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Detroit City Is the Place to Be
Cover of Detroit City Is the Place to Be
Detroit City Is the Place to Be
The Afterlife of an American Metropolis

Once America's capitalist dream town, Detroit is our country's greatest urban failure, having fallen the longest and the farthest. But the city's worst crisis yet (and that's saying something) has managed to do the unthinkable: turn the end of days into a laboratory for the future. Urban planners, land speculators, neopastoral agriculturalists, and utopian environmentalists—all have been drawn to Detroit's baroquely decaying, nothing-left-to-lose frontier.

With an eye for both the darkly absurd and the radically new, Detroit-area native Mark Binelli has chronicled this convergence. Throughout the city's "museum of neglect"—its swaths of abandoned buildings, its miles of urban prairie—he tracks both the blight and the signs of its repurposing, from the school for pregnant teenagers to a beleaguered UAW local; from metal scrappers and gun-toting vigilantes to artists reclaiming abandoned auto factories; from the organic farming on empty lots to GM's risky wager on the Volt electric car; from firefighters forced by budget cuts to sleep in tents to the mayor's realignment plan (the most ambitious on record) to move residents of half-empty neighborhoods into a viable, new urban center.

Sharp and impassioned, Detroit City Is the Place to Be is alive with the sense of possibility that comes when a city hits rock bottom. Beyond the usual portrait of crime, poverty, and ruin, we glimpse a longshot future Detroit that is smaller, less segregated, greener, economically diverse, and better functioning—what could be the boldest reimagining of a post-industrial city in our new century.

Detroit City Is the Place to Be is one of Publishers Weekly's Top 10 Best Books of 2012

Once America's capitalist dream town, Detroit is our country's greatest urban failure, having fallen the longest and the farthest. But the city's worst crisis yet (and that's saying something) has managed to do the unthinkable: turn the end of days into a laboratory for the future. Urban planners, land speculators, neopastoral agriculturalists, and utopian environmentalists—all have been drawn to Detroit's baroquely decaying, nothing-left-to-lose frontier.

With an eye for both the darkly absurd and the radically new, Detroit-area native Mark Binelli has chronicled this convergence. Throughout the city's "museum of neglect"—its swaths of abandoned buildings, its miles of urban prairie—he tracks both the blight and the signs of its repurposing, from the school for pregnant teenagers to a beleaguered UAW local; from metal scrappers and gun-toting vigilantes to artists reclaiming abandoned auto factories; from the organic farming on empty lots to GM's risky wager on the Volt electric car; from firefighters forced by budget cuts to sleep in tents to the mayor's realignment plan (the most ambitious on record) to move residents of half-empty neighborhoods into a viable, new urban center.

Sharp and impassioned, Detroit City Is the Place to Be is alive with the sense of possibility that comes when a city hits rock bottom. Beyond the usual portrait of crime, poverty, and ruin, we glimpse a longshot future Detroit that is smaller, less segregated, greener, economically diverse, and better functioning—what could be the boldest reimagining of a post-industrial city in our new century.

Detroit City Is the Place to Be is one of Publishers Weekly's Top 10 Best Books of 2012

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  • From the book From the book

    Introduction

    Back when I was a boy, growing up just outside of Detroit, my friends and I beheld any mention of the city in popular culture with a special thrill. We loved how Detroit was deemed terrifying enough to be chosen as the dystopian locale of RoboCop, the science fiction film set in a coyly undated "near future," when Detroit had become so dangerous that the outsourcing of law enforcement to an armored, heavily weaponized cyborg would seem a prudent and necessary move. And when the producers of Beverly Hills Cop decided to make the hometown of Eddie Murphy's fish-out-of-water detective our own--because, after all, what could be more antipodal to Rodeo Drive than Woodward Avenue, what more alien presence to the Beverly Palms Hotel than a black dude from Detroit in a Mumford High T-shirt?--we delighted in that, too. We certainly tested the speakers of our American-made Dodge hatchbacks whenever a Detroit song found itself played on one of the competing local rock stations. Who would be churlish enough to flag these songs as relics of an earlier era or point out how the lyrics pivoted off the city's reputation for chaos, riotousness, destruction to such a degree the very titles--"Panic in Detroit" (Bowie, 1973), "Detroit Breakdown" (J. Geils Band, 1974), "Motor City Madhouse" (Nugent, 1975)--could be mistaken for headlines from July 1967? To this day, when the plangent opening piano chords of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin' " blare from a dive bar jukebox, who among us begrudges even this most overplayed of power ballads a respectful split-second cock of the head and perhaps a secret inner smile as well, all because the protagonist of the song was "born and raised in South Detroit"--no matter that there wasn't really a neighborhood called South Detroit or that the person living there wanted so badly to get the hell out he took a midnight train goin' anywhere.

