The Motor City & The Vehicle City: Talking to Mark Binelli in Flint, Michigan

In 1989, Michael Moore’s Roger & Me announced the death of the auto industry in my hometown, the birthplace of General Motors, Flint, Michigan. In the film, Moore travels back and forth from Flint to General Motor’s Detroit headquarters, demanding Chairman Roger Smith come confront Flint’s 30,000 unemployed auto workers. Unable to talk to Smith, Moore instead talks to people waiting in line to sell their plasma, single mothers being evicted, and one woman selling rabbits for “pets or meat” in a snowy backyard. Flint saw itself presented as a city of desperately poor eccentrics, and it’s been angry ever since.

If Moore captured the death of Michigan’s auto industry, the Big Three bail-out brought a wave of writers, photographers and filmmakers to exhume the bones.  Flint and Detroit—their staggering unemployment rates, sprawling blight, and political failures—satisfied a morbid curiosity about how bad things could get. The “ruin porn” images of Michigan Central Station and boarded houses became recession chic. In books like Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy and Gordon Young’s Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City, Michigan writers came home to explain how bad things were with native authority. Reading these books, it’s hard not to be plagued by that old Roger & Me uneasiness. Their professed altruism veers perilously toward sensationalism when you begin to notice how frequently the words pit bull, dope, and motherfucker (to say nothing of “muthafucka”) appear.

But maybe the trouble is less one of diction (admittedly, we do plenty of swearing) and more the flawed death metaphor. There are 700,000 living people in Detroit, 100,000 in Flint. The optimism in the title alone of Mark Binelli’s Detroit City is the Place to Be: the Afterlife of an American Metropolis is heartening. Binelli, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and native Detroiter, came back to cover the 2009 Auto Show and ended up moving into an apartment in the city’s Eastern Market district. The result is a brilliant study both of Detroit’s history and of how Detroit is dealing with its postindustrial reality.

“What happens to a once-great place after it has been used up and discarded?” Binelli asks in the introduction. “Who sticks around and tries to make things work again?” And so through Binelli, we meet urban farmers reclaiming vacant lots for community gardens, and artists like Tyree Guyton, whose Heidelberg Project has transformed Detroit’s vacant houses into public art. We meet firefighters working out of a makeshift warehouse, and girls tending goats at a magnet school for teenage mothers. Detroit City treats its subjects with such compassion that when 26-year-old Jermaine Overman observes from Binelli’s passenger side window, “This shit been fucked up forever,” it doesn’t feel exploitative or crass, but devastating.

It helps, too, that  Binelli can write a stunning sentence (on former mayor Dave Bing: “There was an appealing, ascetic quality to the new mayor—something monkish about his gauntness, his quiet dignity, his unself-conscious baldness and drooping silver mustache”).  He’s also funny (again on Bing: “He looked like an avuncular praying mantis”). The city’s history is woven into the book without much of the expected kitsch—not much Motown, no home runs slammed out of Tiger Stadium—but a thorough scavenging of Detroit’s obscurer archives. Diego Rivera is here, painting the Detroit Industrymurals while Kahlo snipes at Henry Ford at a dinner party. Detroit brought us techno, Binelli informs us, as well as the Nation of Islam, the death of Harry Houdini, and the beaver fur hats that gave 18th Century Europeans an unmistakable New World steeze.

I met up with Binelli in Flint, where he was the final guest of the Flint Public Library’s Reimagining Flint Reading Series. We began by talking about one of Flint’s earlier attempts to “reimagine” itself—the failed theme park AutoWorld.

Kelsey Ronan: So you’ve been to Flint before.

Mark Binelli: As a kid my family came up when AutoWorld was up and running. I have some fuzzy memories of making that little track. I was never really into cars, even as a little boy, so it didn’t really resonate with me very much. Then in 91 or 92 I was finishing up at [University of] Michigan and a friend of mine somehow found out that they had reopened AutoWorld, so we came out here. It was really surreal. There was nobody there. There was this giant motor, the size of a Buddha in a temple in Thailand or something. They had this weird 80s technology where they had these dioramas with mannequins representing historical figures of Flint’s past, but the faces were totally blank. They had cameras hidden somehow projecting a film of a human face. So you would walk by and press a button, and this weird face would be talking to you, and the eyes would be darting around feverishly to make eye contact with everyone in the room. It made the guys seem really crazy and terrifying. Then around the time of Fahrenheit 9/11 I did a cover story on Michael Moore for Rolling Stone. I met him up here and we went to a diner in Davison.

