Not all cities in the northern climes of the United States are dying -- some would point to Minneapolis-St. Paul as an example of healthy northern urbanism.
But those who want to emphasize the failure of American cold-weather cities inevitably mention Detroit as the leading example. Mark Binelli knows that phenomenon well. A novelist and magazine writer in his early 40s, Binelli grew up in Detroit and returned to write a book about it. Detroit once was regarded as the epitome of successful industrialization -- a locale with strong corporations (mostly automobile manufacturers), strong labor unions and a remarkable blue-collar-tinged prosperity. That image took hold largely before Binelli's adolescence. As he grew up, he experienced something different, however, with automakers facing unbeatable overseas competition, a variety of factors weakening labor unions, and racial animosity leading to decimated neighborhoods and lousy public schools.
"Whenever I told people I'd grown up in a Detroit suburb, they expressed a morbid curiosity, as if I'd revealed having been raised in the next town over from Chernobyl or in the same apartment building as Jeffrey Dahmer," Binelli writes.
He returned as a more-or-less objective journalist. It is obvious from the book, however, that Binelli hoped, however subtly, to find positive news about Detroit's future. He looks just about everywhere, and does discover haphazard causes for hope, including a "do-it-yourself" attitude among the remaining residents who patrol the streets when police will not respond, develop urban gardens when grocery stores die, rehabilitate abandoned buildings when entire neighborhoods are considered blighted, and then fill the buildings with visual art.
With so much contradictory evidence about the present and future of Detroit, Binelli could spin the book as mostly optimistic or mostly pessimistic. He chooses optimism, but issues a warning to readers: "It would not be hard to put a less cheery spin on things. Rather than [the] positive indicators, I could stress the fact that there had been one murder every day in the opening months, including a nine-month-old baby; how it had taken the 911 dispatcher nearly a half hour to get an ambulance out to the nine-month-old's house, which was shot up with an AK-47 during a drive-by"; foreclosures galore on residential and commercial properties, and plenty of other examples.
The saga is vividly told by Binelli, whose writing style is winning. Perhaps in the future he will be able to write the sequel about Detroit -- whether it bounces back or collapses.
Steve Weinberg has resided in a city on life support (East St. Louis, Ill.) and a city, despite its many ills, that will never die (Washington, D.C.). He currently calls Columbia, Mo., home.