‘Freezing the present in a written snap shot’ – The Last Days of Detroit by Mark Binelli

ldodmbMark Binelli brings a journalist’s eye and a home-towner’s heart to his record of the state of the city where he grew up. The tour of Detroit he takes us through unfolds through different vistas and experiences, and through conversations with present residents who experience the city in their own way. This helps to make the book a kaleidoscope of visions of this post-industrial city, still looking for its future.

Binelli takes his readers on a tour through landscapes of abandoned factories and buildings and observes their being looted for the value of the remaining metal (the radiators in the Metropolitan, once the centre of Detroit’s jewelry trade, are simply too heavy to drag away). The tour takes the reader through urban prairies reemerging as nature retakes abandoned homes. In Detroit, 40 square miles are empty of habitation. These are not planned parks, but pockmarks of abandonment.

Along the way, we meet those who in their own ways plants seeds for the revitalisation of the city, literally so in the case of the urban gardeners, metaphorically so for the artists and photographers who find beauty and inspiration in the city and its scars. They are not universally admired though: one resident denounces visitors who create ‘ruin porn’.

We meet those who live their lives in the city, experiencing its decline firsthand but nonetheless getting on day by day. Girls at the Catherine Ferguson Academy for teenage mothers are fortunate in being helped to succeed more academically than they would have in their normal school, but their prospects are probably helped most by moving out for Detroit as so many others have done before. In one district, firefighters lack basic equipment to the extent that they cannot even communicate with each other once in a burning building. Nonetheless, they still try to tackle the arson fires that are all too common around them, too experienced to find jobs elsewhere as they would outrank their seniors in ability. Another resident complains of the more prosaic difficulty in getting around: one legacy of the concentration of car manufacturers in “Motown” (motor town) is its urban sprawl. Another is that the tram system was bought out and shut down by the car industry.

The trade unionists had their own battles with the car industry, as Binelli finds out, but their power has declined as the low number of available jobs and the large number of people seeking employment has weakened further their bargaining power.

While there are some reflections of Detroit’s historical glory in Binelli’s account, the path trodden through the city streets and empty buildings is very much through the lens of a journalist, freezing the present in a written snap shot. A little more history would have benefitted the book. As Binelli accompanies you through the abandoned factories and empty lots, it would have been good to better juxtapose the difficult present with the booming past.

Detroit was, after all, the city that gave the world the hit music that was known by the city’s nickname, ‘Motown’, and while this is acknowledged – the building of the Interstate highway cut through where Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson had lived – their stories are of the past and not dwelt upon. Detroit’s car manufacture, too, played a global role on the design of the world’s cities and infrastructure.

Any Cop?: Binelli brings to his book the regretful air of someone who has been away from a familiar place and for whom the state of Detroit is a newly realised experience, rather than as the outcome of an evolutionary decline. He offers no solutions to Detroit other than blueprints of visions offered by others, and its bankruptcy in 2013 a mere statement of how much would need to be done to revive the city.

 

Kat Watts


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