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A hard case of the Motown blues

Published November 27, 2012 8:50 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When Mark Binelli was growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, he loved encountering the city in pop culture ­— as the dystopian stomping grounds of "RoboCop," as the "Motor City Madhouse" of Ted Nugent, as the place to escape in Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'." Sure, they weren't the most flattering allusions — they weren't even that accurate: When Journey's singer wails about a boy "born and raised in South Detroit," he's referring to a neighborhood that doesn't actually exist — but they made Binelli and his friends smile. Detroit might have been down and out, but it was also resilient. It was hopeful.

Fast forward to today: No one would dare fictionalize Detroit when the city's reality is so bleak. Its presence in pop culture is mostly relegated to what has been dubbed "ruin porn": shocking true-life pictures and stories of how a great city and its landmarks have transformed into "America's most epic urban failure."

That phrase comes from Binelli's new book, Detroit City Is the Place to Be, and he describes the city's devastation frankly: Detroit has America's highest murder rate and its most segregated population; so many residents have left that Detroit now has almost as much vacant land as San Francisco has land, period. But Binelli aims for more than tragedy — and that's one reason his book now stands as the single best thing to read if you want to understand what Detroit feels like today.

"What happens to a once-great place after it has been used up and discarded?" he asks at the beginning of his book. The answer ends up looking a lot like the blend of pluckiness and gloom that he experienced in his youth.

Binelli now lives in New York and writes for Rolling Stone. But when he first returned to Detroit, in 2009, one of his new neighbors told him the city was "the last frontier in this country. What else is left? There's Hawaii. There's Alaska. And there's Detroit."

Reading Binelli's book, you do start to picture Detroit as a new Wild West. There's the cheap and plentiful land, of course, and plenty of outlaws. But there's also a beleaguered lawman. (Even Detroit's chief of police sees his home burgled — "They got me pretty good," he tells the local media.) There are wild animals. (One of Binelli's old friends carries pepper spray not for muggers, but for packs of feral dogs.)

Most of all, there's space for freedom and independence — for postmodern homesteaders. Binelli meets Detroiters who've turned empty lots into community farms and weekly blues festivals, who've started neighborhood crime patrols, who've launched the Lawn Mower Brigade, which marches around and cuts the grass of abandoned homes.

Binelli also finds more serious experiments. Take the Catherine Ferguson Academy, a magnet school that teaches only teenage mothers. The classroom Binelli visits has a hole in the ceiling and pots to catch leaks. Still, the school's odd specialization seems to work. Its principal won't let her students graduate unless they have an acceptance letter from at least one college. And 90 percent of them do.

These canny optimists are one of the best things about Binelli's book. Another is the way he lets Detroiters speak for themselves. Binelli has a real gift for extracting extraordinary quotations from ordinary people. A Catherine Ferguson student calls America "a two-faced country sometimes. It contradicts itself."

An older local explains that Detroit's infamous 1967 riots did not cause its decline: "It's the same way a tea kettle heats up and heats up and only at the very end does it whistle." Another wonders if the city should embrace ruin porn. "The only thing I know about Rome is the Forum and the Coliseum," he says. "Could some of the buildings in Detroit become sculptural — say, lit at night?"

History turns out to be the one weakness in Binelli's book. Detroit City Is the Place to Be is loosely, impressionistically organized around themes like crime and politics, with no real narrative and long sections on the city's past. Binelli always writes well, but his historical material fails to engage the way his reporting does. He strip-mines academic research, then succumbs to what academics call teleological history.

While discussing Detroit's post-Civil War slums, for example, he finds "the first hints of the problems of housing and demography [it] would face in the twentieth century" — as if this were some special clue to Detroit's ultimate fate and not something that was afflicting most major cities in this era.

In the end, Binelli's book feels a bit like his Detroit: a little unorganized, a little overgrown, but packed with some wonderful people. What holds it all together is Binelli's voice — the locally sourced tour guide who can be funny, chatty, cynical, exasperated, but always motivated by sincere concern. It's the way most of us feel toward the place we grew up; Mark Binelli just happened to grow up in Detroit.