Reading Detroit's Decline

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Detroit became, yesterday, the biggest American city to file for bankruptcy, capping a decades-long decline for the Motor City. There are questions, today, about how this happened — and what will happened next. A recent crop of excellent books about Detroit has grappled with precisely these issues. Below, some of the best titles on the tragedy of Detroit, as well as its hopes of renewal. 

Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, Mark Binelli

Binelli is a Detroit native who is now a staffer at Rolling Stone. He returns to the bustling city of his youth to find empty lots and abandoned houses. But, in a departure from the common narrative about Detroit, Binelli sees renewal all about him. Moreover, not all hope springs from vegan cupcake bakeries. He makes a smart argument for a city that is forward-looking and inclusive.

The Ruins of Detroit, Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

Beautiful, haunting, unreal — and expensive, too, though this book is easily worth $80 dollars. The two French photographers spent five years photographing Detroit, from 2005 to 20010, and the results are as revealing as any words you're likely to read on a page. From the hollowed-out Michigan Central Station (right, on cover of book) to dilapidated Victorian houses, these photographs are suffused with tragedy

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On their website, the photographers write, "Detroit presents all archetypal buildings of an American city in a state of mummification. Its splendid decaying monuments are, no less than the Pyramids of Egypt, the Coliseum of Rome, or the Acropolis in Athens, remnants of the passing of a great Empire."

Heart Soul Detroit, by Jenny Risher (photographer) and Matt Lee (editor)

Another beautiful book, this one focusing on the city's people, not buildings. For while the latter may have fallen into disrepair, Detroit can still boast plenty of talent to call its own, from the rapper Eminem to former Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders to model Veronica Webb — along with 47 others. And though many have left, they are a testament to Detroit's place in American culture, which will endure even as this latest crisis washes over the troubled city.

Detroit: An American Autopsy, Charlie LeDuff

The title alone suggests a somber take on a city that has all but emptied since the 1950s, when its population nearly reached two million. LeDuff is almost as troubled as his native city, and he is unsparing in his treatment of Detroit's plight. And he thinks that that plight is a warning, too: "You better look at Detroit, because that’s what happens when you run out of money," he once told Stephen Colbert. The New York Times called his book "often terrific."

Made in Detroit: A South of 8 Mile Memoir, Paul Clemens

In many ways, this 2006 book was the first in the most recent crop of Detroit memoirs (most of which, it should be said, have been written by white men; make of that what you will).  Clemens comes from a lower-middle-class background, writing of men like his father: "There was nothing the men couldn't build, nothing they couldn't fix, no problem they couldn't solve—and it would never do them a bit of good economically." Clemens not only knows Detroit but, just as importantly, knows how to write.


This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.