A home on Detroit’s “urban prairie” (Photo from Mark Binelli's Detroit City is the Place to Be).
The late Gore Vidal once described this country as “the United States of Amnesia.” Yet when it comes to bohemia, memories tend to linger. Instead of a lacuna, we’re left with something bittersweet yet potent, like the final flicker of the last bonfire of summer.
Stories of this peculiar glow drew generations of young people to Berkeley or Seattle, today it’s pulling in a different direction. Fifty years after the Port Huron produced a manifesto for the New Left, attention is once again being trained towards Michigan. With inexpensive rent, a growing art community, and layers of history to survey, Detroit might be the place for young people to write a story of their own.
In Detroit City Is the Place to Be, Rolling Stone writer Mark Binelli examines the Motor City, creating a composite portrait that is half-failed state, half-success story. Binelli’s Detroit is one of fits and false starts, optimistic artists, overburdened firemen, and arrests. It is also a city that is striving to be, if not to be the next bohemia, something better.
Amid the post-hurricane recovery of the Empire State, The Nation spoke with Binelli to talk about the Motor City: its assembly-line past, its creative future, and the highways that connect one to the other.
In Detroit City Is the Place to Be, you seem to engage in a conversation with American mythology. Was that intentional?
Detroit is a place that lends itself to that deep Americana. That’s definitely what attracted me to the story. As far as 20th century stories about America, it’s one of the great ones. It’s such an epic rise and fall. It created so much of what we think of as a modern way of life: everything from mass production to the middle class to consumer culture. It all came out of there. For it to so spectacularly implode? I think that definitely lends itself to that Malthusian storytelling.
Not long ago Chrysler ran an ad campaign with the tagline, “Imported from Detroit.” What is the space that Detroit is filling for Americans—particularly those who aren’t from there?
It’s funny. As I reported the book, it really made an interesting shift. I was there in January 2009. I can remember watching Obama’s inauguration in a dive bar in downtown Detroit. I was there on assignment for Rolling Stone to cover the auto show and write about the dire straits that the auto industry and Detroit, in general, were in. Reporters were coming from all over the world to Detroit. There was almost a gleeful quality to the reporting: a kind of creepily prurient pressing of faces up against the window to watch the city burn.
What was behind this fascination?
I think maybe psychologically for people, at that time, when everything seemed to be in free-fall, and people were freaking out about what was going on in their own towns, to look at a place like Detroit that seemed so much worse; perhaps it was weirdly comforting. You could be in suburban Las Vegas or somewhere in Florida and see the price of your house falling into the toilet but look at these pictures of the ravaged neighborhoods in Detroit and think, “Well, at least we’re not that fucked.”