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A Different Detroit, As A Native Tells It

The Detroit skyline as seen from Belle Isle. (Getty Images)

Author Mark Binelli grew up in a Detroit suburb in the 1970s. The Detroit he knew was a study in decline. The city used to embody the American dream: the auto industry, consumer culture and Motown.

When he was offered a magazine assignment to write about the Detroit auto show in January 2009, Binelli tells weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden, he jumped on it.

But Binelli didn't stop there. He moved back to his hometown to chronicle the city. He put it all into a book called Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis.


Interview Highlights

Covering Detroit as a native

"When I got there, I realized Detroit had become this poster city for the recession. I mean, reporters were coming [from all over the] country, all over the world, really, to look at the place, and I felt like, as someone who'd grown up there, I could really bring a little bit more nuance to the story, and not tell the same stories that are being told over and over — and that includes things like humor. I mean, Detroit is a very surreal, weird place, and I thought a lot of that was being missed by reporters who were just coming in for an afternoon or a day or two."

Visiting the 'zone'

"It's a huge swath of land — 190 acres — that had been a residential neighborhood once upon a time. It was razed by the city, and was supposed to become an industrial park. The idea was lots of factories would move in, and nothing happened. So, it's hard to really convey what it is like. You're basically five minutes from downtown of a major American city, but you are standing in these fields, that, I mean you could be in rural Arkansas, and you can still see traces of the old neighborhood. The sidewalks are so overgrown, they are almost invisible, but if you look carefully you can see the sidewalks ... You will notice a glimpse of red, and it turns out to be an old fire hydrant that is covered with grass that is 3 feet high. It's a surreal place."

Room for improvement

"One of the problems with Detroit is, you know, it was a city that at its peak, population was 2 million. Now with this last census, in 2010, it's down to just over 700,000, so you have all this vacant land, all of these abandoned buildings, what do you do with it? I mean, one of the more intriguing things that's been talked about, not much progress has been made so far, has been this sort of right-sizing initiative. That's the euphemistic term they have been using. Basically the idea is to convince people, incentivize people somehow, to move to denser urban cores, so then you would have the vacant land concentrated, and you could turn that into parks, possibility into farms.

"The urban farming has been really big in Detroit and has been getting a lot of press. You look at some of these renderings that people make of potential Detroit, in say, 2030, and it's astounding. The big problem, of course, is that there is no money."

The unimaginable circumstances of Highland Park firefighters

"Highland Park, I call it in the book 'the Detroit of Detroit' — I mean, it's this little tiny community entirely surrounded by Detroit. Once upon a time the original Model T plant was housed there, so it was the center of the world. I mean everybody was coming to Highland Park to look at this wondrous assembly line. Ford left, Chrysler's world headquarters left for the suburbs, so now it is a very abandoned city, and the firefighters, their last remaining firehouse was condemned, so they moved into an old Chrysler warehouse while the new firehouse was ostensibly being built.

"That was five or six years ago. Some of them are literally sleeping in tents. They are working with so few walkie-talkies that they have come up with a system of hand signals when they are at a fire so they can communicate with each other. The trucks break down. It's astounding circumstances they work under. It's also somewhat inspirational because they still go to work every day, and they are still doing this job, and you have to look at them with awe and admiration."

'The city of tomorrow,' today

"You read some of these old guidebooks and Detroit was called 'The City of Tomorrow.' ... When business was booming, when the Model T plant was really at its peak, Detroit was the city, it was the city everyone was looking toward. It's one of the great stories of the 20th century, I mean, this wilderness city, basically, rising up out of nowhere, creating modern life in the 20th century as we know it in many ways: mass production, consumer culture, suburban sprawl, [and] in many ways, the American middle class. And then the fall from such great heights.

"It's classical tragedy in lots of ways. In this case, the character is the city. You see the seeds of the character's destruction. You see those tragic flaws early on, and it's completely undone, and now we are at the third act, and we will see what happens."

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: "Panic in Detroit," "The Detroit Breakdown," "Motor City Madhouse" - all songs Mark Binelli listened to while growing up in a Detroit in decline in the 1970s.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: Detroit is 139 square miles that used to embody the American dream: the auto industry, consumer culture, Motown, massive, beautiful buildings. So when Mark Binelli was asked to write about the Detroit Auto Show in January of 2009, he jumped. He then moved back to Motor City to chronicle a place that had lost over half its population since its peak. Over the next couple of years, he loomed the city from every angle, sometimes finding a dystopian moment, like the under-resourced, overworked firefighters of Highland Park.

MARK BINELLI: Firefighters are coming to places like Highland Park and Detroit from the Bronx because they don't see those sorts of spectacular fires anymore. And they come to take pictures in Detroit.

LYDEN: One of them asked him: What are you going to write? Fiction, nonfiction? Non, he said.

BINELLI: He laughs and says no one's going to believe it.

LYDEN: But despite an epic's worth of struggles, Mark Binelli says Detroit is an exciting place for dreamers.

BINELLI: It almost became a laboratory of things that become so desperate that you could try almost anything in Detroit.

LYDEN: So he wrote a book. It's called "Detroit City is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis."

BINELLI: When I got there, I realized Detroit had become this poster city for the recession. I mean, reporters were coming from all over the country, all over the world, really, to look at the place. And I felt like, as someone who'd grown up there, I could really bring a little bit more nuance to the story and not tell the same stories that are being told over and over, and that includes things like humor. I mean, Detroit is a very surreal, weird place. And I thought a lot of that was being missed by reporters who were just coming in for an afternoon or a day or two.

