in a custom-built foundry, as if to ceremonially reverse the narrative arc of auto production. The piece, Binelli muses, anticipates a day when “the only factory work left in Detroit would be stylized performance art.”

Binelli’s engrossing book captures the beauty and nobility of Detroit, and the warmth of its communal life amid hardship and chaos. Binelli also takes full measure of the bizarreness of Detroit’s predicament—which is also the bizarreness of a whole nation contemptuously discarding its achievements. He ends on an upbeat note, with bohemians and yuppies trickling into the city, full of enthusiasm and plans. Like everyone who knows the Renaissance City, he can’t help being beguiled by hopes for its future, even if he doesn’t quite see a plausible way forward. In the new economy we’re busy forging out of dematerialized knowledge, the flawed industrial democracy that Detroit epitomizes will be as obsolete as an old Edsel. But with so many American towns now in permanent recession and edging toward bankruptcy, Binelli wonders if Detroit’s crazy struggle to survive and reinvent itself might not make it a bellwether, “the first great postindustrial city of our new century.”

Perhaps. But maybe Detroit’s past is more up-to-date than its future. After all, the world will not return to Arcadia, nor advance to Information, nor ascend into Art; it will stick with Industry, with its promise of prosperity and consumerism and cars, and its crassness and drudgery and bitter conflicts over the spoils. As much as the creative classes might like to banish it, industry is flourishing as never before; there are dozens of industrial-era Detroits springing up everywhere, in China and India, Nigeria and Brazil, each with its clashing ethnicities and seething workers, its exploitations and grievances piling up like tinder awaiting a spark. Detroit grappled with those antagonisms, tried and failed to resolve them, and was ultimately destroyed by them. But they have not been transcended—not anywhere—and they cannot be left behind forever. Detroit isn’t finished. It’s barely begun.

Will Boisvert is a freelance writer who lives in New York.

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