Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Best of 2013: Detroit


One of the many items enjoyed by Burbank Public Library staff during 2013, recommended for your consideration:









Detroit is the modern-day cautionary tale of what happens when rampant industrialization, greed, and racism shape city politics and urban planning. Detroit City is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, written by Mark Binelli (a native son), is at once mournful and angry at the lost possibilities.

Binelli moves back to his home town to report on its fall from one of the shining examples of America’s prosperity and ingenuity to a crumbling, bankrupt city barely able to provide basic services to its ever-shrinking population. Each chapter takes on a different aspect of how and why Detroit has fallen so far during the course of the last 50 years. Binelli points to the racism that kept African Americans trapped in overcrowded neighborhoods on the city’s periphery even as whites fled for suburbia as an explanation for the seemingly endless blocks of empty homes that have turned this city of 1.8 million (in 1950) into a ghost town of 700,000 (a 61 percent drop).


The auto industry, Detroit’s lifeline for much of the 20th century, crippled the city as it left for cheaper labor overseas. Even now, greed can be seen in the way millions can be found to rebuild the sports arena or a resurgent (largely white) downtown, while there is no money for firefighters and police officers. Arson is rampant, with nearly 5,000 buildings torched each year, for reasons varying from insurance fraud to sheer boredom; and yet Detroit’s fire department operates with 20-year-old trucks and a skeleton crew. Binelli makes it very clear that it was not one thing that toppled the city but a slew of issues that continued to build and fester over the years until the entire system collapsed.

I have read many books on Detroit over the years (I'm fascinated by urban planning), but Binelli, perhaps because he grew up in the city and has an obvious fondness for it, captures the true reasons for its collapse. He illustrates how union-busting, corporate greed, racism, and poor urban planning can lead to catastrophic results. These same issues are seen in many of America’s major cities. Philadelphia is suffering from a major decline of its mid-century population highs and is now experiencing areas of its downtown that are virtually deserted because of racist housing practices and a middle class fleeing to the suburbs. Los Angeles, the poster child for poor urban planning, has allowed rampant buildup of freeways that break up neighborhoods and create a segmented city that’s impossible to navigate. Binelli fears that if we don’t learn from the failures of Detroit then we are doomed to repeat them across the country. This is a dire scenario, but one very likely to happen if we don’t start making changes now to the cities we love.

Reviewed by Carey V.,
Central reference supervisor

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