When I chose to read The Last Days of Detroit by Mark Binelli for my 12 in 12 Challenge I was expecting it to be a history of the city and how it became bankrupt. This book covers that issue, although in a lot less detail than I would have liked and without many statistics to get the impression of the incredible decline of the motor industry and the loss of jobs that resulted. What the book did concentrate on was an impression of the city after the collapse and some indications of revival. The author is a native of Detroit and lived in the near-derelict city for three years whist researching and writing the book – he is a journalist by trade.
What happened to Detroit is mindboggling, although it is difficult to relate it to other US cities without accurate data. By the beginning of the current century whole swathes of land within the city were left derelict – the author states that the total of abandoned land amounts to about 40 square miles. Factories, warehouses and shops were just left to decay along with thousands of homes. The city itself had run out of money so most public services were failing or withdrawn across most of the city – that included water, power, street lights, education and eventually fire and police services. Crime was rife among those who remained but so too was corruption within the city officials. Arson was a daily fact of life as was dumping of waste and demolition of buildings.
There isn’t a clear narrative in the book about how all this occurred but you can infer that it came from the loss of automotive production and the knock-on effect on other businesses. Without taxes from businesses and individuals who were earning the city itself lost money until it could no longer provide even the basic services to its citizens. People who had somewhere to go left the city and those who remained functioned in a derelict landscape often inhabited by desperate people. The book looks at some examples and then at some ways that others are trying to renew the city – these include education, local politics, the cultural industries, buildings and housing. The book offers a small amount of hope but does point out where there are continued issues with small scale regeneration and with a city government which is in debt.
Some of this book was fascinating. I enjoyed the description of “ruin porn” with sightseers interested in the decay and paying for tours. Some of the cultural installations and events seem very pretentious. Many people also make a point of trying to get into decayed structures in a form of urban exploration so that they can post their exploits on social media. A lot of the book was very anecdotal and followed particular individuals or initiatives, These were well presented and interesting but I would have liked more context.
This is the book that the author wanted to write and it is interesting enough. It is not, however, the book that I wanted to read which is my problem rather than that of the author. I was hoping that it would be more like Janesville by Amy Goldstein which details the decline of a community following the closure of the largest local employer (also a car manufacturer). I am glad I read it though, it wasn’t a long or difficult read and it was interesting.