LYDEN: The weirdness, the surreal quality, the vitality, I want you to describe what it was like to come back. You come to Service Street, not too far from where your father had a business. You meet these really wild neighbors. Take us into that time.

BINELLI: So I ended up moving onto this really strange and interesting block where my neighbors included some long-time Detroiters - a guy named Ron Scott, who was the founder of the Detroit chapter of the Black Panthers, and now he does lots of work with police brutality. And then there are also people like Steve and Deretta Coy(ph), who are these young artists who'd moved from Hawaii to Detroit. I joke in the book that that's possibly the first time in human history that that particular migration has been made.

(LAUGHTER)

BINELLI: It's in a neighborhood in Detroit called Eastern Market where there are still lots of working slaughterhouses and produce wholesalers. And I'd - my father was a knife grinder, so he'd make deliveries on that actual block. I remember pulling into that alley. So it was a very strange sensation to sort of so literally go back to a place from my teenage years.

LYDEN: In one chapter in this book, you take us into what is called the zone with a photographer. Could you tell us about that? What's the zone?

BINELLI: The - yes. That photographer is - she's a Dutch photographer named Corine Vermeulen. She's been in Detroit for about 10 years. And she's a big fan of a Russian film called "Stalker" that involves this mysterious area called the zone. And so she calls this area in Detroit the zone. And it's a huge swath of land - 190 acres - that had been a residential neighborhood once upon a time. It was razed by the city, and was supposed to become an industrial park. The idea was lots of factories would move in and nothing happened.

So it's hard to really convey what it's like. You're basically five minutes from downtown of a major American city, but you're standing in these fields that, I mean you could be in rural Arkansas. And you could still see traces of the old neighborhood. The sidewalks are so overgrown they're almost invisible. But if you look carefully, you can see the sidewalks are like - you'll notice a glimpse of red, and it turns out to be an old fire hydrant that's covered with grass that's three feet high. It's a surreal place.

LYDEN: So Detroit, as we know, is nearly 140 miles square. You talk about some of the schemes to try to reinvent the city, and they're pretty remarkable. Can you list a few?

BINELLI: Sure. Well, you know, one of the problems with Detroit is, you know, it was a city that at its peak, population was two million. Now, with this last census, in 2010, it's down to just over 700,000. So you have all this vacant land, all these abandoned buildings. What do you do with it? I mean, one of the more intriguing things that's been talked about - not much progress has been made so far - has been this sort of right-sizing initiative. That's the euphemistic term they have been using.

And it's - basically, the idea is to convince people, incentivize people, somehow, to move to denser urban cores so then you would have the vacant land concentrated, and you could turn that into parks, possibility into farms. The urban farming movement has been really big in Detroit. It has been getting a lot of press. When you look at some of these renderings that people make of potential Detroit, in say, 2030, and it's astounding. The big problem, of course, is there's no money.

LYDEN: Tell me about some of the attempts while you were there to carry on the basic services that sound like they're out of "Mad Max." You profiled the firefighters of Highland Park.

BINELLI: That was a crazy story. Yeah, Highland Park, I call it in the book the Detroit of Detroit. I mean, it's really this little tiny community entirely surrounded by Detroit. Once upon a time, the original Model T plant was housed there, so it was the center of the world. I mean, everybody was coming to Highland Park to look at this wondrous assembly line. Ford left, Chrysler's world headquarters left for the suburbs, so now it's a very abandoned city.

And the firefighters, their last remaining firehouse was condemned, and so they moved into an old Chrysler warehouse while the new firehouse was ostensibly being built. That was five or six years ago. Some of them are literally sleeping in tents. They're working with so few walkie-talkies that they've come up with a system of hand signals when they are at a fire so they can communicate with each other. The trucks break down. It's astounding circumstances they work under.

It's also somewhat inspirational because they still go to work every day, and they're still, you know, they're still doing this job. And you have to really look at them with awe and admiration. I mean, there are interns there working for free, risking their lives. And the paid firefighters are making 10 bucks an hour. It's unbelievable, unless you actually see it.

LYDEN: Well, you've given us a wonderful tour. I love being out on your bicycle with you as you rode through these neighborhoods on Sunday afternoons and recalled some of the great historical things that have been said about Detroit in a century gone by. Really gives us a vision. People were hopeful once.

BINELLI: Oh, yeah. You read some of these old guidebooks, and Detroit was called The City of Tomorrow. It was the city on the river. I mean, when business was booming, when the Model T plant was really at its peak, Detroit was the city. It was the city everyone was looking towards. It's one of the great stories of the 20th century. I mean, this wilderness city, basically, rising up out of nowhere, creating modern life in the 20th century, as we know it, in many ways: mass production, consumer culture, suburban sprawl, in many ways, the American middle class.

And then the fall from such great heights. It's classical tragedy in lots of ways. I mean, in this case, the character is the city. You see the seeds of the character's destruction. You see those tragic flaws early on, and it's completely undone. And now, we're at the third act, and we'll see what happens.

LYDEN: And that's why you've called it "Detroit City is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis." Mark Binelli, thank you so much. It's been a real pleasure talking to you.

BINELLI: Oh, thank you, Jacki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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