Detroit is the place to be

“The place was pretty in its way, as much as it could be, like a daisy in a field full of rust.” – Charlie LeDuff 

I’ve just finished reading two great books on Detroit and I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t help but observe that people who grew up in Detroit have more character and perspective than the average American. The city seems to breed this. And, I can’t explain why, but I’ve always loved Detroit. Maybe it started with my fascination of Barry Sanders – the Walter Payton of the 90s – or that I always root for the underdog? And … Detroit just feels AMERICAN.

It’s a memoir that’s very Detroit: gritty, tragic and character-building. It tells a good tale of the good, bad, ugly and absolutely beautiful sides of Detroit. It’s written by a former beat reporter, Charlie LeDuff; who is just the right amount of crazy. There’s a lot to like, but he does a spectuacular job of summarizing the economic struggle that is not only Detroit, but also wholly American.

Detroit’s slide was long and inexorable. You might blame it on white racism and legal mortgage covenants that barred blacks from living anywhere but the most squalid ghettos.

You might blame the city’s collapse on the 1967 riot and the white flight that followed. You might blame it on Coleman Young – the city’s first black mayor – and his culture of corruption and the cronyism.

You could blame it on the gas shocks of the seventies, which opend the door to foreign car competition.

You might point to the trade agreements of the Clinton years that allowed American manufacturers to leave the country by the back door. 

You might blame the UAW, which demanded things like near-full pay for idle workers, or the myopic management, who instead of saying no took their piece and simply tacked the cost onto the price of the car.

Then there is the thought that Detroit was simply a boomtown that went bust, a city that began to fall apart the minute Henry Ford began to build it. The car made Detroit and the car unmade Detroit. Detroit was built in some ways to be disposable. The auto industry allowed for sprawl. It allowed a man to escape the smoldering city with its grubby factory and steaming smokestacks. [page 79-80]

This book is great, but those looking to touch more on the urban planning side of things …

When I started planning school, Detroit was all the rage. It was a blank slate, supposedly, that could be bent at the artist’s will. It was cheap, urban and allotted you ample opportunity to create a smarmy “ruin porn” blog. This prospect of Detroit was always exciting to me, although I always felt the renaissance people were proclaiming was over-hyped.

That’s where this book comes in: it’s a real in-depth journalistic piece by Mark Binelli, a native Detroiter who return to his hometown. The best way to describe the thesis of this book is from a headline over at The Atlantic Cities, “Detroit Isn’t Some Kind of Abstract Art Project”.

These projects make Detroit a better, more vibrant place and I would never discourage anyone from trying to make something happen (what’s going on seems exciting!). The problem lies in the fact that Detroit has a long history, politic and otherwise, and more importantly, people live there. While a dilapidated house is painted pink in some ironic gesture, someone – likely poor – living next to the home will likely be insulted.

The ideas of urban agriculture do show promise, so do efforts to rehab and re-purpose historic buildings. I believe though what the author, Binelli, writes when he says that this effort will only go as far. Crime is the real deterrent . Detroit has a big crime problem (also outlined in LeDuff’s book) and a huge educational gap. Renovations downtown and artistic innovation are great, but rarely help or uplift those Detroit residents in the most need. It’s not so much that the artist are doing anything bad. They certainly aren’t. But, if we want to see a real economic and social change in Detroit, it probably will come from decreasing crime and improving education.

These books are not a hopeless parable. In my mind, they share unbelievable tales of life in a hard town filled with some strange, resilient and strong people. They are actually pretty uplifting. I think that many people are looking to find some ‘morale of the story’ in contemporary non-fiction about Detroit. If that’s what they’re looking for, they’re not going to find it – there is no morale, just a very complex political, social and economic history of a resilient people.

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One thought on “Detroit is the place to be

  1. Good article, As a native Detroiter, it is good to see a positive piece on the city. Though I no longer live there, I still have a great pride for my home town, similar to many of the residents who still live there. The majority of my family is still in the city so I do get to visit often. I have seen it go from descent, to bad, to worse, to not so bad. I moved back to the city for a about 2 years right after college about 9 years ago, at the end of 2004. With a degree in mechanical engineering, I was planning on working in the automobile industry. I did for a about 1.5 years as I watched my department go from 11 people to 2. No bueno. I got the hint. I moved out of the city. I now live in DC. Maybe one day I will move back.

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