Detroit: Autopsy or Right Place to Be?

Screen Shot 2013-03-03 at 7.47.37 PMOver the course of the past two years, Detroit has become, perhaps like at no other time, an American curiosity – a microcosm of this country’s economic decay and fight for renewal.  It is quite apropos, then, that two books should appear in recent weeks, both of which examine the city’s histories, trials and tribulations, including what could have been and what might still be: Mark Binelli’s “Detroit City is the Place to Be” and Charlie LeDuff’s “Detroit: An American Autopsy.”

While both are extremely well-written and interweave Detroit’s history (dating back to its founding in the 1700s) with today’s headlines, the similarities largely end there.  LeDuff, the Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times journalist, former Detroit News writer and current Fox-2 reporter takes a bleak, gritty, autobiographical approach.  By its very name, “Autopsy” unsurprisingly but sometimes shockingly is rife with dead bodies (literally) including an overflowing city morgue, corpses in abandoned buildings and his own family’s fatal failings fueled by alcohol and poverty on the city’s southwest side.

Binelli, on the other hand, while exposing the underbelly of desolate neighborhoods, corrupt politicians and failed policies, gives equal time to the many visionaries and opportunities that exist and are being enacted in a town seeking to reinvent and rejuvenate. Ala Time magazine, which embedded journalists to report on Detroit’s “good” and “bad”, Binelli, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, returns to his hometown to live and write near Eastern Market, breathing in and reporting on in its sights, smells and especially its people.

Despite the differing approaches, both books are well worth reading.  While more dark than not, LeDuff is often a crusader against injustice – whether exposing police and fire department inefficiencies in the wake of a firefighter’s death, or writing a Detroit News piece that helps raise money for a grandmother too poor to bury her young granddaughter in the aftermath of a senseless shooting. Binelli, by contrast, takes a more ‘everyman’ approach with observations and assertions that allow us to form our own opinions – or at least contemplate what they should or could be.

I finished ‘Autopsy’ in a weekend (last) and am halfway through “Detroit City”. I strongly recommend reading them back-to-back as have I.  They are up-to-date, insightful and the ideal complement to each other and to Detroit’s current backdrop of emergency financial manager infighting and downtown business and residential living resurgence.  Perhaps, you may well think upon completing especially Binelli’s edition, Detroit City really is the place to be.