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

The green shoots of decline

Peter Carty
Sunday 06 January 2013 01:00
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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.

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