IoS book review: The Last Days of Detroit, By Mark Binelli - Reviews - Books - The Independent

The Bodley Head £20

IoS book review: The Last Days of Detroit, By Mark Binelli

The green shoots of decline

Detroit has become a long, slow, car crash. The agonies of the US auto industry have brought the Motor City so grievously low that it is a compelling symbol of post-industrial decline. Empty skyscrapers pock the skyline like rotten teeth, while the city blocks below are reverting back to "urban prairie".

The retreat of big business means that emergency services go woefully short of funding. Police cut-backs have so inured the populace to mayhem that the grisliest murders attract little press coverage. All the while, the city is burning. Arson is fuelled by insurance scams, and the fire service is threadbare. The authorities obsess over demolishing charred and crumbling remnants, to "right-size" Detroit into a manageable environment, but the ruins are spread too randomly for neat excisions.

Detroit's situation is dire enough to mesh superbly with the visions of dystopian writers. Mark Binelli cites the anarchist thinker Hakim Bey's theories of "temporary autonomous zones", but perhaps J G Ballard's fictions of urban implosion fit the city best of all. A whole genre of photography, "ruin porn", has developed to disseminate images of decaying architectural grandeur, with tourists enthusiastically snapping away at the collapsing Packard plant and other icons of dereliction.

Detroit had always been racially divided, with Afro-Americans corralled into inner-city slums. It saw the worst race riots in US history in 1967, and severe tensions remain. And yet nowadays, urban flight has become markedly colour-blind, with Detroiters from all minority groups equally keen to flee to the safer outer suburbs and beyond.

Binelli detects some limited signs of hope, with Obama's bail-out of the rump of the auto industry the most obvious. Elsewhere, doughty pioneers attracted by alternative ways of living are re-colonising urban wasteland, dedicated farmers of the urban prairie among them. A whole biennale's worth of artists have moved in, attracted by astoundingly cheap studios and a milieu to trump all other available brands of edgy authenticity.

Binelli is a Detroit native, and if he provides an authoritative portrait of urban cataclysm, he also faithfully charts the glorious rise of the Motor City, from its origins as a fur traders' settlement, its transformation into a capitalist citadel under the revolutionary innovations of Henry Ford and his peers, and on to the eras of Motown and techno music. Sadly, decline is now accelerating into what appears to be a final dramatic descent.

His account is often mesmerising in its shocking detail and there is a subtext with unsettling resonances for us all. Whether central London will ever be given over to agriculture is moot, despite gathering intimations of a lost decade for the British economy. Even so, Detroit's fate is an ominous harbinger of what could be in store for many Western metropolises, as manufacture and finance shift inexorably over to the emerging superpowers of Asia.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week