Detroit City is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis by Mark Binelli is a good read. What I appreciate most about the book is that it is a random-ish collection of “stuff” about Detroit and the surrounding areas (past and present) that is not a woe-is-me/ruin porn take on the city nor is it an overly sappy cheerleadery book.
Binelli was born into a family of entrepreneurial Italian immigrants in metro Detroit and moved to Detroit proper as an adult. “His” Detroit of his childhood (his dad owned a business in Detroit) and his subsequent observations as an adult Detroiter are of course a bit different than “my” Detroit as a black woman born and raised on Detroit’s west side, but that’s not at all an issue. It’s eye-opening to see things from his perspective and much of the book is from a journalistic approach anyway. Binelli is generous with the footnotes and I like that. I’ll also be adding a number of the books in the bibliography to my “want to read” list on GoodReads.
There are some laugh out loud moments as Binelli describes some of Detroit’s more colorful characters and when he explains long forgotten pieces of Detroit trivia. There are many sobering passages as well in the form of stark statistics and first hand accounts of almost unimaginable suffering, governmental ineptitude and lowered expectations. The parts about Highland Park are downright depressing.
I’m a bit ashamed to say that outside of family stories and my numerous trips to the Detroit Historical Museum, I have not been vigilant about researching Detroit history. So of course I was loving all of the random bits of D-town history provided in this book. For example (and again, I am copping to my own outrageous level of ignorance here), I didn’t know that prior to James Couzens winning Detroit’s mayoral election in 1919, he had been Henry Ford’s longtime financial manager. Couzens was worth over $30 million by the time he took office. Detroit’s population had more than doubled not long before the Couzens administration and the booming auto industry’s workers made enough money to buy the products they made (Happy Marxists?) and obviously Ford was on easy street in the lobbying department, so that spidery web of expressways found early friends. Don’t you find this fascinating? I find this fascinating.
Here’s another little gem included in Detroit City that is from a 1934 New York Times article:
In a way Detroit is the birthplace of this civilization. It is as truly a world capital as any city on earth, more fascinating to the outlander than New York, more influential than Washington, or even Hollywood. Paris dictates a season’s silhouette, but Detroit manufactures a pattern of life. As a capital of revolution, it is far brisker and bolder than Moscow in transforming human habits and communizing the output of the machine.
What a great quote about my hometown. It’s amazing to read such a sentiment about Detroit, in the New York Times no less, considering Detroit’s current state of financial and physical ruin.
Generally speaking, I enjoy Binelli’s storytelling style. He provides a good amount of quantitative and qualitative information without force feeding it to the reader without a particular agenda. You get the impression that he had some experiences, did some research and just has a bunch of data that he’s providing to the readers to do with what they will.
It’s not flawless of course, but the parts that I consider to be “flaws” are so minor. For example, Binelli talks about that Sammy Davis Jr. song “Hello Detroit.” (Which I have always HATED by the way. WJLB used to play it at 6 am every morning and I would set my alarm to 6:05 to avoid it.) In the footnotes Binelli says “At no point, in say, ‘I Love Paris’ did Cole Porter feel as if he had to plead for divine intervention on the city’s behalf whereas one of the couplets of ‘Hello Detroit’ rhymes ‘I will always be there for you’ with ‘I will say a little prayer for you.'”
I think Binelli missed the fact that “Say a Little Prayer” is a popular song by Detroiter Aretha Franklin. The line was not so much a “pray for US!!” line as it was a nod to Detroit’s rich cultural and musical depth. But like I said, Detroit City is a very enjoyable read and I recommend it to native Detroiters and non-Detroiters alike.