Mark Binelli’s The Last Days of Detroit: The Life and Death of an American Giant (2013) is an astonishing chronicle of Detroit from the initial days of the French settlers, to the arrival of Henry Ford in 1913, the racial unrest in 1967, and the present-day hipster arrivistes who’re trying to resurrect the city.
Binelli characterizes the eeriness of the city’s many impoverished neighborhoods, the administrative corruption, and the underperforming public schools—all climaxing in the city’s bankruptcy in 2013. “Ruin porn” from Detroit evocatively exposes once-majestic, now-decaying buildings and factories overgrown with prairie grasses and wildflowers and on the brink of collapse.
Binelli outlines how Detroit became the hub of industrialized America. Detroit’s decay really began well before 1967, when the racial riots made it worse. In the 1950s, carmakers and their suppliers moved production out of the city to places with cheaper labor and land. Industrial automation superseded low-skilled jobs. The flight of middle-class residents out of Detroit—to its suburbs and beyond—distressed the city’s tax base and left the poorest, more vulnerable residents to fend for themselves.
Binelli includes stirring and occasionally heart-warming interviews with many residents—teachers, volunteer firefighters, students, clerks, union leaders—and a few Detroit figures who’ve become part of the local folklore.
What is particularly bleak about The Last Days of Detroit is how Detroit has become a symbol of the decline of America. In Binelli’s analysis, there’s barely anything particularly grave about Detroit—ongoing socioeconomic changes could reproduce Detroit’s decay anywhere else in the post-industrial West.
Recommendation: Read Mark Binelli’s The Last Days of Detroit (2013). It’s a fabulous piece of Americana.