Ronan: Did Flint feature at all in your research? You mention the Sit-Down Strikes.

Binelli: That was it, beyond a passing reference to AutoWorld. I really had to ultimately limit myself. This book is already kind of sprawling and digressive— which is the type of book I like to read and was aiming to write—but my problem is always cutting myself off. There was an early stage when I thought I would write a whole chapter about Detroit suburbs, which could really be its own book. I had lots of other ideas, including writing about other cities in Michigan. And I also felt Michael Moore had claimed ownership of Flint and covered a lot of the bases.

Ronan: Thinking about this as the “Reimagining Flint” series, could you talk about the relationship between Flint and Detroit; how Detroit’s problems are being addressed, and how the things happening in response to Detroit’s landscape might apply in Flint?

Binelli: I think they’re applicable in lots of cities. There was just this piece in the Times about troubled cities demolishing old buildings and figuring out ways to reuse the land, and I was surprised that they only made a passing reference to Detroit as the largest of the cities doing this. In Flint, along those lines, I remember Dan Kildee coming to Detroit a couple times while I was working on this book, and hearing him speak about the Genesee County Land Bank, which is an idea Detroit is really into. I read this week you guys finally have a master plan that seems to me a similar idea to what was called Detroit Works and is now called Detroit Future City—this idea of grappling with how you reshape a city that no longer has the population and the industry and the need for infrastructure it once had. When I was growing up and for years before that, politicians were constantly looking back at this golden age, and promising constituents, “We’ll be getting back to that, don’t worry.” But I think they’re finally saying, “Look, let’s deal with reality and adapt as a postindustrial city.”  It sounds like Flint is a little bit farther along in certain ways. With the bankruptcy and the Emergency Financial Manager, some of the interesting things that were talked about with Detroit Future City have kind of stalled out, other than aspects of it that are being totally funded by private foundations or individuals.

Historically, I think, the two cities have been very complimentary. The Sit-Down Strikes here really sparked what would ultimately happen with the UAW and would change things so drastically in Detroit. And I think Detroiters like having a sister city in Michigan that is rougher. It’s kind of neck and neck who has the highest per capita murder rate. There’s a kind of friendly rivalry there, I guess.

Ronan: When I was growing up it was always, “At least we’re not Saginaw.” We called it Sagnasty.

Binelli: (laughs) You can always find one other city.

Ronan: One of the things that really resonated with me about this book is how you describe that phenomenon of “growing up with a constant reminder of the best having ended a long time ago,” and feeling really disconnected from that history. I don’t know if this is as true for Detroit, but Flint is still so engrossed in those glory days. We have Back to the Bricks, the classic car show in the summer, and the Rotary Club put up these statues of Louis Chevrolet and David Buick downtown. In the process of writing this book, did you feel there was any expectation to indulge that nostalgia?

Binelli: To a degree. I was aware of varying expectations that people bring to a book about Detroit, one being what you just described. You know those sepia-covered history books? That sepia-tinted, old photos of the glory days kind of history is something that people like in general, but that people especially like in places like Flint and Detroit that have fallen on hard times and have such rich histories. There’s also a certain element of boosterism in Detroit that can be very aggressive. If you’re not cheerleading you’re part of the problem.

The main question I asked myself was how you tell a story both as an insider and an outsider. I’m from Detroit and I know the city very intimately, and yet I couldn’t exactly write a book only for Detroiters. It would have been a very different book if it was only for Detroiters. You have to include stories that are very familiar to Detroiters. You have to over-explain certain things, contextualize certain things, and strike that balance between writing something you as an insider would find interesting and compelling and that will also be compelling to other insiders, but also have it resonate more broadly. I would write certain scenes and be convinced that I would be disappointing one of those expectations.

