I wanted to think about how Detroiters struggled mightily to solve these problemshistorically, yes, but more importantly right now.
I wasn't alone. In the waning months of the Bush administration, a curious thing happened, as Michigan experienced a small but significant uptick in one very specific sector of its tourism economy: journalists started showing up. It turned out that explaining the origins of the financial crisis in any detail required elaborate definitions of complex and stupefyingly boring financial terms like credit default swap and collateralized debt obligation. But with the potential bankruptcy of General Motors, you had something tangible and wholly understandable to a layperson. We'd all at least ridden in an American car at some point, just as we all possessed opinions on various ways in which they sucked. Even better, Detroit provided the sort of breathtaking visual backdrop that shots of anxious-looking Wall Street floor traders or the exterior of Bernie Madoff's condo simply could not compete with. As the hurricane approaches landfall, journalistic convention dictates a live report from the field, wherein the correspondent must don a rain poncho and shout into a microphone while being buffeted by the elements, palm trees flailing wildly on the deserted beach in the background. A visit to the ruins of the old Packard plant or a "ghost street" of abandoned houses became the financial-collapse equivalent. It had taken the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression to do the unthinkable: Detroit had suddenly become trendy.
And so we all came. Reporters from Fortune, the Guardian, CNN, the Economist, Vice, from Tokyo and Paris, Sydney and Los Angeles. While attempting to get footage of the Packard plant, a Dutch film crew was carjacked, which itself became a news event, adding to the "Detroit so crazy!" story line in a satisfying, metanarrative kind of way. At a public school rally, I nearly bumped into Dan Rather. Was Dan Rather even on television anymore? Had he just turned up on his own dime, drawn by an old man's vampirish sixth sense to the most swollen vein in the circulatory system of the present news cycle?
Time also turned its gaze back to Detroit in 2009. This time around, the magazine had come not to engage in speculative nuclear annihilation but rather to launch Assignment Detroit, a project being billed as a bold new journalistic experimenta team of reporters would cover the city over the course of a year, living in a company-purchased home in Indian Village, one of the last remaining swank neighborhoods in the city proper. Not coincidentally, one of the first stories produced by Assignment Detroit was about how residents of such besieged neighborhoods had taken to hiring private security details to patrol their blocks. The previous fall, around the time of the auto bailout hearings, a photo essay of ruined Detroit buildings on Time's website titled "Detroit's Beautiful, Horrible Decline" had been a big hit, despite the unfortunate ordering of adjectives. The tagline of Assignment Detroit's new blog, "One year, one city, endless opportunities," also hinted, inadvertently, at the magazine's own opportunistic appropriation of Detroit's sudden chicness.
The new obsession with Detroit did not end with journalists, at least not according to the journalists themselves, who reported on how artists were also colonizing the city. Could this be a first wave of bohemian gentrification? Was Detroit the next Williamsburg? One young couple from Chicago had bought a home in Detroit for a hundred bucks. Brooklyn artists came and froze another house in a block of ice. Thanks to a nearly 50 percent tax incentive being offered by the state, Hollywood film crews also arrived, along with actors like George Clooney and Richard Gere. A glossy French fashion magazine even produced a special "Detroit issue" featuring shots of models in ruined industrial backdrops. The magazine cost twenty dollars in the United Statesor, in local terms, one-fifth of the price of a home in Detroit.
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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