I’m a proud Michigander but I come from the west side of the state and the far east has always been something of a gleaming mystery to me. I knew the auto industry had built Detroit and that when it collapsed Detroit collapsed, and I knew about the white flight to the suburbs, Devil’s Night, the 1984 Tigers, Philip Levine’s poems . . . Well really I didn’t know much; I knew about as much as a kid from Poughkeepsie knows about Bed-Stuy. But still, Detroit is bound up with Michigan (in a much more meaningful sense than New York City is with New York State), and Michigan’s my home, so I’ve always felt some affinity; I just haven’t known what with exactly. Recently, Detroit’s come to my attention in a lot of ways both direct and indirect, though, and I feel like I’m moving (sliding?) toward some more tactile understanding of the place. I’ve had the chance to visit for the first time in years; I’ve been reading more and more about the place in the news in the wake of its recent spectacular fiscal meltdowns; I’ve had frequent occasion, in my beloved New Orleans, to draw analogies to Detroit (ruin/beauty, opportunity/inertia, etc.); and my reading of visual art periodicals has featured lively debates about the ethics of “ruin porn“–an issue that I also think about a lot in New Orleans.
I remain, of course, totally ignorant about Detroit, though I think I do understand that the smarty-pants interloper (usually white) who comes along to explain the place to its supposedly benighted (usually black) inhabitants is one of the most reviled members of the local fauna, so I’m smart enough at least to profess my ignorance! There’s a great scene in Detropia where a couple of white hipster European 20-somethings come into a coffee shop clearly so pleased with themselves for coming to Detroit instead of the more predictable destinations like New York or San Francisco, like so pleased with themselves that they seem to be looking around waiting for someone to congratulate them on how cool they are, and the African-American barista just looks at them like . . . I don’t even know how to describe that look.
Detropia and Binelli’s book are nice companions. The movie, like Ewing and Grady’s excellent Jesus Camp, has no voice-over narration telling you what to think or feel about what you’re seeing; it just follows some people around as they go about their business in Detroit and reflect aloud on how it was, how it is, and how it could be. Binelli’s book, on the contrary, is super chatty. Binelli grew up both in and around the city of Detroit. (Those are important prepositions. If someone tells you he grew up “in” Detroit, and he is white, try this: Say, “Wait, in Detroit? Or around Detroit?” He will almost certainly blush a little and confess to an address well beyond the city limits.) After living elsewhere for a long time, he returned and lived smack downtown for some years as a reporter, during which time he wrote this book. The writing is smart and funny, a little shaggy in spots but all in all a really nice blend of solid reportage and color commentary. I won’t go into detail about the contents; suffice to say that if you’ve got more than a passing interest in the city’s current situation, this is a lively and useful overview. I’m still a dumb farm kid after reading it, but a little less dumb.
P. S. I’m also going to mention here while I’m at it a project by Brian Widdis and Romain Blanquart called Can’t Forget the Motor City, in which Widdis took b/w photos of Detroit landscapes and Blanquart color portraits of Detroit residents. The idea was to show the life in the place rather than the decay and I think the results are terrific. That image up there is one of Blanquart’s.