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Reviews: The Detroit story

A case can be made that every city, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, not busy being born is busy dying, but no American city has been more busy dying for at least four decades than Detroit — a city left so bereft by the end of the industrial age that it has acres upon acres of abandoned and burned-out houses, neighborhoods slowly returning to wilderness; a municipal infrastructure that’s crumbled to the level of what used to be called “The Third World,” with a concomitant rise in civic corruption; factories and train stations and skyscrapers so long disused and decayed that European tourists now tour them the way their ancestors once toured the ruins of ancient Rome.

Like many distinctive and famed American cities (including, of course, Las Vegas), Detroit has become irresistably, dangerously metaphorical, mostly as a mircocosm of the implosion of the once mighty American Dream, a byword for wanton criminality and violence, and, most portentiously, as one of the Four Coming Attractions of Apocalypse: “Another time,” writes Mark Binelli in Detroit City is the Place to Be, “while conducting my own tour for an out-of-town guest, a group of German college students drove up. When queried as to the appeal of Detroit, one of them gleefully exclaimed, ‘I came to see the end of the world!’”

Needless to say, this idea of Detroit rankles the remaining 700,000 souls who grew up and still live in Detroit proper, an African-American majority city that has weathered and continues to weather the longest, steepest, most depressing economic decline of any major American city in the postwar era. All those fantastic ruins, the Packard auto plant and the mansions of Brush Street, are indeed sadly, brilliantly captivating (on my last visit to the city in the late ‘90s, I wasn’t immune, penning a poem entitled “Ode to the Ruins of Detroit” afterward), but there’s no denying that the increase in Tumblrs devoted to the wrecked and discarded structures of Detroit deserves the appellation “ruin porn”: an aestheticising of the very real misery endured by generations of working-class folk who watched all those auto-industry jobs evaporate with nothing to replace them. Like a terrible pile-up on a packed freeway, the world can’t help but slow down and rubberneck the train wreck that is Detroit, but the singularity of the catastrophe is no solace to the citizens who have lived with it and continue to struggle toward some kind of — any kind of — solution for a city so beleagured that desperation and resignation is nearly everyone’s default mode.

That mode is the undercurrent in former New York Times reporter Charlie LeDuff’s memoir, which makes no bones about Detroit’s state of being with its title — Detroit: An American Autopsy. The implication is that Detroit is a corpse and all that’s left is a clinical examination as to what went wrong and why.

LeDuff, who grew up in Detroit proper, returned to the city to write for the Detroit Free Press, and the story of the stories he pursued — of criminals and victims, of his own family and others — is perfectly hard-boiled, sometimes a little overly so. LeDuff presents himself as a character straight out of central casting, the cynical but crusading journalist, tough but tender, in prose that smells less of pixels and more of fresh newsprint. The anarchonistic voice walks perilously close to affectation, but it’s soon clear that such a style is perhaps the only defense against the absurdity of the corruption, malfeasance and cupidity that he encounters in Detroit’s municipal government. The problems of Detroit are now so deeply rooted in decades of bad decisions, an inability to recover from the cyclical failures of the auto industry, and the long, inescapble history of racism, that LeDuff’s tales create a constant cognitive dissonance in the reader: “It can’t be that bad…” “No, it really is that bad.”

The darkness and decay of the Detroit in LeDuff’s memoir is offset by all those people, Detroiters and outsiders alike, who see Detroit as a blueprint for some kind of new urbanism — hence the subtitle of Binelli’s Detroit City is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis. Binelli grew up in one of Detroit’s white-flight suburbs, and returned to the city with a slightly more hopeful angle of approach. He isn’t into rosy boosterism by any means — he chronicles the same chaos, unemployment and crime that LeDuff does, but focuses on Detroit’s “afterlife,” as well, whether it involves the urban farming movement that’s trying to reclaim all those empty lots or the inicipient arts communities that are beginning to appear. LeDuff dismisses those who say he should be writing about such positives by likening it to writing about a gallery opening while reporting from the Gaza Strip. Point taken, given the scale of Detroit’s misery, but such defiant attempts at normality are themselves evidence that the citizens of Detroit haven’t and won’t simply give up on their city. Binelli captures all these facets, drawing a portrait of a deeply dysfunctional city that nevertheless dwells in possibility.

So is Detroit a corpse or a soul in wait for reincarnation? Like Schodinger’s Cat, it all depends on when the observer opens the lid and takes a look. Both books identify the culprits (with race clearly the overall controlling factor, looming over and excerbating the purely economic reasons); both end on notes of hope (a bleak note in LeDuff’s book, a hey-stranger-things-have-happened note in Binelli’s). What’s clear is that no magic bullet of gentrification or outside economic investment or good government will slow the decline of Detroit, but a combination of all of these that must take into account the desires and dreams of Detroiters themselves … and an unquantifiable but not impossible amount of pure luck.

DETROIT: AN AMERICAN AUTOPSY, Charlie LeDuff, The Penguin Press, 286 pages. DETROIT CITY IS THE PLACE TO BE: THE AFTERLIFE OF AN AMERICAN METROPOLIS, Mark Binelli, Metropolitan Books, 300 pages.