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

Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, by Mark Binelli

Book description: Once America’s capitalist dream town, Detroit is our country’s greatest urban failure, having fallen the longest and the farthest. But the city’s worst crisis yet (and that’s saying something) has managed to do the unthinkable: turn the end of days into something of a laboratory for the future. Urban planners, land speculators, neopastoral agriculturalists, and utopian environmentalists – all have been drawn to Detroit’s baroquely decaying, nothing-left-to-lose frontier.

With an eye for both the darkly absurd and the radically new, Detroit-area native Mark Binelli has chronicled this convergence. Throughout the city’s “museum of neglect” – its swaths of abandoned buildings, its miles of urban prairie, he tracks both the blight and the signs of its repurposing, from a school for pregnant teenagers to a beleaguered UAW local; from metal scrappers and gun-toting vigilantes to artists reclaiming abandoned auto factories; from the organic farming on empty lots to GM’s risky wager on the Volt electric car; from firefighters forced by budget cuts to sleep in tents to the mayor’s realignment plan (the most ambitious on record) to move residents of half-empty neighbourhoods into a viable, new urban centre.

My review: In this book, Detroit is described as the end of the world. The situation there is bleak, frightening and almost laughably surreal. The crime, the fires, the basic anarchy that exists there seems to belong in the pages of a post-apocalyptic novel. In a word: scary.

Although he does add in some interesting tidbits about Detroit’s history, Binelli does not focus on the past and how things have ended up this way. Rather he looks at the present – what is – and the future – what Detroit could be. He mentions that while it’s easily to see Detroit as a city that has ended, it’s more interesting, and more optimistic, to see what having absolutely nothing can actually allow you to become. What’s that quote? “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” It’s clear that Detroit has nothing left to lose. My mind is still blown that a place like that exists in what used to be an economic hub of America.

Some of the most provocative initiatives happening in the city right now are art installations, some occurring through “ruin porn” that seems to be super popular in Europe right now, and urban farming. The idea that hipsters from Brooklyn might save the city made me laugh a little bit. I love that many Detroit citizens are going locavore and using land for more sustainable farming, but the idea that many former city neighbourhoods, like acres a piece, have been reduced to these so-called urban prairies. It is so disturbing. Binelli talks about Detroit being America’s future, but whether it’s the really bad or the really good, it is not at all obvious.

Word of the day:

Bestrode: to get or be astride of; have or place the legs on both sides of; to step over or across with long strides


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