Mark Binelli grew up in a suburb outside Detroit during the 1970s, in the shadow of the city’s devastating 1967 riot. Though he moved to Atlanta in 1992, then to New York to become a writer for Rolling Stone in 2000, he still had a soft spot for—and journalistic interest in—his hometown. The Great Recession provided Binelli the perfect moment to chronicle the city in decline, but over the course of his reporting, he discovered that the story of decay was only part of the truth. Here the author of Detroit City Is the Place to Be (Metropolitan Books) discusses unfair media portrayals, grassroots movements afoot and why he remains hopeful about the city’s future.
Q: Was it strange being in the eye of the storm as the rest of the media made up its mind about Detroit?
A: The narrative has definitely evolved over the past three years. When I started the book in 2009, Detroit was being held up as the poster child of the recession. Now there are these idealized stories about artists who move to this scary, desolate place and colonize it into this bohemian paradise. Suddenly Detroit is the new Brooklyn or Berlin. While there are creative people coming here for cheap housing, that coverage is way out of proportion.
Q: So what’s the truth?
A: Much of that redemption narrative is oversold. That said, there is something happening. Outsiders come here with the idea that it’s this lawless place to experiment, so you get a hugely ambitious plan like Detroit Works, which basically has the goal of shrinking the city by moving residents into more densely populated neighborhoods and thus consolidating city services. Then you’ve got business incubators giving small companies cheap space to work in a collaborative environment. Of course, residents are open to these big ideas because, really, what have they got to lose?
Q: Some of those big ideas are actually born out of turmoil, like the large- and small-scale urban agriculture movements happening.
A: Right, and it’s cool to drive around these abandoned areas that are literally returning to nature. Where there were these dense residential neighborhoods, now there are fields and only a house or two on every block. Rather than keep a lot where somebody will dump tires, people are growing corn enjoyed by members of the community.
Q: When you talk about ideas, I think of Asenath Andrews, the principal who turned a school for pregnant teenagers into a national success story.
A: When she started there, the pregnant girls were folded into this larger program with all the delinquents, but she refused to accept that they be held to lower standards. She expected them to graduate and go to college—and she held them to it. She transformed her school into one of the highest performing success stories of the Detroit public school system, with a 90 percent graduation rate. The school actually lost district funding and closed last year, but there was a lot of public outcry, and it’s since reopened as a charter school.
Q: That feels like the theme of the book—Detroit has great ideas but almost no funding. Why, then, did you decide to end it on an optimistic note?
A: It’s not just a Pollyannaish level of magical thinking to feel like there’s momentum in the city and people are going there. I went to an event the last time I was back, and I met a filmmaker from Los Angeles, this artist from France and then a boat builder from Maine. Each had come because they had heard about it as this place where they could do something interesting. That gives me hope.
Two Other New Books that Challenge Conventional Thought
The Wisdom of Psychopaths, by Kevin Dutton (Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux) The University of Oxford psychologist reveals that being a functional psychopath—charming, emotionless, unwavering—can be a key to success, and that there’s a scale of “madness” we can all use to our advantage.
Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Random House) The best-selling author of The Black Swan looks at health, personal finance and foreign policy to reveal how certain things, like our portfolio mix or our bodies’ muscles, not only survive stress and disorder—they actually need it to flourish.