Detroit native Mark Binelli’s account of the decline of the city mixes despair with faint hope
The dramatic decline of Detroit, once America’s fourth largest and most productive city, has been captured of late in several photography books, most notably The Ruins of Detroit by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. This pictorial sub-genre – decay rendered formally beautiful – has prompted some critics to lament the rise of “ruin porn”, which is, in some way, to try to ignore the end-of-empire romance of the place in all its ghostly grandeur and emptiness.
“For all the local complaints about ruin porn,” writes Mark Binelli, a former Rolling Stone reporter, “outsiders were not alone in their fascination. Among my friends and acquaintances, Phil staged secret, multi-course gourmet meals… in abandoned buildings… John and his buddies played ice hockey on the frozen floors of decrepit factories… Travis was hired to shoot suburban wedding photographs in the ruins of the old Packard plant.”
Binelli, a native of Detroit, is pretty easy-going about this kind of thing – he even uses one of Marchand and Meffre’s evocative photographs of a once opulent, now crumbling downtown Detroit interior on the cover of his book. Nevertheless, for all his reasonableness, The Last Days of Detroit is a sustained counterblast to the received wisdom that the city is a place devoid of hope and doomed to a terminal, post-industrial decline. It is not the angry book one might have expected from someone who grew up “just outside of Detroit” in the 1980s and has recently moved back there to a spacious apartment in an edgy neighbourhood, more a restrained attempt to come to terms with what has happened to the city he so obviously loves.
How, though, to describe that city today? Back in the 1980s, when Binelli was coming of age, Detroit was the backdrop to two popular films, the dystopian science-fiction fantasy Robocop, and the only slightly more believable Eddie Murphy vehicle Beverly Hills Cop. Now, though, a great swathe of the inner city looks like the setting dreamed up by the late JG Ballard. Detroit’s once ornate theatres, concert halls and civic buildings are derelict and decaying, its open spaces sprout prairie grasses and wild flowers, and its remaining houses are often covered in creepers and climbing shrubs that emerge, triffid-like, from chimneys and broken skylights.
Detroit is broken seemingly beyond repair. Once the uncrowned capital of industrialised America, the fabled Motor City where Henry Ford created the first mass-produced car, its decline is stark and wondrous: some 70,000 abandoned buildings, an alarming crime rate that includes around 1,100 shootings a year, and a dramatically declining population that has fallen from 2 million in the early 1950s to just below 900,000.
Binelli traces the city’s dramatic history, its often tumultuous mix of ultra-capitalist entrepreneurial swagger and deep corruption, the simmering racial tensions that first exploded in 1833 in a riot against slavery, and again in 1967, when around 3,000 buildings burned for several days and 43 people were killed. And, against that, he hymns Detroit’s rich pop cultural history: Tamla Motown, the first and greatest black-owned hit factory; the radical proto-punk of 1960s rockers the MC5; the strange ball of contradictions that is Eminem.
It is a story of extremes, mapped out by a restrained, clear-headed guide who loves the city as much as he is baffled by it. The book is sprawling in parts as befits its subject, and the most enthralling parts are the most journalistic, not least Binelli’s detailed delineation of a double murder that shocks in its grisly details, but that went all but ignored by every other reporter in town.
The murder case seems to sum up something about Detroit, where people often seem too beleaguered by circumstance or worn down by political posturing and attendant corruption to realise how bad things are. But, for all that, there is hope, even amid the rise of the “ruin porn” industry. Artists and bohemians are moving back into the city, attracted by low rents and big spaces – even if there are no shops or amenities for miles. Since moving back there himself, Binelli notes towards the end, “My optimism was proving tenacious. I couldn’t say why.” The book provides a few clues: Detroit will survive, and perhaps thrive, if there is the will, political and social, to make it so.