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The Last Days of Detroit

The recent fate of Detroit is like a Rorschach inkblot test for commentators. The arty books of eerie post apocalypse cityscapes, the decline of the manufacturing in the West as the big three car manufacturers are brought low. The ineptitude of successive local and national administrations failing to address the issues, white flight to the suburbs, the black home of Motown over-run by crime and urban blight.

Mark Binelli is a writer for Rolling Stone and grew up in Detroit in the seventies. He approaches the subject of Detroit with a friendly indulgent eye, pulling together stories, incidents and characters in the polished style of an entertaining magazine feature writer. It is to his credit that he avoids naming and shaming the usual suspects, for the most part he can see the good in people and where they are coming from.

Despite the downbeat, post apocalypse subject matter, the book refuses to wallow in gloom, people are resilient, there is always hope. I particularly enjoyed his sceptical look at the renaissance of urban farms, covered by the entire world’s media, but no one wants to help, nor even to bother the sole determined urban farmer. The Kindle version is well put together, no obvious typos or formatting issues.

The insightful and engaging pace falters slightly with a flabby last section, but overall this is such a good book, it is tempting to buy a copy just to leave it lying around for others to read. A book to enjoy and share.
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VINE VOICEon 23 March 2013
.......was the reply the author received when responding to a Detroit firefighter asking if the book was to be fiction or non-fiction. His statement is close to the mark; it is truly almost too difficult to comprehend and believe in the collapse of what was once, the United States’ fourth largest city.

Binelli skilfully intermingles the reasons behind Detroit's demise with descriptions of the broken landscape and personal anecdotes, given by its remaining citizens. He charts a collapse into a nightmare world where the public services that we mostly take for granted (police, firefighting, education, street lighting etc), are near non-existent. A city where the shrunken population, too often composed of the disadvantaged unable to escape, is insufficient to service the city’s debts. Many just simply exist in the urban wasteland, zombie like, scraping a living from the many salvage opportunities.

But within this nightmarish apocalyptic scene, individuals come up with creative schemes for the future. Urban farms, plans to shrink the city limits to contain the populace in a more viable space, schemes to attract high tech industries and voyeuristic tourism are all fully described.

Born in Detroit, Binelli is easily able to mingle with its residents to extract their views and experiences. He knows where to dig to uncover stories of many unsavoury acts of its citizens both private and corporate. He paints a picture that is perhaps a pointer to the future for other cities unable to adapt to changing times.

Potentially a dark topic, Binelli makes this immensely readable. So readable, perhaps even those employed to represent us could understand and learn from it.
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I have never been to America, let alone Detroit, but I have a vested interest in America because of a shared culture, and some of that culture came from Detroit. It is so sad to learn about the state of the city in 2013, but even as the author (who was born in Detroit after the good times were over, and lived there for many years) paints a grim picture, he sees hope for what he found on a return visit.

Prior to buying this book, I only knew of Detroit specifically for its car industry (now a shadow of its former self), Motown (who were already beginning a long, slow decline when they moved to Los Angeles in the seventies, but failed to arrest that decline) and the song Detroit City, which became an international pop hit for Tom Jones. Those specifics aside, I knew where to find Detroit on a map of North America, and I assumed it was fairly typical of large American cities, with a multi-racial population and plenty of skyscrapers. In 2013, I heard about the city going bankrupt and soon afterwards bought this book. I was appalled to find out the truth about Detroit, which is very different now from what it once was.

I think most, perhaps all, of the individual problems described in this book have occurred at some time or other elsewhere, including in Britain. However, the sheer scale of the decline is on a far greater scale. However, like the author, I see some hope for the future, but it won't be easy. Given that I am somewhat older than the author, I don't think I'll live to see Detroit return to greatness, but I might live long enough to see clear signs of a recovery.

The author does not devote a lot of space to the early history, but gives a basic outline. Most of the book is, as I'd expected, about the decline of this once mighty city, with its ideal location where a river flows into one of the Great Lakes near the international border between the USA and Canada - an ideal location for an industrial city. Industry thrived until the second half of the 20th century. The author suggests the decline may already have started by the time the first Motown record charted, but the first sign of decline that the outside world noticed was the riot of 1967. From what this book says about that riot, I think there have been plenty of bigger riots in Britain. As such, I am inclined to agree with the author that the riot did not begin the decline.

