The Last Days of Detroit: Motor Cars, Motown and the Collapse of an Industrial Giant, by Mark Binelli

What does a city do when the cars, and the music, die?

Thu, Oct 17, 2013, 12:41


Book Title:
The Last Days of Detroit: Motor Cars, Motown and the Collapse of an Industrial Giant


Mark Binelli

Bodley Head

Guideline Price:

What do you do with a discarded city? That’s a question many have asked about Detroit. That once vibrant, proud, swaggering metropolis, where cars and soul music rolled off conveyor belts for years, is now depopulated and decrepit.

Walk around the largely deserted downtown after dark, scurrying between the eerie, empty skyscrapers, and it’s like being on the set of a postapocalyptic film. There’s no one around, and the silence is sinister.

The city’s landscape has long provided a cinematic shorthand for urban blight and decay. When Mark Binelli was growing up just outside of Detroit, he and his pals were always thrilled when the city featured in popular culture. He notes how the city was considered to be just the right shade of “terrifying” to work for RoboCop . Pop music, too, has long used Detroit to signify the hard-chaw life, with its attendant “chaos, riotousness and destruction”.

Sadly, such portrayals are all too real these days. Detroit is teetering on the edge: 70,000 abandoned buildings, a population that has fallen from two million to just under 900,000 in a couple of decades, 50 per cent unemployment and, therefore, very little money to do anything about anything, because there’s no one to tax. The city has so much vacant industrial land that it wouldn’t make economic sense for developers to do anything with it, even were the land donated to them.

Crime is rampant. Shootings and murders are so common that they often fail to register in the media. Binelli outlines the gruesome 2010 murder of David Morgan jnr, for example, then notes that the story and subsequent court case were ignored by every reporter on the crime beat. Murder and decapitation? Just an everyday occurrence in Motor City.

As he observed the neglect, poverty and crime, Binelli was probably wondering what the hell he was doing back home. Having moved to New York, he came back to Detroit to do a story for Rolling Stone magazine and ended up staying for three years.

We should be glad that he did, because he has produced a superb, diligent, forensic study of the fall of a great city. His aim was to go beyond the headlines and the sensationalism, the new urban prairies and the “ruin porn”, and get to the nub of what happened to Detroit.

To do this, Binelli has gone back to the good old days. In the early decades of the last century, the huge growth in factories drew thousands of workers to the city’s well-paid jobs. The money generated by the motor industry and other sectors was reflected in the city’s architectural opulence, and writers began fancifully comparing the place to Paris.

But, just like some of the cars that were made in Detroit, such a nirvana couldn’t last, and by the 1960s the postwar demand for the city’s heavy-duty products was at an end, competition from elsewhere had increased and the slump began to set in.

Violence and tumult followed, as the city turned from boom to bust. Citywide riots in 1967 claimed 67 lives, and thousands of buildings were burned to the ground – arson and fires are still big news in Detroit: 90,000 fires were recorded in 2008 – though Binelli notes that the rot had begun years earlier, due to political malfeasance and corruption.

After the 1967 riots, thousands of residents packed their bags and fled to the suburbs and beyond. Those fierce, angry riots had been the final straw for them.

The people who remained were those who were too poor to get out. That they were also largely African-American points up a racial divide that remains in place. (Eighty-five per cent of Detroit’s population today is African-American.)

These days, though, people are moving to the city. Bohemians, artists, urban farmers, foodies and assorted cultural chancers have headed to Detroit to avail of low rents, ample studio space and the sense of adventure (not to mention one-upmanship) inherent in going to a place that everyone else has fled. The city has also attracted technology pioneers by the score, eager to write a new narrative from the ruins of Motor City.

Yet the big industry it depended on still has a part to play in the city’s fortunes. Binelli writes about Barack Obama’s bailout of what’s left of the car industry and about how an annual showcase, such as Detroit Auto Show, has begun to reflect new market realities. Whether these aids and changes will build a sustainable industry or simply kick the problem down the road remains to be seen.

Binelli himself seems optimistic about the city he adores. He may occasionally be infuriated, angered and befuddled by Detroit’s self-imposed problems, but he strikes some positive notes as he outlines a city gone wild.

While he cautions about the danger of embracing the newly arrived hipsters as the solution to all urban ills – and they’re unlikely to have a big impact on the city anyway, given the inert, conservative political powerbroking that holds sway – he sees hope in the tenaciousness and determination of some of the inhabitants, new and old. If other once-bustling western cities begin to mirror Detroit’s decline, Binelli’s book may serve as a guide to what to expect.