There’s No Then Then
The dark days of Detroit.
Illustration by Noah Van Sciver
I didn’t think there was more to be said about Detroit. I didn’t think Detroit City Is the Place To Be, Mark Binelli’s book about the city, needed to exist. As a non-native observer of the city—I was born in Michigan but never lived in or near Detroit—I’d gone through a seemingly conclusive series of Detroit attitudes that I imagine many other outsiders have also experienced:
- treating it as a punch line the way you might reference New Jersey; then
- realizing with fascination that it is not just in bad shape, but in really spectacularly, surreally, sublimely bad shape, such that it makes pre-Sandy New Jersey look like 1920s Paris; then
- feeling ashamed because becoming a connoisseur of the kind of Detroit disaster areas photographed so often they’re now referred to as “ruin porn” is to be missing the point in a massive, insensitive way about a huge collective societal fuck-up that we should all feel appalled by and at least somewhat responsible for; then
- trying to take heart in stories about the city’s culture- and tech- and spirit-of-baseball-driven revivals; then
- facing the fact that fun restaurants and a good baseball team and a few 50-person startup offices here and there aren’t really going to do it for a city that has 20 percent unemployment; then …
…well, there is no then then. That’s it. Detroit just remains an unhappy place. (Although maybe there’s a sixth stage: realizing morosely that you could substitute about 30 American locations—Gary, Ind.; Baltimore, New Jersey—for “Detroit” in that previous paragraph and not have to change any of the other details.) Having been let down before, we’ve learned not to bite when someone suggests the city could rise from the rubble, and yet, probably out of deference more to the natural patterns of the human brain—the need to answer a question once it’s posed—than conviction, Detroit stories still almost always end with prescriptive suggestions about the way forward. And this sense that the writer knows what could be done inevitably rings false—if not immediately, then at the next Census or unemployment report or political scandal that sounds like dementedly brilliant fiction.
If consideration of Detroit doesn’t end with hope, it probably ends with dismissal: “Well, those people made their bed, and they can lie in it.” That’s not something a lot of people would write publicly about Detroit, but it is certainly something a lot of people think. (I’ve thought it at times.) But that—even though many of the decisions made in Detroit were terrible—also seems a too-convenient way to close consideration of the issue. It’s letting yourself off the hook. I think of the city as a Buddhist challenge to the modern citizen. (Note: I know almost nothing about Buddhism.) The story of Detroit cannot be avoided dramatically or morally, but it has no ending.
As a writer, that might’ve stopped me, but it doesn’t stop Binelli. And fortunately, Binelli is a good storyteller, an entertaining historian, and an insightful commenter who is comfortable completely failing the requirements of the genres he’s working in. His stories don’t have a lesson; his history uncovers no new themes; his analysis does not lead to a constructive conclusion. Maybe he’s one of those Buddhist fellows. In his book, Binelli, who grew up in a blue-collar Detroit suburb, moves to the city after years in New York. He learns about the city’s past and present and floats around visiting various civic figures and meeting people by happenstance. Then the book ends. After that, at least according his bio on the book flap, he left. He didn’t have a crisis of conscience or an epiphany. He didn’t have his faith in something renewed and decide to stay forever, and he didn’t ultimately lose his shit and declare that the brutes must be exterminated. Binelli went to Detroit and lived there.
Does that sound boring? It’s not. Because while Detroit may have been in unpleasant stasis for 30 years, it is a strange, compelling stasis that traditional accounts and short visits to the city—however well-intentioned—almost never crack. If you are looking for new insight about Detroit as a whole, you are not going to find it here (though are you going to have everything we do know summarized in entertaining fashion). You are going to find out something about what kind of person sticks it out in a city going nowhere.
Ben Mathis-Lilley is a senior editor at Buzzfeed.