Since the 1990’s, Detroit has been the subject of many insightful books. From Thomas Sugrue’s landmark The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Post-War Detroit (1996) to Mark Binelli’s recent Detroit City is the Place to Be, the steady decline of a once great American metropolis has captured the attention of some of our best urban writers. I think rewarding books on Detroit keep being written because the meaning of its decline changes with the times. Today, what many find intriguing about Detroit is that its worsening poverty and dysfunction stands in sharp contrast to the increased prosperity and gentrification seen in much of urban America. Binelli offers his own thoughtful take on Detroit’s decline, and perceptively assesses how the futuristic plans for a “green” or “urban farming” Detroit often ignore that the city would still include high numbers of poor people. Unlike other cities, Detroit never displaced its low-income residents, and is the nation’s largest case study of federal neglect toward urban America. Detroit’s problems are not being solved for the same reason high crime and unemployment still plague urban neighborhoods even in prosperous cities: the lack of political will to transform the situation.

As I began reading Mark Binelli’s wonderful new book, I realized that many popular works about urban America involve tragedies or vision of urban dystopias. The two leading books on New York City, Robert Caro’s The Power Broker and Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, both are driven by Robert Moses’ destructive agenda. Mike Davis had two bestselling books projecting a nightmarish future for Los Angeles (City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear), and Rebecca Solnit chronicled the negative impact of San Francisco’s late 1990’s dot com boom in Hollow City.

But no city provides a more tragic backdrop than Detroit. And this helps explain why Mark Binelli could come up with such a compelling account despite other recent books on a city where a Republican-appointed state administrator, not the democratically elected local government, now primarily calls the shots.

Rebranding Detroit

As Thomas Sugrue showed, Detroit’s decline began decades before the fabled 1967 riots. This has led the city to engage in an almost fifty year rebranding process, that continues to this day. Binelli observes that “now much of the attention being showered on Detroit from the trendiest quarters came in no small measure thanks to the city’s blight.” It is a phenomenon he describes as “ruin porn.” Media swoop in to profile ruined and abandoned buildings, and photo-journalists have come to treat Detroit as a modern version of Pompeii, or the Acropolis.

Binelli writes that “a link to a titillating shot of Detroit’s architectural dishabille should always be counted to rise to the top of your website’s ‘most emailed’ lists, which was of course the bottom line.” Detroit’s ruins became “a convenient recession-year symbol for the end of the American Dream,” as primarily white reporters romanticize the demolished buildings and rat-infested neighborhoods in which the city’s overwhelmingly African-American residents live.

Binelli is more subtle than fellow Michigander Michael Moore, but his indictment of those seeking to rebrand a large African-American city as a theme park for exploring creative class urban fantasies is clear. Binelli is acutely aware of how the media uses tawdry symbols like public urination or half fallen down buildings to stigmatize low-income communities even while they claim to simply be exposing the “truth.” What they are actually doing is enabling outsiders to avoid responsibility for the conditions they are seeing, as exposing of this harsh “reality” contributes to its perpetuation.

The Future of Detroit

Binelli, an editor at Rolling Stone, is a superb writer. I was not looking to read another book about Detroit, but after starting I could not put his work down. Binelli describes Detroit’s past, present and future exactly as he sees it, with no key facts omitted to reach pre-determined conclusions.

Binelli’s honesty is particularly compelling when he ends the book feeling positive about Detroit’s future. He notes, “Of course, it would be easy to end this book on a different note. Any number of the city’s grisly headlines could be plucked and highlighted, and not unrepresentatively, either. {But} The truth is, my optimism was proving tenacious, I couldn’t say why.”

The readers know why. Binelli has enlisted them in rooting for Detroit to succeed, and by readers share his goal of wanting a fair shake for hard-working Detroiters. While he shows the worst of the city’s population, he demonstrates that most residents are victims of corporate America’s, and the federal (and now state) government’s, failure to provide Detroiters with safe and affordable housing, a quality education, and decent paying jobs.

Yet for all of his success in bringing the real Detroit alive, it is hard to share his optimism.

In a chapter, “Austerity 101,” Binelli describes Highland Park, a city of only three square miles just outside Detroit. It is officially the poorest in Michigan. Its library system closed in 2002, it had to give up all its streetlights, and it abolished its police department (its functions were outsourced to the County Sherriff’s Department). Highland Park’s NAACP head told Binelli, “You want to see what Detroit’s going to look like when the auto industry leaves? Come to Highland Park. It’s Detroit writ small.”

With Michigan’s Tea-Party backed Republican Governor now indirectly controlling Detroit’s financial affairs, the city faces stark new challenges. And with the federal government blocked by Republicans from new urban investment, Detroit’s future may depend as much today on the auto industry’s success as in the glory days of the past.

Binelli’s brilliant reportorial skills enable readers to place the tragic decline of a once great working-class city in the broader context of decades of government neglect of the urban poor. Whether you are unfamiliar with the basics of the Detroit story, or have read everything previously published on the city, Detroit City is the Place to Be is an exceptional read.

Randy Shaw is Editor of BeyondChron. He is the author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century