Writing Decline: Detroit City in Print
The experience of Detroit has provided ample fodder for a news media that has seen a parallel in its concatenated decline. Indeed, as the amount of full-time work in journalism has became an uncorrelated ideal, Detroit has seen a precipitous fall in the value of housing and the disappearance of what little remained of its economic base, as wages continue to be slashed in the auto industry and the public sector is privatized and dismantled. The New York Times and other media outlets have periodically sent reporters to the city, mostly to gawk and impose, rather than historicize and consider. More consistently profitable forms of media have gotten in on the act as well. The remake of The Karate Kid– largely financed by one of China’s public-private investment funds–contains ample footage of a dying Detroit in dynamic contrast with an electric Beijing. The world of high art – often immune from financial crises–has found cause to travel to Detroit as well, the post-industrial landscape being to them a pregnant canvas. (This is in tandem with an incomplete recognition of the humanity of the current inhabitants: hence the discourse of the “urban pioneer” that tends to fill the empty minds of such circles.)
Detroit’s decline has been hyped enough that it makes economic sense for those writing about place, even for struggling writers, to focus their attention there. Here I’m considering four books: two good, one bad, one of such inconsequence its inclusion here is only justified as an act of collation. Three for the general public, one academic. All of them center on decline.
On a simple demographic basis, Detroit has half the population it had at its peak, and the industrial base of the city has largely vanished. There is a worthwhile story here: the rise of the trade deficit and the decline of manufacturing in the United States is a narrative of the uneven development wrought by globalization. There is a story about the fate of this country’s urban black communities, and what rising economic inequality means in a country still largely divided on an axis of class and color. There is a story about ecology. The rise of industry and the excessive influence of the capitalist class means that today Detroit is largely, literally, poisoned. Finally, and most importantly, there are the stories of Detroiters, of those who live in a city that has been wrecked by a state far more concerned with making life comfortable for the wealthy than financing the creation of sustainable communities.
It is here that all four books – Detroit City is the Place to Be, Detroit: A Biography, The Broken Table: The Detroit News Strike and the Decline of American Labor, and Detroit: An American Autopsy – really shine. The Detroit of Motown records has never lost its lyrical voice, and in some moments the voices chosen by the writers at hand–longtime Detroit residents, witnesses to their own abandonment–are deeply moving.
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Detroit City is the Place to Be, by Mark Binelli, is deserving of the recognition it received (Publishers Weekly named it one of their Top Ten Books of 2012). Binelli is a white essayist and contributor to Rolling Stone and Men’s Journal who grew up, appropriately, in the suburbs of metropolitan Detroit. Binelli is aware that he is in the midst of an explosion of media coverage of the city, and begins the book by recording Time‘s opening of a bureau there and The New York Times starting a media project in the city.
Indeed, for outsiders Detroit seems to have become some kind of strange amalgam of clay and Shangri-La: a place that can be whatever you make it to be. You can have any narrative you want, as long as it is one of decay. Binelli is interested in avoiding the grand masterstrokes, however. He sees his work as reportage, pure and simple. He attempts to retell the stories of those who live in the city with nuance and respect and it never feels as if he uses them simply to confirm his own narrative desires. (We see unions that are too strong, a lack of a national industrial policy, the amorphous product of “decline”, in a sort of Paul Kennedy broad stroke kind of way, the blacks can’t govern themselves, etc.) His commitment to avoiding this impulse allows him to create a nuanced product that is within a certain church of journalism, but the underside to this is that systemic analysis of the situations his characters find themselves in is often lacking.
