Starkly written book details the rise and fall of Detroit

In his new book, the journalist Mark Binelli examines Detroit, a once vibrant metropolis of tomorrow that embodied the American Dream like no other and seemed to have an unlimited capacity for growth, writes Akiva Gottlieb. Now it is a national byword for urban decay

The Detroit headquarters of General Motors, which filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009, typifying the once-bustling USA city's dramatic decline. Jeff Kowalsky / Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Detroit City Is the Place To Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis
Mark Binelli
Metropolitan Books

People come to Detroit, Michigan, to see the future. This used to be a good thing. The birthplace of the Ford Model T - and the union-fortified American middle class - used to offer onlookers and jobseekers an opportunity to bask in the capitalist dream of attainable prosperity. It could show off the factories that pioneered assembly-line mass production, the automobile companies that promoted unmatched innovation, and the music studio that redefined the American songbook. Come see Detroit, they said, diverse and vibrant city of tomorrow, a model urban environment with a capacity for endless growth.

In the 21st century, they come to gawk.

The curious arrive in droves, cameras out, ready to exploit the sensationalistic imagery of first-world urban failure. Given the collapse of American manufacturing, and the country's ongoing dependence on outsourced labour, the crumbling institutions of Detroit might suggest a frightening prognostication: This is your town, tomorrow. Detroit's long downturn is accompanied by an unremittingly bleak set of facts and figures. The city's population neared two million in 1950, and now it's fallen below 700,000. For those who remain, unemployment is rampant, and difficult to quantify. The city government is bankrupt, and public services are a joke. Though it is at the top of Forbes magazine's Most Dangerous Cities list, today's Detroit feels less menacing than empty. Approximately 30 per cent of the city is now vacant land, including nearly 100,000 abandoned structures, some of which have taken on the aura of majestic ruins. The massive Packard auto plant has been closed since 1958, its decrepit jungle offering a sense of adventure to "urban explorers". The hulking, empty 18-storey Michigan Central Station remains the most haunting symbol of a metropolis left behind. The shuttered train depot used to be called the gateway to the Midwest; it now lends the backdrop to a moody 50 Cent music video.

But as the Motor City expels its weary citizens, it exerts a gravitational pull on those seeking a mournful, picturesque all-purpose emblem of American precarity.

As a result, the dispatch from Detroit has recently become a kind of journalistic cottage industry.

Mark Binelli, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and Men's Journal, was not the only enterprising reporter to migrate to Detroit in the wake of the American auto industry's collapse, but he's the only one who stayed long enough to separate the persistently rich culture and stubbornly determined citizens of his beloved home city from Detroit's metaphoric obligations. The result is an unsentimental, intelligent and lucid book, Detroit City Is the Place To Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis.

Binelli refuses the gift of a blandly predetermined literary framework. "The story of the city," he writes, "of its meteoric rise and stunning fall, possesses the sort of narrative arc to which people seem hard-wired to respond. It's an almost classically structured tale of humble origins transcended by entrepreneurial moxie and much diligent toil, all eventually brought low by tragic flaws." Binelli is smart enough to realise that Detroit's politically resonant narrative profoundly irritates those who actually live in Detroit, and with good reason.

Structured as a series of connected vignettes, the book operates under the assumption that anyone choosing to remain in Detroit has a story to tell. Binelli listens to local journalists and historians, of course, but also do-it-yourself dogcatchers, firefighters, policemen, urban farmers, leftist utopianists, musicians, gun safety experts, civic leaders, high school principals, auto workers, radicals and artists. I read the Detroit Free Press regularly, but many of Binelli's dispatches seem fresh, and sometimes freshly shocking. In one chapter, he provides detailed coverage of a grisly murder trial, in part because he sees no other reporter covering it.

Binelli's status as hometown boy turned bemused outsider lends itself well to the book's sense of ambivalent wonder. In one chapter, Binelli sneaks onto the set of the remake of the apocalyptic commie-invasion B-movie Red Dawn, filmed at his former high school. "We were setting off major explosions in the middle of downtown!" brags one crew member. "Seriously, man, there's nowhere else in the country they'd let you do something like this."