But beyond that awareness, I don’t think I let it affect what I wrote in a very serious way. I mostly went by my gut and went by what I would want to read. One of the reasons I wanted to write this book was that it seemed crazy to me that there had been lots of great books about Detroit, but they’d all been about very specific individuals or moments in Detroit history, and the last book that did what I was attempting to do was Devil’s Night, which was about 20 years ago. So I let that be my guide. I was expecting the other shoe to drop when the book came out, waiting for people to come out with complaints, but so far the response has been pretty good.

Ronan: That also addresses a question I had—and this might be a very Flint, very post-Roger & Me kind of question—about audience. I think there is that frustration with feeling like there’s always someone coming in to explain what your town means and who you are. I recently saw this photo collection called Welcome to Flint, and it has a lot of striking pictures, but they’re all of men in wife beaters playing dice and graffitied houses. My mom calling her cat in at night is totally not pictured. So are you writing to explain Detroit to, say, N+1 or The Atlantic, or are you writing for Detroit?

Binelli: It was an interesting line for me to be walking when I wrote the book. People would initially meet me and hear that I moved back from New York and that I wrote for Rolling Stone and initially lump me in with outsiders coming in to tell the same ole-same ole story. But I think pretty quickly I could establish my cred, I guess, by either talking about stuff I’d done as a kid or places I knew pretty intimately. Simply by staying, by not just coming for a few days and reporting from a distance, by being there and having the luxury of hanging out, people felt more comfortable talking to me, I think, and realized I was a little different from some of the other reporters and filmmakers who were coming to town, who I think people in places like Flint or Detroit are rightfully suspicious of.

I think the flipside, though, is that sometimes if you’re too deep in it, if you don’t get away enough, you can lose perspective. When I wrote about the ruins, I did wrestle with how much of that I wanted to include in the book. It’s one thing people in Detroit are especially touchy about. Ultimately, though, it’s real. If you come to the city as an outsider, it’s a shocking, striking thing. Detroiters gripe about images of the Packard Plant being over-represented in portraits of the city, and that’s totally legit. But to want to only show Indian Village and the stable middle class neighborhoods or some of the downtown development and completely ignore that other stuff is asking the journalist to commit malpractice. That’s not the reality.

Ronan: The book is very witty, but it manages it without ever seeming snarky. There’s a lot of empathy and sincerity that makes this book stand out against a lot of the things that have been written about Michigan cities in the last few years. How do you navigate that? How do you make Detroit funny?

Binelli: I looked at a lot of nonfiction writers I really love. Ian Frazier is someone who is so empathetic to whoever he’s writing about that it gives him the space to also tease the subject a little bit if he wants to, and let them be themselves, and he can describe them in a way that the reader might find humorous. If you were approaching that subject from more of a distance, you would come off as some East Coast asshole mocking the rubes, but you never feel that way with someone like Frazier. He’s brimming with empathy for whatever it is he’s writing about. And I know the kind of stuff that appeals to me personally and what irritates me. Easy snark or….

Ronan: Pit bull jokes?

Binelli: Yeah, it’s tired. There’s a lot that you can say about Flint or Detroit that’s been said a million times. So it helped that—and you’re probably the same way—as someone who’s obsessively interested in my hometown I’ve read a lot of the magazine stories and books about Detroit, so some of that tonal stuff I’ve seen so often it’s easy to avoid. And one of the appealing things to me is the fact that Detroit is such a weird place. I didn’t want to write a policy book, and I didn’t want to write some dystopian gloom and doom postindustrial narrative—I wasn’t shying away from that stuff, but just purely as a writer, I liked the idea that Detroit—unlike, say, New York, where there’s such a high concentration of writers living there pouring over every inch of the city you sometimes feel like it’s hard to find anything new– I felt like in Detroit there were a lot of weird forgotten corners that I could explore. There was naturally just humor in those situations.