But the confluence of characters he brings us in his book is in some ways an ode to a certain kind of urbanity, and it is here where Binelli is at its best. Despite his suburban youth, Binelli is now a city-dweller residing in New York and he obviously believes that there is something unique about the city-as-city that should be prized. One of the most important passages of his book is a critique of those who call for the “rightsizing” of Detroit: a euphemism for cutting off services to large swaths of the city so as to meet the demands of austerity. In a mostly depopulated neighborhood, Binelli finds himself talking with a retired black man who cannot imagine living anywhere else, even if the city cuts him off. Binelli then writes:
The corner of Frederick and St. Aubin could be a historical reenactment of the very rural Southern past left behind by the ancestors of so many African American Detroiters, and however temptingly easy and perhaps even inevitable the romanticization of such a scene may be, it’s nonetheless not unreasonable to worry about how the best and the brightest diligently taking their pencils to the map of Detroit with the intention of “rightsizing” the place might fail to budget for this sort of thing, unthinkingly squeezing out the cherished alchemic components necessary to make a truly great city: the messiness, the clamor, the unplanned jostlings and anarchic eccentricity.
Indeed. While avoiding nostalgia, Binelli quietly points us to the fact that the direction our nation has allowed Detroit to go in puts us at risk of losing a part of ourselves that still has a truth to reveal. Binelli notes that Jane Jacobs hated Detroit, largely due to its automotive basis. It seems that Jacobs saw Detroit as a city that would make Robert Moses smile: always cars, always before people. But the different Detroiters Binelli talks with–and the Detroiters that I know–would take that view as simplistic. Cars may lessen common social spaces, but there’s no common social space like the factory floor, or the neighborhood: both of which Detroit had plenty of when Jacobs was at her heyday. The active commingling of humanity that any kind of urbanity creates can have world-historic implications: hence Motown, hence the auto industry, hence the birth of the industrial trade union movement.
An example might elucidate the phenomena I am attempting to describe. The 1970 documentary Finally Got the News was an exposition by the Detroit-based League of Revolutionary Black Workers on their theories of industrial revolution in the United States. A significant portion of the film has its leading intellectuals expounding on socialist revolution while driving around the explosive city. As someone who does not drive and generally shares Jacobs’ dim view of cars, I initially found this directorial decision surprising. But as it went on, it more seemed like the film had fit itself to the space created by the city. In spite of the supposedly reactionary content of the automobile, it was more that it became an extension of the social space – instead of inhibiting forms of social interaction, it was instead auxiliary to it. Of, but not determinative of.
And as a result, the League was not inhibited by the warped version of a city that automobility creates: the impetus for serious and debasing thought, the “unplanned jostlings and anarchic eccentricity” remained. The League continues to be one of the most exciting and sustained movements of the 60s ferment: people who truly thought about organizing the shop floor as a tool for social revolution, and who seriously thought the question of white supremacy as an inhibitor to working class organizing.
So urbanity is to be praised, including and perhaps especially that of Detroit. Binelli is right, there. But his work is not without problems. and there is a telling scene in his book that demonstrates his limitations most clearly. Here, Binelli is talking to a white man by the name of Donnie, a born and raised metro Detroiter. Donnie launches into a racist tirade arguing–among other things–that Medicaid should fund abortion and that people on welfare shouldn’t be allowed to have kids. Binelli finds himself frozen, incapable of responding. Here it seems that the role of the passive observer may have its limitations, because the thinking response to such a situation is not wordlessness, but polemic. A writer should not elide situations of moral difficulty but rather respond to them with moral force. Binelli’s descriptions of Detroit’s current political situation contain the same weaknesses. When describing the politico-economic crisis that Detroit currently faces, he seems to view the city’s impending financial bankruptcy as a helpless, intractable situation: never mind the fact that the state owes the city millions, never mind the decades of disinvestment, never mind the unbounded possibilities to be found in collective revolt.
Such problems are not necessarily indicative of systemic failures of writing, but rather expose the basic social limitations of the author. Binelli is a privileged white American, who, despite being from the Detroit area, is not from the city proper. But despite these faults, Binelli is an exceedingly talented writer, and Detroit City is the Place to Be is a very good book. Those of us who seek solutions beyond explanations, however, must look elsewhere.
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Upon completing the arduous task–amazing for a book of such short length–of completing Detroit: A Biography, by Scott Martelle, a series of questions arise. Under what economic conditions can such a book be published? Is the market for unreadable, excruciating tripe really so large as to create profit? Is the role of the editor dead? Is it fair to your long-suffering reader to begin every sentence with a conjunction? What is the character of the relationship between “bad” and “boring”? How many trees died so that this flaccid book could come into being?
