Sunday, December 21, 2014

Detroit City is the Place to Be

 By Mark Binelli
Picador   2012, 2013
326 pages     Nonfiction

Eight Mile Road comes up again and again in Mark Binelli's look at his home city of Detroit. Eight Mile Road is the border between derelict, crime-ridden mostly-dead Detroit and the flourishing suburbs where the business of the East side of the state is conducted. 

When the big-three automakers floundered in the early 2000s, accounts of Detroit's demise became common. Although Detroit City is the Place to Be is another of these narratives, it is hard to believe that the other books could possibly be as fascinating as the narrative that Binelli has concocted. Binelli has crafted a funny, sympathetic, but also clear-eyed look at the city that once was one of the most powerful cities in the United States. What makes his stories honest and appealing is that he spent two years living in the city and meeting with the citizens of the city. He rode along with firefighters, sat with a mother who turned in her son to police for a murder charge, and closely followed a bizarre political campaign. He spent time visiting the schools, wandering the streets, and interviewing urban farmers. He shows up at every happening event and paints a vivid picture of a city both striving for a future and stuck in an untimely death. He intersperses his personal stories with documented looks at the history that brought the city to this point.

He was the only reporter that followed a bumbling and crazed murder trial, that while it appeared bumbling and crazed, must have been usual for Detroit because no other reporter chose to follow the trial. The most poignant moment in this story is captured when Binelli goes to visit the mother of the accused. They sit on the porch of her dilapidated house on a nearly empty street, and she recounts the woes of her dysfunctional children. Then she points to the only other house on the block, a tidy little bungalow across the street. She remarks that she could never understand why the children from that house all went to college while her children never even finished high school. 

He also tells the story of a unique high school in the city created for pregnant girls and new mothers. They created a farm in the city and all the girls work at the farm while they go to school. The principal is extremely demanding, but at the same time, most of the girls graduate high school and go on to further studies. It was an extremely heartening story which I had seen part of on an Anthony Bourdain episode about the city which aired on CNN in 2013. Bourdain's look at Detroit gives much the same view that Binelli's book does: there's a lot of screwy stuff going on in this city and nothing is going to get fixed very soon.

The bankruptcy case is over. Business saved the art in the Detroit Institute of Art, which was a relief to everyone in Michigan. The plan approved in November gave the city an outline to restructure and resurrect itself. The Detroit Free Press calls the bankruptcy plan "miraculous."

Native Detroiters love their city and don't like to have it painted in an unflattering light, but at this point there is so much to say. I highly recommend this book. Binelli's form of narrative nonfiction is delightfully unique. He is not just reporting. He has put himself squarely into every scene and every story. It is funny, and it is completely compelling.

My husband and I read Detroit City is the Place to Be for our morning reading, but I had read much of it for our book club  this fall. Our hostess was born and raised in Detroit, and she served Verner's ginger ale and Sanders bubble cake—memories of her childhood. My husband and I intend to drive over to Detroit for the day, go to the amazing Eastern Market, visit some of the scenes from the book. and eat in a couple of the good restaurants the city boasts about. 

A terrific review of Detroit City is the Place to Be from Slate.
An article from the Detroit Free Press about the bankruptcy.

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