MLA Gold Award Site

Excerpt from Detroit City Is the Place to Be by Mark Binelli, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Detroit City Is the Place to Be

The Afterlife of an American Metropolis

by Mark Binelli

Detroit City Is the Place to Be
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Nov 2012, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2013, 336 pages

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt


And yet Detroit's almost mythic allure isn't solely about misery. People have been drawn to The City Where Life Is Worth Living (an actual non-ironical historical nickname*) since the golden age of the automobile. To commemorate the 1927 rollout of the Model A, for example, the modernist photographer and painter Charles Sheeler was hired by an advertising firm to spend six weeks at Ford's gargantuan River Rouge plant, the largest factory in the world, with ninety-three buildings, sixteen million square feet of floor space, and 120 miles—miles!—of conveyor belt. Sheeler shot the plant the way an eighteenth-century painter might have depicted the interior of a cathedral, the elemental, almost sanctified vastness a seemingly intentional reminder of man's insignificance in the presence of God—or, in this case, Mr. Ford. "Our factories," Sheeler later wrote, "are our substitute for religious expression." † While touring America in 1935, Le Corbusier also stopped in Detroit, requesting immediately upon his arrival his own tour of the Rouge. In his book Cathedrals, he wrote of being "plunged in a kind of stupor" after leaving the plant. He was convinced Detroit's factories would be where his mass-produced "homes of the future" might one day be built.

On the opposite end of the reactive spectrum, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, then a young doctor working for the League of Nations, visited Detroit in 1927 to report on the health conditions of workers at Ford's factories. Appalled by what he witnessed, Céline recorded the degradations of the assembly line in his report and, subsequently, in his novel Journey to the End of the Night. The book's protagonist, Ferdinand, describes the factories where he seeks work as resembling "enormous dollhouses, inside which you could see men moving, but hardly moving, as if they were struggling against something impossible. . . . And then all around me and above me as far as the sky, the heavy, composite, muffled roar of torrents of machines, hard wheels obstinately turning, grinding, groaning, always on the point of breaking down but never breaking down." Later, while receiving a medical examination preliminary to being hired, Ferdinand informs the doctor that he, too, is an educated man. "Your studies won't do you a bit of good around here, son," the doctor says, shooting him a dirty look. "We don't need imaginative types in our factory. What we need is chimpanzees. . . . Let me give you a piece of advice. Never mention your intelligence again!"

In 1929, the New York monthly Outlook sent the poet and journalist Matthew Josephson to cover the auto show. A leftist intellectual (and a fierce critic of Henry Ford) who had just published a biography of Zola, Josephson writes of the city with scorn and condescension, but also with undeniable awe, in the same manner one might marvel at the aesthetics and scale of, say, an SS rally as filmed by Leni Riefenstahl. After noting Detroit's unlikely possession of one of the original castings of The Thinker, which still glowers distractedly from the steps of the Detroit Institute of Arts, Josephson proceeds to frolic in the irony of Rodin's masterpiece brooding at the heart of a city in which thought, to Josephson's mind, "has somehow been circumvented": "Something that was automatic, something that ran by an internal combustion engine had taken its place. In fact a new word was needed to express the trance, the fearful concentration with which all men awaited the approaching Automobile Show. . . . No one thought of the human body, or the body politic. All minds were bent wholeheartedly upon the new Fisher or Chrysler bodies."

And yet, unhappily, Josephson also recognizes the brute power of a metropolis that he says has "no past . . . no history." He calls Detroit "the most modern city in the world, the city of tomorrow." This is not meant as a compliment.

* * *

In January 2009, precisely eighty years after Josephson's hysterical dispatch, I returned to Detroit on an identical assignment, to cover the approaching Automobile Show—and, more broadly, the collapse of the domestic auto industry—for Rolling Stone. My family still lived in the suburbs, so even though I'd moved away in 1993, I had continued to visit regularly. All the while, Detroit had remained Detroit, a grim national punch line. In the eight decades since Josephson's account of the city's vulgar ascendance, my hometown had gone from being a place with "no past . . . no history" to becoming one that barely possessed a present and certainly had no future. At least not the version of the city Josephson witnessed, that city having become entirely history by this late date, the very word Detroit threatening to turn into one of those place-names that no longer immediately signifies place but rather, like Pompeii, Hiroshima, or Dresden, the traumatic end of one.

Excerpted from Detroit City Is the Place to Be by Mark Binelli. Copyright © 2012 by Mark Binelli. Excerpted by permission of Metropolitan Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  Detroit's Memorable Murals

Member Benefits

Join Now!

Check the advantages!
Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year

    •  
    • FREE
    • MEMBER
    • Range of media reviews for each book
    • Excerpts of all featured books
    • Author bios, interviews and pronunciations
    • Browse by genre
    • Book club discussions
    • Book club advice and reading guides
    • BookBrowse reviews and "beyond the book" back-stories
    •  
    • Reviews of notable books ahead of publication
    •  
    • Free books to read and review (US Only)
    •  
    • Browse for the best books by time period, setting & theme
    •  
    • Read-alike suggestions for thousands of books and authors
    •  
    • 'My Reading List" to keep track of your books
    •  

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: The North Water
    The North Water
    by Ian McGuire
    In early 1859 the crew of the Volunteer, a Greenland-bound whaler, is making the most of the last ...
  • Book Jacket: City of Secrets
    City of Secrets
    by Stewart O'Nan
    In his new novel, City of Secrets, Stewart O'Nan spins a tale of espionage and intrigue as ...
  • Book Jacket: The Atomic Weight of Love
    The Atomic Weight of Love
    by Elizabeth Church
    A prologue set in 2011 introduces readers to this novel's unforgettable narrator. Meridian ...

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    The Children
    by Ann Leary

    With remarkable wit and insight, Ann Leary pulls back the curtain on one blended family.

    Read Member Reviews

Members review books pre-publication. Read their opinions in First Impressions

Win this book!
Win The Weekenders

The Perfect Summer Escape!

Told with Mary Kay Andrews' trademark blend of humor and warmth.

Enter

Book Discussions
Book Jacket
Girl Waits with Gun
by Amy Stewart

An enthralling novel based on the forgotten true adventures of one of the nation's first female deputy sheriffs.

About the book
Join the discussion!
Word Play

Solve this clue:

B A Usual

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.