To paraphrase Churchill, Martelle is a modest man. He attempts no grand narratives, he obviously is not attempting to write a grand book. He has much to be modest about. Detroit: A Biography is emblematic of the worst accusation one can lay at a book: it is a waste of time. We will not waste any more.
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Of the four books discussed here, The Broken Table is the only academic text, and it’s the only book dealing with a specific event, or series of events. Chris Rhomberg, a professor of sociology at Fordham, is steeped in the literature of academic labor studies. His book is the first full length treatment of the Detroit News strike, which began in 1995 and was not fully resolved until 2001. The central import of this book for this essay is the manner in which it discusses the decline of the labor movement–unions currently only represent 11% of the private sector workforce, down from 34% in the 1950s–as well as the decline of the profession of journalism. In large part, I view the recent draw of journalists to Detroit as a kind of projection: they see the rapid destruction of their world, and they want to look at where it has happened elsewhere.
The last thirty-five years in Detroit (and in the United States, but particularly the industrial midwest) are littered with concessionary labor contracts and failed strikes. The United Auto Workers’ abject failure to fight against concessions at the Big Three led its Canadian section to split off in the 1980s; it now has 380,000 members, down from a peak of 1.5 million. The union most commonly identified with Detroit has suffered a more significant decline than the city in which it resides. Today, Detroit is facing down an “Emergency Manager”–a postmodern term for a dictator–who is likely to abrogate union contracts.
Although the United Auto Workers did not represent any of the employees of The Detroit News–one of Detroit’s two historic newspapers–the strike is part of this narrative arc of the defeats of the labor movement in Detroit. The News, owned by the generally awful Gannett Corporation, effectively wanted to eliminate collective bargaining by instituting merit pay, dramatically limiting the seniority system, and give itself free reign to outsource work. The unions at the News–everyone from beat reporters to typographers to delivery managers–decided to strike, feeling they had no other option. Initially, the strike galvanized the Detroit labor movement: the community solidarity march with the strikers soon after the conflict began was the largest march in the city since the passage of the anti-union Taft-Hartley law in 1947. It was apparent that unions in Detroit saw the fight at the News as one that was going to soon arrive at their own shops (they were correct). Susan Watson, one of the few black columnists at the paper and a fixture of the city’s liberal-left, saw the strike as such:
My beliefs are simple: I believe that only a fool keeps her mouth shut when someone is trying to destroy her; only a coward shuts her eyes when she knows that a bully is picking on someone half his size; and only a handful of saints escape the temptation to close their eyes and seal their lips in the face of adversity.
The unions at the News fought, and they fought hard, but Rhomberg sees them as fighting on a playing field that no longer exists. While the coalition created a weekly strike newspaper (reaching circulation in the tens of thousands) organized a massive consumer and advertising boycott, and engaged in dozens of creative and daring actions (police brutality was rampant), they were still fighting a game that was more or less rigged. Beginning in the 1980s, the postwar management method of labor relations that emphasized industrial peace and governmental intervention on the basis of the protection of certain labor civil rights began to undergo a reversion. Reaganism now wrought a system of management aggression and state and judicial reluctance towards intervention, in combination with a partial privatization of the state’s repressive apparatus. (That is, increased collaboration between capital and the police: the revelations that large banks in New York were financing and collaborating with the NYPD is an example here.)
In the case of the Detroit News strike, this meant that traditional methods of labor organizing–especially when it came to building community support in combination with judicial appeals–no longer held weight. This brave new world of labor-management relations has significant implications for the mores of all fields where people work for an employer, but in media this has meant the death of journalism as a “church,” as a house with rules and standards and community, and its reintegration into a more seamless ideological apparatus for capital.