Ronan: I was thinking about how much time in the book is spent driving around with people. In one of my favorite scenes, you’re driving around with [former mayor] Kwame Kilpatrick listening to Ludacris. So I was thinking about that—not just how surreal that is—but how you talk about Kilpatrick bringing a certain energy, and how before things came to light about Kwame, he was really exciting.  So thinking of Kwame as the “hip hop mayor,” Mike Duggan would then be the…

Binelli: The would-be Bloomberg, I guess? I think that’s the idea—they want a technocrat that can be ruthlessly competent and fix everything. Bing, who came in-between, was more of the anti-Kwame. You couldn’t have picked someone more opposite: he’s older, beanpole basketball player versus football player. He was a terrible speaker. There is no way he could charm you into doing something or believing something that you shouldn’t, unlike Kwame. And ultimately that didn’t work out for many reasons, despite the best of intentions that Bing had. Duggan seems like a fairly impressive guy. I just learned, actually, that the guy I write about toward the end of the book, Bryan Barnhill, this young guy who came back to the city and worked for Charles Pugh, was Duggan’s campaign manager. He’s 27 years old. That’s a really impressive feat, but also a nice extension of a couple of more optimistic notes I hit at the end of the book.

Ronan: There’s quite a bit of autobiography threaded into the book. I love the description of your family’s immigration from Italy, and that lovely little piece about seeing Vic Chesnutt at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Was there ever a pull to write something closer to memoir?

Binelli: At the outset I was very adamant about not wanting to write a memoir at all. I insisted to my editor that I wasn’t going to put in much personal stuff at all. But at that point I was still assuming I would approach the book more like a series of magazine pieces. I thought I would basically still be living in New York  and just come to town and report on whatever I wanted to report on and then leave. But pretty quickly I realized I would have to put part of my own story in, and I went back and forth on how much or how little. Again, it’s one of those things where sometimes if you give the reader a little taste of that memoir-y stuff they want more, and it becomes too much of a thwarted expectation to just cut that out and shift gears to a straight profile of someone else.

There was one early draft where I had these interstitial scenes between the longer chapters that were almost written like journal entries, where I was just talking about whatever I was doing. I thought that would create some forward momentum. But I sometimes get hung up on structure. Even in my MFA when I wrote short stories I would make them overly complicated. Playing around with structure is very appealing to me, but I also get lost in it. Ultimately I had to pare it back.

But I’m glad you mentioned Vic Chesnutt, because that was one that was digressive in a way that another editor might have pushed me to cut, because it really isn’t needed, but I liked having a few off notes like that. There’s plenty of personal stuff that happened that I wanted to include but ultimately didn’t. My first month in Detroit my next door neighbor was found dead. That was probably the moment I thought, “I might have to put some of this in the book, it’s just too weird.” I came home one afternoon after I’d been out reporting. I’d hung out with this strange guy, this DJ that calls himself DJ Blackman. He used to be Kid Rock’s DJ. I’d met him years earlier and he was really excited to see me. He was like, “This is going to be great! You’re writing a book! We’re going to be partners! This is going to be like a buddy movie! I can take you anywhere!” I got really excited at first, then I thought, wait, I don’t know if this guy’s legit. He was an interesting guy, but not for my purposes in the book. I was hanging out with him that afternoon at his store where he sells pan-African tchotchkes. He had a little bar in the back and he was giving me whisky in the middle of the day. So I was kind of buzzed, and I got home to find all these cops on my block. My downstairs neighbor was sitting on the curb really distressed, and told me he’d found my next door neighbor’s body.  This was a woman who I’d only met once. She was never really around much. Being in a place like Detroit, reading about death all the time, to suddenly have it literally next door… People didn’t know what happened at first—and it turned out to have been natural causes—but it was a really surreal night.

Lots of little things like that happened along the way. It was a fun exercise choosing which of those to drop into the book, and where, and what would be too much.

Ronan: This might sound pretentious, but I wondered if you had a sense of responsibility as a Michigan writer. I’m thinking of Charlie LeDuff’s book which starts with him a dead body frozen in an elevator shaft, and it seems like throughout someone’s always, you know, coming out of a methadone clinic or asking him for money, and there’s so… not that in this book. Is there a conscious division between wanting to present Detroit in an optimistic light but also having to be honest?

