The Detroit of the Mind

—I grew up in Illinois and Wisconsin, on just the other side of the lake from Michigan, or The Glove State. Detroit hung out there like some kind of borderland. Even from a young age, people would say, “Oh, Detroit…” the same way they might start to speak of an extended family member who had fallen hard on the booze. As such, there was always a certain mythos attached to the city. Seeing Robocop certainly didn’t help.

—In Mark Binelli’s new book, Detroit City is the Place to Be (an excellent read, mind you, for non-fiction nerds and normal people alike), Binelli redresses this mythos, giving a lot of airtime to explaining the origins of Detroit myth, and the strange, rumored opinions that continue to inflate/exaggerate/denegrate the legacy of Motor City. But the book isn’t just about the mythos, it’s about the current state of things.

—More than any other American city, Detroit is easy to cast as a synecdoche for the fast-motion fall of the American Empire. The story of the city is packed with political intrigue, racial tension, the triumph of the modern capitalist will… all of the things that make America the great nation that it is. And in the case of Detroit, all of this is happening in an area just a hair under 143 square miles. It’s a city that started as a trapping outpost, and then it grew, and then cars happened, and then the city swelled, and then cars stopped, and then so did everything else, and now, for all intents and purposes, the city is necrotic. Or, is it? Binelli says maybe, maybe not.

Binelli gets into the history of the city, the genesis of its various tensions and problems. You get the feeling that the book is almost too short. But it’s not. It’s just packing a lot of complicated information into a tight space (336 pages, to be exact). Think of how The Wire tried to tell a story of Baltimore: you’ve got the drug gangs, you’ve got the Union gangs, you’ve got the police, you’ve got the federal government, you’ve got the civilians. And the lines between these entities get pretty damn blurry the closer you look at them. That’s why a lot of people, as Binelli argues, try to say that the ‘problem’ with Detroit is the result of just one thing (racism, capitalism, etc.). But it’s everything. And that’s what’s great about Detroit City is the Place to Be—it’s not diagnostic, it’s journalistic. But it’s sharp journalism (Binelli writes for Rolling Stone, so it definitely has that leftist coolness), and for Binelli, it’s close to home; he’s from just outside Detroit, and he returned for a few years to write this book.

—Binelli meets a lot of interesting characters in here, many of whom seem almost fictional in terms of origin stories, many of which have to do with some kind of violence. Binelli definitely isn’t waxing poetic about anything about Detroit: it’s a violent place. But it’s got its high points.

—I sense Binelli fights the urge to more strongly criticize the neo-Bohemian interest in Detroit, which is partly voyeuristic (think ‘Disaster Tourism‘ or ‘UrbEx‘) and partly a more deep-seated ethos of White Privilege, if you’ll excuse me using a tired Sociology 101 term. It’s the same sort of annoyance native Brooklyners (Red Hooklyners?) have gotten with central-Midwestern emigrants setting up camp in The Big City (or the same annoyance I get when non-Chicagoans show their colors by calling the city ‘Chi-Town.’) Attracted by low rents and a certain type of lawlessness, these flannel-clad skinny-jeans wearers have ‘reclaimed’ certain areas of Detroit for urban agriculture, goofy coffee shops, and whatever it is kids do with their trust funds and Art History BAs. The tension here is: these kids also tend to bring higher income, higher education, and consequently ‘safer’ communities. The tradeoff is homogeneity, which Binelli says bothers some native Detroiters. Would you rather go to a store and spend $50 on organic portobello mushrooms, or get shot in the neck?

—Usually I don’t see a lot of space for squarely ‘non-fiction’ books and Anobium-otera, but as Detroit has attained a certain mythos in the American psyche, it occupies a strange psychic zone that acts both as a mirror for contemporary American urbanism and a possible glimpse of our future. Early on, Binelli comments about the similarities between Detroit and Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Zone’ in his iconic 1979 production, Stalker (a film you often see me cite). Detroit, in many ways, is also the Detroit of the Mind. This is partly why we’re all so damn fascinated with it. What Binelli’s book does is help make that area of the mind more clear.

—The one moral point worth elucidating is that people need to work. People are meant to work. We no longer live in a hunting/gathering world, where the jobs provide themselves. Rather, we need to seek work—an unfortunate byproduct of modernity. Another unfortunate byproduct of modernity is that only certain people and entities are able to provide those jobs, and when they can provide these jobs locally, but choose instead to ‘outsource’—for the sake of the eponymous bottom line—it’s a recipe for disaster. Greed is like cancer, in other words. But when you look at cities like Detroit—and other smaller American cities that have gone the same direction—you actually start to wonder if the disease is auto-immune.

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