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