Book review: The Last Days of Detroit: Life And Death Of An American Giant by Mark Binelli

City of tomorrow: even the police won't enter some areas of Detroit so lawless has it become. Picture: Getty
City of tomorrow: even the police won't enter some areas of Detroit so lawless has it become. Picture: Getty
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EVERY day, the Detroit Police Department produces a crime report, detailing the rapes, muggings, shootings and murders which have occurred in the city in the previous 24 hours.

The Last Days Of Detroit: 
Life And Death Of An American Giant

Mark Binelli

Bodley Head, £20

It makes sobering reading: in 2010, Detroit had the highest violent crime rate in the US, and reading the list of drive-by shootings, armed robberies and burglaries is chilling, especially because there is widespread suspicion that the real figures are under-reported. In an attempt at transparency, the Detroit Police Department posts the figures on Facebook and Twitter. “Jesus,” one reader posted after a particularly lawless day. “Maybe Detroit needs a real Robocop.”

Robocop, the cyborg law enforcer who brings order to the lawless streets of Detroit in the 1987 film is just one of the pop culture references which have burned the Michigan city into our imagination. This is the city of car plants, of Motown, of race riots, of arson, of Fordist triumph and urban decline, of white hot technology and red hot music.

It is also, Mark Binelli argues in this compelling account of the city’s post-industrial decline, a place which might point the way to the future. A Detroit native, Binelli responds to the many depressing statistics about his home town with a kind of grim relish. The collapse of the American car industry brought ­Detroit down with it. The houses built to provide homes for car workers lie empty, and so do factories, barber’s shops, diners, bowling allies, porn cinemas and supermarkets. There are 90,000 abandoned buildings in the city, boarded up or left to rot. The only ­humans there are crack addicts, homeless people, and, increasingly, urban explorers who break in, clamber around and post photos on their blogs depicting their adventures in the shells of once impressive buildings.

Industry built Detroit. Henry Ford began mass-producing his Model T at a plant here in 1913, and by the 1950s, General Motors was the single biggest employer in the world. Detroit was routinely portrayed as “the city of tomorrow”. Tomorrow wasn’t quite as anyone expected. By the time Berry Gordy cranked up Motown records in 1960, it was clear that the industrial model was fatally flawed.

Politics in the post-industrial age have tended towards the Byzantine. A 1991 book compared Detroit’s politics to that of a post-colonial African state, so blatant was its despotism and nepotism. In the aftermath of the 1967 riots, Governor George Romney, Mitt’s father, viewed the burning city from a helicopter. Kwame Kilpatrick, a recent mayor who embodied many Detroiters’ hopes of revival, resigned in 2008 after pleading guilty to two felony obstruction of ­justice charges, and a sex scandal to boot.

In the absence of effective civic leadership, Detroit has become something of a laboratory for those with a post-­industrial urban vision to put into practice. When family houses can be bought for $100, hipsters, artists, theorists and urban gardeners have stepped into some of the vacant lots.

And there are plenty to fill. The gap sites in Detroit make up 40 square miles. You could fit two Manhattans into the gap. But, Binelli points out, even the space is largely unusable because it pockmarks the city. Some residents find themselves the only people living on their blocks. The police will not enter some areas of the city. It is routinely described as the “Wild West.” Land is cheap but it is basically lawless.

There is, of course, no shortage of ideas on how to put it all right. A local non-profit organisation promotes “15x15,” intended to lure 15,000 new residents to the area by 2015. Others put their faith in urban villages or “bio-urban hubs”.

If the humans are not doing too well then animals have made good on the gap. Beavers have returned to the Detroit river and packs of semi-feral dogs roam the city’s blasted neighbourhoods.

Binelli’s compelling book is a nightmare vision of a city which refuses to die. His conclusions are provisional: there may be no one answer to Detroit’s manifest problems, but from the rubble of post-industrial decline, urban blight and political corruption some good might yet come. «