Binelli:  I end the book cautiously optimistic, though at the outset I didn’t have that as an agenda. If I had had LeDuff’s experience I would have put that in the book. I don’t think I shy away from some of the more horrible aspects of life in Detroit, but I think it was important for me to also tell other stories. As a daily newspaper reporter, the stories you’re drawn to and the stories that need to be told are the stories that end up being freakish and unusual—murders and things not working the way they’re supposed to. But when you have the luxury of a book, you can show there are 700,000 people living in Detroit and it’s not constant gunfire and misery and craziness. And part of it was living there made me a part of it, biking around, taking walks in places I initially thought were scary just driving through.  I wanted to convey the normalcy of some of those neighborhoods.

Ronan: I think the encapsulation of that for me was that wonderful moment where you’re reading  near the river and this guy—Tony— comes up and starts talking to you. When he shows you his machete under his shirt, I thought, “Well, this is the part of the book where Mark Binelli dies,” but really he just wanted to talk to you about the John Irving novel he was carrying around with that machete.

Binelli: (laughs)

Ronan: Your first book [Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!] was a novel, and I read in a couple interviews that you thought you’d write a Detroit novel at some point. Do you still think you will?

Binelli: I can see setting a book in Detroit. I could see not writing a novel about Detroit, which was my initial idea, but using it as a setting, like Elmore Leonard, for instance, does so masterfully. There’s just so much there and it’s such a rich tapestry. But for the short term I don’t want to rush back into doing more Detroit stuff. I’ve been happily talking about Detroit, and I think it would be interesting to come back and profile Mike Duggan and write some other stories. I have a second novel I’m messing around with right now about Screamin Jay Hawkins, so no Detroit stuff.

Ronan: It’s interesting how the Michigan thing becomes a kind of stigma. I went to see Jeffrey Eugenides in Indianapolis a month or so ago, and he read this short story that had nothing to do with Detroit. But you could see this exiled Michigan contingent in the audience waiting for him to finish—

Binelli: So they could ask him about Detroit?

Ronan: Yeah. In the introduction you talk about your adolescent excitement about Detroit references in songs. Is there a literary equivalent to that? Do you have any favorite Michigan writers?

Binelli: Elmore Leonard is someone I discovered kind of late. I’d just moved back and went on a binge of all his Detroit books. I love those 70s and early 80s Detroit books of his. City Primeval might be my favorite. Unknown Man #89, which was also written around that time, is also great. It’s fun to hear him describe places I know very well but through this 70s prism. In a way I see them in their heyday, but it was also already an edgy, dangerous place.

After the reading, waiting to have my book signed. I eavesdropped on a woman explaining to Binelli the difference between Flint-style and Detroit-style coney dogs. Binelli hadn’t had a Flint-style, he admitted, but he said he liked Halo Burger, a Flint burger chain that has Vernors ginger ale on the menu and a dead cow as its logo. “You’ll have to come back and get yourself one,” the woman insisted. Binelli smiled, but it was hard to tell how enthused he was about that hot dog.

I went back home, under the Vehicle City arches, past the statue of Louis Chevrolet with the Flint Rotary Club’s not unwriterly ethos inscribed on its base (“Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned?”), past the new creperie boasting produce from Flint’s hoop houses. I went west through Chevy in the Hole, the massive industrial complex where the men of Chevrolet Plant #1 sat down until the United Auto Workers were recognized, all of it steamrolled now. Over a thousand trees were recently planted there in a phytoremediation effort, and a sign on the chain-link fence announced, “Reclaiming Chevy in the Hole.” Seeing those frail trees, charged with the seemingly impossible task of sucking up a century’s poison, I thought of the final chapter of Detroit City is the Place to Be. Reading a visitor’s guide to Detroit written in 1899 promising “Our skies are as fair as those of Italy,” Binelli says he’s struck by “reminders of how long people had been waiting to feel this city was blessed, and of the poignant distance between that need and our reality.”

You could call it naiveté, but as Binelli finally asks, “Why not again?”

By Kelsey Ronan