Review: The Last Days of Detroit, By Mark Binelli. Bodley Head, £20

 

At its peak in 1950, the city of Detroit housed nearly two million people; today, fewer than 750,000 live there.

The population of the suburbs has gone from one to over three million; they took most of the jobs, political clout and money with them. At the same time the city has shifted from 20 per cent African American to 80 per cent; the demography of the suburbs is exactly the reverse.

Detroit has lost 165,000 homes to arson and demolition, and conceded around a third of the city to urban prairie and scrub. It has rates of unemployment quadruple that of the surrounding counties; over a third of the city lives on or below the ludicrously low US poverty line.

All this in the place where the future in the form of modern mass production and mass consumption was invented during the Second World War. It is surely the greatest urban cataclysm of our age, the most terrifying demonstration of the shifting turbulent winds of the global economy.

So far, Detroit's fate has been chronicled predominantly by photographers. Now, the city and above all its people have been brilliantly captured in Mark Binelli's book on "motor cars, Motown and the collapse of an American giant". There are wry retellings of the city's French and colonial histories, its previous cycles of growth and decline; piercing portraits of scrappers and hipsters, techno-heads and crack-heads; a guide to the micro-politics of street survival.

Attempts by the local elites to revive, rebrand and restructure the city have all failed. The Obama bailout of the incompetent car industry has worked but at the cost of an ever-declining level of employment and security. Yet Binelli keeps finding reasons to believe that something good is emerging in Detroit: the slow tide of artistic innovation, the micro-pockets of gentrification, the rapid spread of urban farming and community projects, the DIY entrepreneurialism of the post-industrial frontier. Whether this is enough to turn around the descent is unclear but, as Binelli suggests, if Detroit once again is a harbinger of the future, we shall all have the chance to find out.

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