As the decline continued, it fed upon itself as those who could afford to move out of Detroit did so, leaving the inner city area to those who couldn't. This kind of thing has happened in Britain, but not on the same scale, possibly because Britain is a very small country by comparison, and therefore suburban sprawl is more limited. Detroit could not expand to the south or east, but when people wanted to leave, there was room to the north and west.

Detroit, like the old Roman Empire, is becoming famous for its ruins, the most famous being the old Michigan Central Railroad station. It was built in a grand style, but closed in 1988 and now decays gradually. All very sad, but at some point it will either be demolished or restored for some other use. Restoration would cost a fortune so I assume it will be demolished eventually.

Problems became ever more difficult to address, and these were complicated by the different political units at city level, suburban level and state level. The federal politicians scarcely get a mention, but they try to stay out of local issues as far as possible. So Detroit struggles on with a decreasing population and a decreasing income, with no easy way to reverse the trend - but as the author indicates, there is hope.

Some plots of land have been returned to agriculture, while artists and others have moved in out of curiosity. I'm not sure if these are the answers, but there is plenty of space, and orthodox methods of regeneration are also being tried.

There are other books about Detroit's problems, but this one told me what I wanted to know. I really hope that solutions are found to Detroit's problems.
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on 18 April 2013
I'm grew up the 'burbs of Detroit, but have lived in the UK for 25 years. This book was great at putting what I knew in context, but also put some of the things I thought I knew in the dustbin. The tale is a sad, often heartbreaking one but thankfully not one without hope. Should be required reading for anyone from or with an interest in the Detroit metro area.
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VINE VOICEon 3 July 2014
I’m tired of the images of decaying Detroit that have spawned a rush of coffee-table books, press stories and online photo-galleries of the city, once the fourth largest one in the USA with the claim to fame of being the heartbeat of industrial USA.

This book, in contrast to many, is written by a native of the city who accepts its past without an explanation of its woes, and is focused on the next stage.

Binelli has a refreshing and vigorous commitment to the future- whether urban farming projects, crime solutions or managing the industrial legacy- giving excellent examples of the green shoots of many projects across the city.

It makes for a refreshing and heartening read, providing inspiration to any post-industrial city suffering from the same symptoms as Detroit.
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on 5 February 2013
This book, written with amazing lack of bias but with great insight, is in the end quite chilling. One has been vaguely aware of the ramifications of the collapse of the U.S. car industry for this once great city but much of this is quite a shock. The way that rampant capitalism has blighted people and place is quite frightening. As the 'American Dream' becomes living nightmare the culpability of corrupt politicians and heartless administrators beggars belief as even the most basic services to communities are abandoned.
There are many lessons here, to which many in the U.S. seem blind, let us sincerely hope that this blight does not cross the Atlantic.
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on 17 July 2014
As a former Detroiter now living in the UK, I found this book entertaining, enlightening and educational. Written by an "insider" makes the less palatable aspects of what Detroit has become easier to digest, as it is non-judgmental and even compassionate. If you're a logophile like me, you'll appreciate the delicious vocabulary used throughout. Honest, witty and ultimately hopeful.
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on 29 May 2013
This is quite an informative book and there are some interesting human stories. I just felt like the book itself didn't live up to the name or the front cover picture. If you're looking for a definitive reason why Detroit is in it's current state then this probably isn't the book to buy. However, if you want some new angles and interesting yarns about the city and it's people then give it a go, you won't be disappointed.
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on 2 July 2015
Quite an emotional read, actually. Binelli recounts a moving tale of the city's downfall through personal histories. You quickly get involved and attached to the narrative, even though it's technically a non-fiction book.
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on 9 March 2013
The decline of Detroit has been covered often by the media and locals are unsurprisingly unhappy at the coverage their city receives from journalists who are only passing through. However, this is almost certainly the best book that you will read on the subject, partly because Binelli is a Detroit native and partly because he's an excellent writer, bringing wit and humour where appropriate even to a serious subject. What has happened to Detroit is a salutary lesson to other American and Western cities but their is hope among the gloom as a group of pioneers attempt to construct a post-capitalist society. Overall, well worth a read.
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