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.”
How did the mood shift during your time in Detroit?
I think around the time of the Chrysler ads, something flipped. I think because the recession just dragged on for so long. Wherever they lived in America if you’d never been to Detroit, you’re feeling more of a connection. Everyone’s feeling so precarious. I think it flipped and it became, rather than cheering on the failure of Detroit – or it’s not exactly cheering it on, at least smirking from a distance – you wanted Detroit to succeed. Suddenly, it became almost an inspirational, Chicken Soup for the Soul kind of feel-good story. If Detroit could come back, then fill-in-the-blank-your-town would have a chance too. I think that’s the role it plays right now. I think that fed into a lot of the recent narratives about Detroit, which was all about the comeback.
Early on in your book you speak with photographer Corine Vermeulen. She says that, “Detroit at the present moment is a very good vehicle for the imagination.” What is she, or other young artists, seeing in Detroit?
I wouldn’t put Corine in this category, but I think it’s this very typical bohemian gentrification model: cheap real estate, lots of space. In Detroit, there’s really this sense of lawlessness. You have artists going around painting abandoned houses orange, which I found to be a kind of stupid art project. You can do all kinds of things in Detroit that you can’t do Brooklyn for the most part.
What sets Vermeulen apart?
I think someone like Corine has really smart ideas about Detroit. She moved to Detroit about ten years ago. She’s really a part of the city. I wouldn’t call her one of the newcomers.
What’s the difference?
In a way it’s unfortunate. Some of the artists are really smart and sensitive and really engaged with the city. Others are just coming in and treating the place as a sort of blank canvas where they can do whatever they want, and not thinking about the people who still live there.
Besides Corine, can you think of some artists who are really doing the kind of authentic art that you’re talking about?
A guy that I write about in the book is Scott Hawking; I really like his work. He’s a Detroiter. He makes these crazy installations where he’ll go into some abandoned factory and build something with what he finds and then just leave it there. It’s kind of great and kind of perfect. One piece of his that I write about in the book was made in the Packard Plant: one of these huge iconic ruined factories that have been closed for 40 or 50 years. In one of these storage rooms he found all these TVs from the 70s with the giant wooden TV boxes. He carried them to the roof and put them on these pillars that had been supporting a part of the roof that had since collapsed. You see these pillars when you get there. It really looks like Roman ruins.
You talk in your book about the way that Detroit’s art is getting a lot of play at the Whitney in New York and other big art cities. What is behind this wave of attention? Are these artists doing something new or are people just paying attention for the first time?
You probably saw a bunch of these New York Times Style section stories about Detroit. I think it’s more the romanticization of a dangerous place that’s become an artist’s paradise: the romance of a $100 house, the bombed-out street with one coffee shop, or the 5,000 square foot studio that you’re paying $50 per month for.
As a New Yorker, do these sort of stories sound familiar?
I moved to New York in 2000. I was told by everyone who lived here before me, “You missed all the great stuff.” With every generation you hear that. That feeling that, “Oh you missed it,” whether it’s SoHo in the 70s or Tribeca in the 80s, or Williamsburg in the 90s. Detroit represents an idea of something that no longer exists in a lot of cities. I think that, more than the actual work of the artists, is driving this hype.
It’s interesting that I do read all of these lifestyle pieces in the Times about bohemian people in Detroit. You seem to take a different tack. It felt to me like the real emotional core of the book was when you are talking to Detroiter Marsha Cusic in the last chapter of the book, where she says, “Detroit is not some abstract art project.” Can you talk about why you decided to ground it there?
I thought it was really important. People have smartly pointed out that a lot of the ruin photographs of Detroit tend to not have any people. You see these weirdly beautiful shots of ruined factories and empty fields, but there are never any people. In the same way, this new narrative about Detroit’s hipster revitalization is referring to a tiny, tiny percentage of the city. Generally, what’s shown is really white, and not at all like the history of the city, of people like Marsha who have lived there all their lives and who are fighting to make this basically failed state work.
Instead of the real thing, what are we often seeing in articles about trendy Detroit?
People who come from out of town to write about the genuinely cool stuff that’s happening: the new barbeque spot and the artisanal coffee shop. They go to these neighborhoods and it’s basically like they’re in the Green Zone. They’re in this tiny, tiny little section of the city that is not at all like day-to-day life for most Detroiters. I think Details did a story of the rust belt revival of Detroit. There was not a single person of color in the photo spread. The city is something like 90 percent black. Especially when you live there, and you know what it’s like, it can kind of drive you nuts seeing that sort of narrative.