Lessons from a dystopian wasteland

Can a smouldering ruin inspire?

It’s difficult to pinpoint Detroit’s nadir, that ever-moving target. Which anecdote best embodies the city’s breathtaking decline? Was it when the Pontiac Silverdome was sold (to a Toronto real estate developer, no less) for the same price as a Manhattan studio apartment? Was it the time the city’s own police department warned visitors to “enter at your own risk”? Is it the wild dogs that currently roam the city? The nightly fires that engulf abandoned homes?

Perhaps it’s best to just stick with the numbers. In 2010, the census revealed that Detroit’s population had dwindled to just 713,000 people, from a high of two million—fewer than in the years before Henry Ford’s Model Ts began rolling out of the factories. The fleeing populace have left some 90,000 buildings behind, entire neighbourhoods abandoned to the elements. There are approximately 40 square miles of vacant land in the city, enough empty room to fit in all of Paris.

Detroit is just across the river from Windsor, on the other side of North America’s busiest border crossing. As such, Canadians have had a front-row view of the city’s decline. More recently, however, with the recession battering dozens of other North American cities with the same blows that had weakened Detroit, the Motor City has begun to look less like a one-off American tragedy and more like a sign of something bigger—a possible harbinger of things to come in post-industrial North America.

Exactly what kind of future Detroit portends is the question at the centre of Mark Binelli’s excellent new book, Detroit City is the Place to Be. Binelli, a Rolling Stone writer who grew up in a working-class suburb of Detroit, returned to the Motor City in 2009 because of a feeling that something important was happening in his hometown. “Detroit feels like ground zero for…what, exactly?” Binelli writes. “The end of the American way of life? Or the beginning of something else?”

The story of Detroit as a dystopian wasteland has a certain twisted appeal, at least for those of us who don’t live there. The voyeuristic thrill of clicking through online galleries of “ruin porn,” those spellbinding slide shows of Detroit’s crumbling buildings and Mad Max–like landscapes that online newspapers and magazines publish whenever they need a sure-fire hit, proves that. One afternoon, wandering the ruins, Binelli ran into a group of German college students. When he asked them what had brought them to the city, one gleefully explained: “I came to see the end of the world!”

The counter-narrative, that Detroit is an incubator for a whole new way of living, is a more complicated proposition. Throughout his book, Binelli looks for evidence of this much-hoped-for Detroit comeback. He meets Mark Covington, a former heavy-equipment operator who began tilling empty lots around his home after he lost his job in 2008. Since then, Covington has taken over more plots, growing Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard, bok choy and okra, and offering up the tantalizing vision of a great American city’s return to agrarian living.

Binelli talks with the artists who are taking over stretches of the city, drawn by incredibly cheap rents and the city’s aura of gritty “authenticity.” He hangs out on the set of a movie lured to the city with tax credits, and visits the famous Heidelberg Project, an outdoor art installation of polka-dot-painted vacant houses and found-object sculpture that spreads over several residential blocks.

Binelli also meets with everyday people who are shouldering the necessary work that comes with living in a “DIY city”—a place that has lost so many of its most basic services that citizens are stepping in to fill the void. There are vigilante demolition teams who tear down abandoned buildings and a group called the Lawn Mower Brigade that cuts the grass in vacant lots. Binelli rides along with the Detroit Dog Rescue, scooping up some of the tens of thousands of strays that are said to roam the city.

There’s a certain romance around the idea of what Binelli calls the “Dystopian Happy Ending.” You see it in every science-fiction movie. When a civilization is destroyed by hubris, those who are left behind are forced to rebuild society, this time learning from our past mistakes. But Binelli’s too clear-eyed and too sympathetic to the actual problems experienced by the people that live there to find anything exciting about wiping the city’s slate clean for a “rebirth.” He is appropriately skeptical of the media’s “Detroit is the new Brooklyn” headlines. No matter how appealing the idea of urban agriculture may seem to outsiders, a laid-off Detroit autoworker probably has little interest in a return to subsistence farming.

Binelli is suspicious, too, of the Richard Florida–inspired calls to turn America’s industrial heartland into a metropolis of “creative class” artists, tech entrepreneurs and tattooed baristas. “In a state where one adult in three reads below the sixth-grade level, calls for the ‘re-education’ of workers to help them adapt to a new brainiac economy amount to the feeblest of platitudes,” Binelli writes.

In the end, Binelli shies away from grand pronouncements. What he offers is a sympathetic portrait of a city managing its own decline and groping its way toward a new 21st-century identity, a struggle that’s playing out in a number of Rust Belt cities, from Cleveland to Gary, Ind., to Hamilton. If Detroit is the future of a glorious new post-industrial North America, it’s far too early to tell what that brave new world will look like.

But despite his cynicism, Binelli sees hope. There are demographic numbers that suggest a less racially segregated future. There’s an office tower, vacant since the 1980s, that’s slowly being renovated. He meets a couple of bright university grads who, given opportunities across the country, decide to come home to Detroit. These are small signs, obviously, but Binelli hungrily accepts them.

Back when those ugly census numbers came out, a columnist with the Detroit Free Press urged readers to think of the 2010 data “as the ‘thud’ moment for the city of Detroit.” If you love the city as much as Binelli does, you have no choice but to embrace that hoary cliché, and trust that once you’ve hit rock bottom, the only direction to go is up.

Nicholas Hune-Brown is an award-winning Toronto-based writer and playwright