The answer, shockingly: a person like you. Few of Binelli’s subjects are bohemian transplants or high-level hustlers. (He doesn’t ignore the worlds of young-white-kid culture or political maneuvering, but he treats them as marginal, with a sardonic distance that seems appropriate.) Many are just regular ol’ folks, and he has a knack for relating to and portraying even the prominent ones—a principal at a successful school for pregnant teens, an underemployed “heavy-equipment operator” who started an oft-written-about farm on some empty urban land—such that they come across less like totems of hope or models of visionary thinking than as normal people, admirable, but capable of normal-person weariness and doubt. His interview with the principal is interrupted by a call about an opossum living in the wall of her house. The farmer notes wryly that if more land was used for what he was doing, “there’d be less dope houses,” though “maybe there’d be more meth labs.”
My favorite section is about the firefighters of Highland Park, an independent municipality that for arcane reasons is located within the city itself. The firefighters are stuck using utterly horrendous equipment and facilities to put out an utterly horrendous barrage of fires, many of them suspected arsons. (“One firefighter from the Bronx visited twice every year,” Binelli writes. “He’d told the Highland Park guys the Bronx had become boring: most of their buildings were occupied now, and it just wasn’t popping like in the old days.”) And yet, being a firefighter in Highland Park sounds …OK. I mean, you’d certainly have to be willing to be constantly exhausted and disappointed. But the group has its moments of camaraderie in the clubby headquarters it’s improvised inside a warehouse. They solve problems. They do a job. They are not the hollow-eyed prisoners of war one might picture. Why do they get up in the morning and go to work? I don’t know—why do you get up in the morning and go to work?
These little biographies, the vignettes of small challenges met and unmet (his account of a Pyrrhic UAW grievance victory makes a great short story) are, actually, a sly form of political rhetoric. Because if what you know of Detroit are villains and heroes—rapacious auto executives and craven, corrupt politicians, daring urban homesteaders and innovative urbanists, gangster thugs and inspirational basketball coaches and saintly old women mourning their children—then it becomes easy to shut yourself off from the city. As in: Screw it, this is a battle for Other People, those who are braver and smarter than us, and people who are fucked beyond redemption. People willing to get mugged 12 times a day for their ideals vs. the self-abased losers who would rather watch TV than have windows on their house. One could be forgiven, even after having visited the city—perhaps especially after having experienced its bizarreness in person, when you’re inclined naturally to notice the extremes—for thinking that these are the only people left in Detroit.
But, as Binelli makes clear, they are not. Detroit actually has a silent majority of normalness. Their heroic acts of resilience consist of weary obligations like mowing the lawn. Truly: For a lot of the people in Binelli’s book, mowing the lawn—and also the lawn in the vacant lot where their neighbor would live if their neighbor hadn’t lost their job, died, and had their house burned down by a crackhead who dropped his crack pipe while looking for scrap copper to sell to buy crack—is a statement. They don’t need to be left for dead or have their entire way of life revolutionized. They just need the same help that the rest of our country needs.
What will happen to them? We don’t know the answer yet. We probably won’t realize what saved or killed Detroit, Gary, Baltimore, or, really, America, until it’s already happened. Can you live with that? The lawn-mowing men and women of Detroit can. There’s nothing new to be said about their city. Let’s keep saying it.
Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis by Mark Binelli. Metropolitan Books.
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