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