His method is casual, but Binelli is an almost ideal guide - wary, scrupulous, sceptical and self-aware. The son of mid-century Italian immigrants, he comes from a middle-class Detroit suburb, and knows enough to recognise that this doesn't make him a son of Detroit. He's a white guy trying to gain perspective on a predominately non-white city, and acknowledges this as an obvious limitation.

Above all else, to tell a story about Detroit is to take seriously the history of structural racism in America. In the second half of the 20th century, "white flight" - and, more importantly, the migration of jobs and tax revenue - to the nearby suburbs turned the racially diverse city into a rigidly segregated set of enclaves, and the 1967 Detroit riots solidified the narrative of a lawless, unsafe inner city. Lines were drawn. Detroit proper is now more than 80 per cent black, but Binelli points to a 1970 census that revealed less than five black residents living in the sizeable nearby suburbs of Warren, Birmingham, Grosse Pointe, Dearborn and Hazel Park.

Binelli's status as an ex-suburbanite allows him a broad perspective on the region's abysmal race relations. "You rarely saw any black people in St Clair Shores, the blue-collar suburb where I grew up," he writes. For Binelli, white suburban grievances about Detroit's majority-black leadership - especially the 20-year mayoral command of the blunt ex-radical Coleman Young - are almost always racially coded. It reminds him of "certain aspects of United States foreign policy - the practice of isolating enemy states financially and then watching the leader whom we've labelled a tyrant act more and more like one when his regime begins to crumble under the pressure of the embargo. The leader and his state must fail in order to confirm the triumph of our own ideology."

This is a particularly pointed diagnosis, and a revealing one. "Observers have a tendency to approach Detroit as a forensic investigation, a sort of murder mystery," Binelli writes. "They examine the body, poke their gloved digits into the wounds, dust the crime scene for prints. Whom you ended up fingering in the drawing room could often say as much about your own biases as about the city itself." For Binelli, Detroit's implosion and continued segregation gives the lie to wishful bromides about a post-racial America, and underscores the emptiness of politicians rhetorical tributes to a largely imaginary middle class.

Binelli avoids false uplift even when in search of it, and generally refuses to let statistics (and conventional wisdom) speak for themselves. (In a rare misstep, he does recycle the since-debunked claim that 47 per cent of the city is illiterate.) In Detroit, Binelli takes up residence in the city's Eastern Market neighbourhood, whose vibrant weekly farmers' market exudes a misleadingly upbeat view of the city's prospects, but he is quickly infected with Detroiters' distaste for naïve boosterism.

This is not a book of solutions, nor a primer for urban revitalisation. He wisely throws cold water on the Mayor Dave Bing's ambitious "Detroit Works" proposal to strategically shrink the city, which encourages citizens to relocate to more vibrant neighbourhoods while turning relatively unpopulated areas into agricultural hubs. This "right-sizing" requires denying city services to those who refuse to uproot themselves to the approved zones, and a strategic destruction of urban blight that would fundamentally remake the city. "Would fixing the very real problems faced by Detroiters," Binelli wonders, "mean inevitably robbing Detroit of some part of its essential Detroitness?"

Detroit City's saga has no fairy-tale ending, and Binelli's choice to stop writing might have been an act of mercy. Since the book was published in November, Michigan's Republican governor signed a right-to-work bill, striking a crippling blow to what remains of Detroit's unions; the city's police chief was ousted after a sex scandal; and The New York Times ran a piece about the massive failure of a local movie studio that received US$14 million (Dh51.4m) in tax credits and $18m in bonds, but only created 12 jobs.

Detroit remains financially insolvent, and the homicide rate is nearing a two-decade high.

As Detroit goes, so goes the nation? It's worth considering that Detroit - and, more specifically, the awkward fact of native son Mitt Romney's "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" op-ed - may have swung the 2012 US presidential election towards the incumbent.

Thomas Sugrue's 1996 academic history The Origins of the Urban Crisis remains the most thorough dissection of the economic calculus that spurred Detroit's decline, but Detroit City Is the Place To Be is the most engaging, comprehensive and unhysterical thing I've read about what Detroit is facing now.

Akiva Gottlieb lives in Michigan and writes about film for The Nation.