Detroit City Is the Place to Be by Mark Binelli

Subtitled “The Afterlife of an American Metropolis”, Binelli’s book combines his personal history of growing up in Detroit with the development and subsequent decline of the Motor City. Detroit, which the book calls “America’s most epic urban failure”, has become a bit of a Mecca for urban planners, land speculators, and urban agriculturalists who all want to “save” the city. Different plans — from a citizen crime watch squad of ex-cons, organic farming on empty lots, the Volt electric car, and the mayor’s plan to geographically shrink the size of the city — had all be met with none to little success as poverty, crime, and ruin continue to plague the city.

Detroit was the example used most in my class on urban economics last semester largely because the city has experienced a ninety-seven percent decline in property values, a seventy-five percent decline in population, and seen the entire basis of their economy largely evaporate. Those who make the most money in the city live in predominantly-white suburbs outside of the city. The overwhelming consensus amongst my peers was that the city should be left to die with residents given assistance for relocation to other parts of the country. I was hoping Binelli would provide an analysis of why this is not possible or why Detroit should continue to exists.

What I got instead was a rather hodgepodge examination of the city. At times, the book focuses entirely on Binelli’s personal history while others are spent examining the good and the bad of this city. The charter school for pregnant girls is particularly impressive with a graduation rate of over ninety percent, compared to barely twenty-five percent for the rest of the city. The book ends with a rather vague hope for Detroit, and while I was not looking for a conclusion or plan for the future, I never developed an appreciation of the city to prevent me from following the thought process of my classmates.

The book also takes a rather circular narrative. My dad was right when he said that Binelli becomes too repetitive in the later half of the book; I’m not entirely sure I learned anything more after reaching a certain point. The organization — almost stream-of-consciousness or, better yet, short magazine features rather than chronological development — means it is difficult to entirely ascertain the development of the city.

The book wasn’t all bad, and I would hate to make it sound that way. I thought the urban agriculture section was rather fascinating, particularly the parts where it has now become a kind of corporate endeavor with government sponsorship. The author is right to dismiss this as the path to salvation for the city as a whole, but I do think some parts of it show the ingenuity that my urban economics professor says the city is lacking. In addition, the argument that food is a tool to reducing crime was really interesting. The urban farmer is right — stealing a head of cabbage is not the same as stealing a television.

I missed the traditional sandwich of pictures on glossy white paper in the middle of this book. It seems like an odd thing to miss, but there were several moments in this book where I wished photographs had been included to better illuminate Binelli’s point. How am I supposed to develop an appreciation of a mural by Diego Rivera that Binelli waxes on so poetically about if there is no photograph showing me said mural?

I have offered this book to my friend who is moving to Detroit for work after graduation in May. I am hopeful that she will get more out of it then I did. It wasn’t quite what I was looking for, but I tend to air much more on the side of academic and economic exploration than the common reader.

Book Mentioned:

  • Binelli, Mark. Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012. Print. 318 pgs. ISBN: 9780805092295. Source: Review copy from the publisher.
Book Cover © Metropolitan Books. Retrieved: January 6, 2013.
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2 thoughts on “Detroit City Is the Place to Be by Mark Binelli

  1. Thanks for this review, Christina! Before reading your post, I had the same expectations for this book. Now that I know what it’s really like, I no longer feel the need to buy it.

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