The Last Days of Detroit: Motor Cars, Motown and the Collapse of an Industrial Giant
Bodley Head, 336pp, £20
Over the past few years the city of Detroit – once a titan of American industry and proud symbol of modernity, now teetering towards bankruptcy – has found itself the subject of a stream of articles, books, photography exhibitions, TV news exposés and documentaries. In his ambitious new book, The Last Days of Detroit, Mark Binelli sets out to investigate the “new obsession” with the Motor City and what it might foretell, from the parachuting doom-and-gloom journalists eager to pronounce the city’s death knell to the surprising migration of new arrivals – artists and other bohemian types, land speculators, “green” entrepreneurs. After all, he writes, “Who doesn’t want to see the future?”
In coverage of the book in the US, Binelli has routinely been referred to as a Detroit native, but for those of us from the area, calling someone raised in suburban Detroit (as I was) a “native” can be fighting words. The historically charged relationship between the city and its suburbs and its sharp racial divide (which is among the country’s starkest) doesn’t just undergird every local issue, it is every issue – a dynamic Binelli articulates in the book but seldom in relation to his own vantage point. Several times he comes close to suggesting that his family’s Italian heritage gives him some kind of connection to the experience of disenfranchised Detroiters. He grew up close to Detroit, yes, but the metaphorical distance between the city and its hostile suburbs is immense, treacherous.
To write the book, however, Binelli lived nearly three years in Detroit proper. Growing up in buffered proximity to Detroit’s dramatic decline and residing there intermittently to write the book seems to heighten the sense of puzzled, face-to-glass spectatorship. In reality, it’s unclear how much time he spent there, as he refers at one point to “dividing” his time between New York and Detroit. And, in a telling passage, Binelli notes that so-called “ruin porn”, fetishising the city’s glamorous decay, isn’t limited to “outsiders” – among his “friends and acquaintances” gourmet dinner parties were held in abandoned buildings, which speaks volumes about his circle during his time there.
That is not to say that only a lifelong Detroiter is capable of writing a book that seeks to consider Detroit’s status as the most dramatic example of a dead or dying city and the ways residents are trying to fashion a rebirth. But, as he surveys scheming auto execs, outhustled union reps, under-resourced firefighters, scruffy artists and agrarians, earnest school officials and guileful politicians, his analysis is consistently weighed down by an outsider’s love of symbol and a narrative journalist’s love of the Meaningful Vignette. This means the book feels like a collection of articles, never quite cohering into a larger argument. One gets the feeling that the textural details – the abandoned blocks, the bare prairies, the casual horror of crime – interest Binelli far more than the development of an overarching idea.
Inevitably, the accumulation of vignettes, however well-crafted, begin to feel repetitive and wearying. The quality of sameness proves a point – even the most earnest of efforts meets with inevitable disappointment – but, in the absence of a larger thesis, where does that point get him?
This drumbeat of dismal ironies becomes numbing and even begins to feel artificial because well into the book and into Binelli’s tenure in Detroit he continues to play the part of an ingénue in his own adventures. For instance, he talks about his surprise at arriving in a courtroom to observe a murder trial and finding no other reporters present. “Apparently the crime wasn’t quite extraordinary by Detroit standards,” he notes. “What did you have to do around here to get some ink?” At this point in the book, his surprise feels distinctly disingenuous.
And yet, perhaps with the audacity of hope that characterises the recent “gold rush” to “refound” Detroit, by the final quarter of Binelli’s book a change is afoot, a cumulative effect that sneaks up on him, almost in spite of himself. The dark sense that even the best of intentions come to naught starts to fade in the face of a kind of optimism. Indeed, the very tool – the telling vignette – that limits the book’s argumentative promise ultimately proves critical to Binelli’s own selfrevelation, making for the book’s most winning moment. “It happened gradually, on the level of anecdote,” he writes. “I caught myself noticing and relishing [anything that] in aggregate (or perhaps viewed through lenses with the proper tinting) couldn’t help but make you feel like Detroit’s luck was turning”. Indeed, what he’s realising here, it seems, are the ways in which all cities are projections, with Detroit functioning as the blank screen on which we view ourselves, our fears, our hopes – the way we view our own self-created problems, with over-optimism, denial and refusal of responsibility. At some point, he decided to embrace a kind of “magical thinking” and so the picture itself changed.
In his conclusion, Binelli has not an epiphany exactly but a delicious bit of canny self-awareness, a sort of meta-critique of the book’s weaknesses. He writes: “It would be easy to end this book on a different note. Any number of the city’s grisly headlines could be plucked and highlighted, and not unrepresentatively, either. But if I did that, it would only be to make sure you understand I’m not a soft touch. The truth is, my optimism is growing tenacious. I couldn’t say why.” One wishes he would try. Here, of course, is a ripe opportunity for Binelli to explore his own connection to place, or, more widely, to that intensely American brand of blind faith in the power of the comeback, but he refuses.
There is a certain kind of meaning to be gleaned from that refusal, however. Ultimately, Binelli is unable to answer his own questions about Detroit’s future, its meaning. Instead, there’s an almost wilful refusal to do so, to “decide”, to wrap up Detroit in a neat and tidy (and potentially foreboding) package. In the final pages, he even seems more willing to let his stories have ragged edges. The tang of authenticity that comes from not using a vignette to illustrate an idea but to let it breathe, twist, turn. To allow for the messiness of life, to permit “second acts” and untidy reversals.
You leave the book with no answers, no clear line, not even a set of possible futures. But you may feel something akin to Binelli’s eyes-half-shut optimism. It’s as if he’s saying to us, after countless tours through abandoned edifices that come to stand in for the city: “This building isn’t abandoned at all.” It’s filled with people, stories, history, confusion, disappointment, hope, aspiration, belief. It’s in the wood, the tiles, the rafters. It lives still and you can hear its heart pumping.
Megan Abbott is the author of several novels, the most recent of which to be published in the UK is “The End of Everything” (Picador, £7.99)