Mark Binelli is a novelist and Rolling Stone journalist who grew up in the Detroit area. He's since brought these three prongs — literary, reportage, experience — into his new book, Detroit City is the Place To Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis. I talked to him about the book in Sunday's Detroit Free Press. From that:
Q: What do you think urban journalism needs, especially in Detroit?
The hardest thing about writing this book was settling on one book. I
had this idea of a nonfiction book as basically like writing 10-12
articles. I can do that; I know how to write 10 articles. But when
you're reporting, you see that there are so many stories. Every morning I
would religiously read the (Detroit) News and (Detroit) Free Press and
some of the blogs, and so, as you know, there's always some crazy thing.
That's ultimately why I had to get away to write this. I found myself
wanting to write every story about Detroit, every book about Detroit.
spent time with John Carlisle, also known as Detroitblogger John, and
he just drives around — that's his method (for finding stories). There
are so many stories that are in forgotten parts of the city. There's so
much emphasis on downtown and Midtown, and that's great, but it's just a
small part of the story. …
The book I think that needs to be
written is an epic biography of (former mayor) Coleman Young. I'm just
shocked that hasn't been done yet. Someone should do that before the
people who knew him die.
The book is getting a healthy amount of media reverb. Ben Mathis-Lilley writes about in Slate (which is where the illustration above comes from).
The story of Detroit cannot be avoided dramatically or morally, but it has no ending.
As a writer, that might’ve stopped me, but it doesn’t stop
Binelli. And fortunately, Binelli is a good storyteller, an entertaining
historian, and an insightful commenter who is comfortable completely
failing the requirements of the genres he’s working in. His stories
don’t have a lesson; his history uncovers no new themes; his analysis
does not lead to a constructive conclusion. …
Does that sound boring? It’s not. Because while Detroit may have been in
unpleasant stasis for 30 years, it is a strange, compelling stasis that
traditional accounts and short visits to the city—however
well-intentioned—almost never crack.
My own take on Detroit City is the Place to Be? Its greatest accomplishment is that it brings a literary language and vantage to a city that is hungry for it: the book opens with a quote from Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, and its cohering metaphor is how people come to Detroit to see the future. Binelli is an author who is as honest as he can be, and he has a good eye for character. The book's lack, however, comes from a sometimes misplaced trust in what Binelli hears or reads — for example, he recycles the old rumor that 47% of the city is illiterate, even though that statistic has been thoroughly debunked — which results in some distention.
Regardless, people interested in rigorous and beautiful storytelling about the city should read Ingrid Norton's "Letter from Detroit" in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Mark Binelli is reading from the book and talking shop with Detroit Free Press editorial page editor Stephen Henderson this week: 7pm, Friday, November 16, at Pure Detroit in the Fisher Building in the New Center neighborhood.