Today, labor unions find themselves in the same kind of terminal crisis as Detroit does–dwindling population combined with coordinated attacks. The state of Michigan just passed right-to-work legislation in December, which effectively decimates the financial basis of labor unions in the state. Immediately after the Mr. Potter-like comical villain of a Governor signed the anti-union legislation into law, his aides began discussing Detroit’s receivership in the media. Many labor leaders have reacted in a way presaged by Watson. Eyes closed and sealed lips, living fat and happy off of their six figure salaries. A significant majority of men in Detroit have been UAW members at some point or another: now, the union is viewed dimly, actively implicated in their city’s decline. (One specific manner in which this manifested is that UAW–even under progressive hero Walter Reuther–failed to challenge the outsourcing of work to smaller, less explosive cities outside of Detroit.)
In both the experience of living in Detroit and reading about it one gets an unshakeable feeling that the decline of labor unions and the decline of the city are inescapably forged–and that to seriously think a revived Detroit must necessarily involve a revival in the political possibilities of working people.
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These first three books all contain tragedy as a central element–a city left behind in the first, the sad conclusion of editorial malpractice in the second, a largely directionless labor movement in the third–the final book is a farce. Charlie LeDuff, a reporter for the local FOX station in Detroit and a former staff writer at The New York Times attempts and fails to imitate the best of the Gonzo journalism genre. He does succeed at making the reader view him as a clown.
Detroit: An American Autopsy is LeDuff’s take on his return to Detroit five years ago upon his hiring at The Detroit Free Press. The book is a series of vignettes, different stories he wrote and people he met since his return. A schizophrenic book, at times the prose LeDuff composes is actually halfway decent. Especially when he lets other voices come to the forefront, one theorizes that LeDuff could, in fact, be more than a mediocre writer and faux populist. Alas, those occasions are few and far between–when discussing his family, for example. The rest of the book is a rehash of his news stories designed to fit some kind of broad narrative where Detroit is a Gomorrah-like foreign country where everything has an exclamation point added to it, asking the outsider if it can really be true. These repetitive exercises, repeated ad nauseum, expose LeDuff as a weak journalist, and probably a racist as well. The kind of corruption he reveals in Detroit (skimming off the pension fund, bribery, massive waste, etc.) is common in every major American city, the perpetrators just usually happen to have an alabaster hue that somehow makes the story less interesting.
In his descriptions of the macroeconomic factors of Detroit’s current situation–the auto bailout, the decline of unions, the history of the city’s welfare structure–LeDuff is simply in over his head. Rife with errors and oversimplifications, he somehow manages to force the reader to join with him in gasping for air. It is not a pleasant experience.
Calling these rhetorical tricks “tired” would be a compliment. Oftentimes, one feels as if they are entering some kind of netherworld where all standards of reasoned thought and half-decent writing have been defenestrated with impunity. Here’s a great example, taken from a conversation between LeDuff and a homeless person:
Please gimme a dollar?” He said through a cloud of steam. I gave him fifty cents, preserving us both some dignity.
How in the fuck madness did his editor let that little ditty through? How giving a homeless person half of what they asked for preserves anybody’s dignity–especially our common human dignity–is entirely beyond me. Such flair is sadly the defining feature of this very bad book. Towards the end, LeDuff issues his final analysis of the corruption racket in Detroit: “Vanity. In the end, it was all vanity.” This is a good summation of his work: glib, and oversimplified. Also a projection, because vanity is probably the best descriptor of this wasteland of a book.
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This literature about Detroit is all from an outsider’s perspective- not one of the writers has spent the bulk of their lives inside of the city proper (the bulk of the action in Rhomberg’s book, however does take place in the suburbs). Neither have I. The fact that Detroit is a black city is in large part the reason why so many external accounts have been written but few internal accounts. While both Binelli and Rhomberg shine a helpful light (the other two authors do not), the literary imagination in the United States desperately needs further decolonization. We cannot think humanity’s common future outside a discussion of the nature of urban space, and as of now that discussion is lacking. More voices from those shunted aside by the current system-especially from Detroit-would contribute greatly to the construction of an honest and mature national intellectual life.