book review: detroit city is the place to be

i’ve got a real problem with books.  i can’t really get enough of them.  recent events in our lives have caused us to implement what we are calling austerity measures around the house.  basically just tighten the belt on our budget. this means that purchasing books is pretty much out of the budget for some time, and not really a problem because i have such a huge backlog of books to work though that i need a reason not to get new books, and it also means more trips to the library, always a good thing.

about a month ago an offer came though the inbox to review a book on detroit, and i ignored it as it looked like another pop book about ruin porn.  i’ve seen enough of that.

later that week i was reading some online papers and read this new york times essay and noticed the name of the author mark binelli.  that sounded familiar to me, i checked my email and sure enough he had just written the book that i was offered the opportunity to review.

having enjoyed the essay – i asked for a review copy of “detroit city is the place to be”.  if you are gonna provide me a review copy, i’m gonna read it, and if seems relevant to this blog, and i think others would like to know about it, then i’m gonna review it, which is what the following is.

i’m going to start off by saying for the record i like mark binelli’s writing and certain ways he approaches the topic.  i’m so used to reading non-fiction that to read a more personal approach like this is pretty refreshing, and having just finished reading anthony caro’s mammoth tome “the power broker”  it was a nice break.  only about 300 pages and a quick read in under a week.

i enjoy the way that he relates to the city, sharing his families personal history, and following his movements though out the city.  so many of the people that he interacts with are personal friends of mine, and so it was something like reading a book about my life.  i enjoy that – it’s also a little surreal.   binelli does a good job of digging into some detroit history, provides some pretty humours commentary, and enjoyable observations about contemporary detroit.   i actually found myself learning some things i didn’t know about detroit  and some direction for future research.  for a non-academic book of this type, it’s obvious that binelli did more research than yr average  parachuting reporter.

if binelli had just done some sort of pop history on detroit and current affairs, i think for the most part i would have little to find fault with the book.  i would recommend it as an enjoyable read, not something i would feel the need to keep around, but a fun book to pass around to friends.

as various points it feels as though beinelli is setting out to tell another story, one that doesn’t rely on all the stereotypes and ruin porn, but despite his desire to distance himself, it feels as though he can’t help himself, and ends up telling gruesome details of a murder and amputation, walking though the packard plant and other ruins, hanging out with cash strapped fire fighters talking about  arson, and plenty of time reveling in the emptiness of detroit.

in the end, it feels like two books mashed together, one i like and one i really hate, one book that seeks to tell a more nuanced story and one that relies on sensationalism.

and while i could fault binelli more for this, i suspect the parts of the book i really like are the ones that would bore most readers and the parts i hate are what sell books.

if you are really interested in detroit, i would just dig deeper and read binelli’s source material – “the origin of the urban crisis” “detroit i do mind dying” “arc of justice” “hard stuff”.  you will find much of the same information without the objectionable sensationalism (although also much more dry than binelli’s writing).   i don’t really think the book was written for detroiters – but for outsiders, and if this book has some folks wanting to dig deeper and read some of the original source material and understand detroit more deeply – well then there is some serious value in that.

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One response to “book review: detroit city is the place to be

  1. Thank you for your review! Thomas Sugrue has sort of replaced Jane Jacobs as my bible these days. Do you have any further recommendations? Again, much appreciated and have a good day!

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