When Josephson reported his own story, in January 1929, the stock market crash was nine months away. Detroit's fortunes plummeted during the Great Depression, and it required nothing less than the outbreak of World War II, when the car factories were retooled as tank and aircraft plants and Detroit became known as "the Arsenal of Democracy," for the city to recover. In the case of my visit to the auto show, on the other hand, the economic free fall had been occurring in real time since the preceding summer. I arrived on the week of Barack Obama's inauguration, an incautiously hopeful moment, despite the seismic tremors of financial uncertainty. In Detroit, though, all minds were bent wholeheartedly not upon the new Fisher or Chrysler bodiesChrysler, in fact, debuted no new models at the 2009 auto show and would declare bankruptcy three months later, with GM to follow shortly thereafterbut upon questions of basic survival, as the city faced its worst crisis in decades.
For Detroit, this was saying something. Where to begin? The most recent mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, had just begun serving a three-month jail sentence, having resigned in disgrace following a sex and corruption scandal. Meanwhile, the heads of the Big Three automakers, just weeks earlier, had appeared before Congress to publicly grovel for a financial lifelinethis after personally making the nine-hour drive from Detroit to Washington in hybrid cars, atonement for flying to the initial hearing on corporate jets. (All the humiliating stunt lacked was Burt Reynolds racing them in a souped-up Prius and they might have pulled in some extra cash with a reality TV pilot.) At just over 15 percent, Michigan would have the highest unemployment rate in the nation by the end of the year; in the city, where half of all children lived in poverty and one study identified nearly half of all adults as functionally illiterate, officials estimated the true unemployment figure at closer to 50 percent. The national housing-market collapse felt like old news in Detroit by January 2009, when the Detroit Free Press ran a story about a street on the city's northeast side on which sixty of sixty-six houses had been foreclosed on or abandoned.
The school system remained the worst in the country, its administrators astoundingly corrupt. Crime had also shot back up: Detroit had the highest murder rate in the country (40.7 homicides per 100,000 residents in 2008) and was ranked by Forbes as the most dangerous U.S. city overall (based in part on a stunning 1,220 violent crimes per 100,000 residents). Yet the police department's entire crime lab had been shut down the previous fall, after a state audit found egregious levels of systemic error. Though the Devil's Night fires that plagued the city in the eighties had tapered off, Detroit still reported 90,000 fires in 2008, double the number of New York, a city eleven times as populous. A deep racial animus continued to pit Detroit's suburbs against the city (the most segregated major metropolitan area in the country)this despite the fact that the suburban sprawl largely invented by Detroit automakers had begun evincing a structural failure of its own, with foreclosure rates in once-model suburbs like Warren actually higher than Detroit's.
Detroit's own population had plummeted from a high of two million to 713,000, with an estimated 90,000 buildings left abandoned. Indeed, huge swaths of the city's 140 square miles were poised on the cusp of returning to nature. Along with the empty skyscrapers and block-long factories fallen into ruin, entire residential streets, once densely populated, resembled fields in rural Arkansas after most of the houses had either burned to the ground or ended up demolished. A friend's mother said she now carried pepper spray on her daily walksnot for protection from potential muggers, but from the packs of wild dogs she'd been seeing in the neighborhood. A coyote had just been spotted near downtown.
One afternoon, to get a better sense of the state of the city beyond the confines of the auto show, I met up with John Carlisle, the proprietor of the marvelous Detroitblog, on which he filed dispatches from some of the least-visited corners of the city. By day, Carlisle edited a weekly suburban newspaper, but online, writing as Detroitblogger John, he'd become the Joseph Mitchell of the postindustrial Midwest, ferreting out stories about vigilante ex-cops, whites-only hillbilly bars, and an old blues singer doing a healthy side business selling raccoon meat. That afternoon, we drove alongside snow-covered plains where houses once stood, what locals had begun calling the "urban prairie," and crept around the perimeter of General Motors' immense Fisher Body Plant, closed since 1984, its six floors of broken windowshundreds of them, entire blocks of themgiving the place an odd beauty, like a dried-out beehive. At the vacant lot where Motown's headquarters had been left abandoned for years, we observed a moment of silent contemplation, Carlisle recalling the time before the demolition when he'd snuck inside and stumbled across Marvin Gaye's old desk, with love notes to Gaye's wife still in one of the drawers.
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.
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