Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Ruination Daze

In the last couple of decades, Detroit has become the unwilling poster child for late-stage post-industrial collapse. A city that was once the beating heart of the American car industry has become a real-life setting for fantasies of apocalypse. The desolation of its vast factories and assembly plants, theatres and department stores documented by aficionados of ruin porn. The urban prairies of what were once thriving inner-city residential areas returned to nature, grids of weed-grown streets and ruins interrupted only by the occasional surviving house, or the encampments of urban farmers. A laboratory for experiments in post-apocalyptic, post-industrial, post-technological science-fictional scenarios (after Detroit, after Hurricane Katrina, Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren looks increasingly prescient).

Mark Binelli's The Last Days of Detroit, Motor Cars, Motown and the Collapse of an Industrial Giant, seeks to remind the reader to the people who still live there, and are seeking ways to regenerate their city. A former Detroit native (his family ran a business in the city, but lived, as he confesses, in the suburbs), he moved back into the heart of the city for three years, hoping 'to discover something new about the city - specifically, what happens to a once-great place after it has been used up and discarded? Who sticks around and tries to make things work again? And what sorts of newcomers are drawn to the place for similar reasons?'

Binelli, a reporter on the staff of Rolling Stone magazine, is an engaging writer who gives an insider's perspective on Detroit's long history and the complex interplay economic, political and social factors that caused its decline.  He's very good on the personalities of Detroit politicians, recent and historical scandals, and grand plans that all founder for one reason: 'No matter how dexterous or well-intentioned our elected officials, any plan to reinvent Detroit, or even adequately address the city's most fundamental crises, required the one thing Detroit lacked most of all: unimaginable amounts of money.'  And his portraits of ordinary citizens, of the artists and urban hipsters attracted Detroit's quasi-anarchistic freedom (and its huge spaces and cheap rents), of a school's urban farm, the fire department of one of Detroit's poorest neighbourhoods, and the human stories underlying a murder trial, are deft, acute and sympathetic. But what's lacking is an overall narrative that knits the various threads and voices together. Binelli's portrait of the city is affectionate and fair and honest, but scrappy; like the city itself, there's no centre. But as Binelli points out, there's no single cause to Detroit's malaise, and unlike fictional apocalypses, there's no easy solution either (apart from unimaginable amounts of cold hard cash), no way of reading in the runes of the ruins which version of the future will win out. And yet he surprises himself, and the reader, by ending on an optimistic note: the ruins may not be an endpoint after all, but part of an urban metabolic cycle. What's left is the kind of naive but very human hope with which the first citizens of Detroit promoted their dreams of coming grandeur. Can we imagine futures that aren't all grimdark urban nightmares or fantasies of posturban self-reliant homesteading, but ones in which our cities find some new purpose and are reborn afresh?

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