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Wednesday, April 24,2013

Pedaling Detroit

Author takes a unique look at the beleaguered metropolist

by Bill Castanier
When he was researching his book, “Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis,” Rolling Stone contributing editor Mark Binelli wanted to see a different side of Detroit than the one portrayed in popular media — a side even some of us “locals” have only seen by expressway on our way to see the Tigers, the Lions or a show at the Fox Theatre. To accomplish this, he spent a year in the city, exploring the streets by bicycle. 

His unusual approach seems to have worked; Binelli’s book will be recognized this Saturday at the Night for Notables at the Library of Michigan in Lansing. “Detroit City” was named as one of 20 Michigan Notable Books, and at the event, Binelli will join 17 of the other authors. Local honorees include East Lansing author Laurie Kay Sommers, who will be honored for her book, “Fishtown: Leland, Michigan’s Historic Fishery,” and J. Alan Holman, Michigan State University professor of geology and zoology, who will be recognized posthumously for his book “The Amphibians and Reptiles of Michigan: A Quaternary and Recent Faunal Adventure.” His son, Ray Holman, will accept the award. The keynote speaker will be filmmaker and author Michael Moore, whose memoir, “Here Comes Trouble,” was one of last year’s Notable Books. 

Binelli’s book surpasses in clarity and fairness the plethora of the other cottage-industry books written on Detroit this past year. Binelli, 42, isn’t exactly a cheerleader for Detroit, but he avoids the literary “ruins porn” evident in those other books and documentaries.  

“Like Detroiters, I’m sick of the images and even offended,” he said in a recent phone interview. That’s one reason he opted to rent an apartment near Detroit’s famed Eastern Market in 2009 to research his book. He said outside reporters would typically fly in, spend a few days writing a story about dystopian Detroit and leave.

“It was journalistic malpractice,” Binelli said. “I told myself, I can’t become a clich. I wanted to have more sensitivity and bring more history to the table.”

Binelli said that even the venerable Time magazine, which bought a home in Detroit and set up a team of “MTV-style” writers in 2009-‘10 to cover Detroit, couldn’t pull it off. 

“Ultimately, they were writing articles for Time, so a profile of Dave Bing would run 800 words,” he said. 

Binelli said that Detroit has become “the all-purpose metaphor for a dying city.” Early in his book, he writes, “It might very well turn out to be the story of the last century, the death rattle of the twentieth century definition of the American Dream.”

He said he patterned his writing after two authors he greatly admires: the late New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell and Ian Fraser, author of the book “Great Plains.” He said both writers “create an illusion (in their writing) that they are just going out for a walk.”

He said it was important to him to tell the story of “the 700,000 people who live in the city,” which is why he set out on his bike. He wrote about what he ran into, such as a group of kids wading through a river of shoes laid out by noted Detroit experimental artist Tyree Guyton, whose urban artwork was once ordered to be bulldozed by then-Mayor Coleman Young. When Binelli asked the kids what they were doing, they told him they were after free shoes — but added that it’s hard to find a matched pair that fits.

The author provides a beautifully condensed and integrated history of Detroit scattered among the pages of “Detroit City.” He reminds us of many of Detroit’s “firsts”: the first wave of owner-occupied single family homes in the country; the first shopping center in the country; and, perhaps, the first major city to go belly up.

Binelli doesn’t find alligators in the sewers, but he does find irony in the things around him, like the return of beavers to Detroit, once the epicenter of fur trapping in the 18th century. Or in the Latin motto on the city flag: “We hope for better days; it shall rise from the ashes” And certainly there are ashes all around him, in the form of 90,000 abandoned buildings. 

Binelli recently wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times in which he pilloried the proposed takeover of Belle Isle by a group of wealthy libertarians who wanted to turn it into an Ayn Randian free-trade zone. He said the he is “really sick of the relentless, one-note success stories coming out of Detroit.” 

He also said he rails against the moral way in which the city is described, which he says is as a “sinner that needs to suffer.” In his book, Binelli writes, “People also love stories about Detroit because there’s something inherently pleasing about having one’s plot expectations so consistently fulfilled.”

The Night for Notables
with keynote speaker Michael Moore
5:30 p.m. April 27
$50 general admission/$150 for pre-reception
(517) 373-1300
michigan.gov/libraryofmichigan

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