    My parents subscribed to Time, and I can remember excitedly reading a story, at the height of the tension between Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union, detailing the effects of a single nuclear bomb dropped on a major American city. This city, the editors explained, had been chosen entirely at random--but of course it was Detroit, a choice that by 1982 probably came across to most locals as an ungallant case of piling on. Still, at twelve years old, I devoured the shout-out as if the city had won some national lottery.

    The article began, "Say it is late April, a cloudless Thursday evening in Detroit. Assume further that there is no advance warning."

    Beginning at ground zero of the blast and expanding concentrically, the story proceeded to describe, in gruesome detail, the fate of Detroit and its residents. If you happened to be watching a baseball game at the old Tiger Stadium, for example, you would immediately go blind. Then you would burst into flame. "But," the writer continued, unhelpfully, "the pain ends quickly: the explosion's blast wave, like a super-hardened wall of air moving faster than sound, crushes the stands and the spectators into a heap of rubble."

    Skyscrapers topple. Commuters melt inside their cars. Even Canadians in neighboring Windsor--this I found particularly satisfying--would be fatally pelted with fragments of the Renaissance Center, "hurled across the river by 160-m.p.h. winds." Following the geography of the article to my family's own suburb, I learned that, only a minute after the blast, fires would be already raging and "tens of thousands" of people dying, survivors "crawl[ing] from wrecked homes" to see an eight-mile-high mushroom cloud in the distance.

    But--survivors! See, I pointed out to my little brother, even at that early age...

About the Author-
  • Mark Binelli is the author of Detroit City Is the Place to Be and the novel Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! as well as a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and Men's Journal. Born and raised in the Detroit area, he lives in New York City.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from August 27, 2012
    Novelist and Rolling Stone contributing editor Binelli's first nonfiction book is a nuanced portrait of a once-great American industrial city that decades ago fell into decay, but which is, as of late, experiencing a ray of hope. As fascinating as Detroit's current, tentative renaissance is, Binelli masterfully provides a broader story, a 300-year tour through the formerly wondrous and now wondrously devastated metropolis. A child of suburban Detroit, Binelli (Sacco and Vinzetti MustDie!) astonishes with spot-on research, fluid prose, and a discerning eye for the peculiar, including reports of early French frontiersmen and late ‘60s rock revolutionaries, the MC5. The author immersed himself in Motor City culture while writing the volume. From Henry Ford's auto and steel boom and the race riots of the 1960s and early ‘70s to the dark ages of widespread crack addiction and the current resurgence led by enterprising idealists, urban farmers, and DIY go-getters, Binelli offers a wildly compelling biography of a city as well as a profound commentary on postindustrial America. Photos. Agent: Jim Rutman, Sterling Lord Literistic.

  • Library Journal

    June 1, 2012

    For most Americans, Detroit epitomizes contemporary urban blight. Here, native son and Rolling Stone contributing editor Binelli shows that while Detroit may be down, it's not out. In fact, current developments--organic farming on empty lots, a realignment plan to shift residents from desolate neighborhoods to a vibrant new center--suggest how not just Detroit but all troubled cities can rise again.

    Copyright 2012 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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The Afterlife of an American Metropolis
Mark Binelli
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