Urban Optimist: ND Alum Pens Book on Detroit

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hen the spring-2013 edition of IRISH, Notre Dame's alumni magazine, was published, the cover story featured a 1988 grad who is making a big name for himself as an author and journalist. Mark Binelli has written two books in his still-young career, the latest being "Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis," which is earning critical praise worldwide. Find out below what makes him tick and how Notre Dame figured into his professional life.

As anyone who has lived in southeast Michigan for more than 30 years can attest, Detroit has been a perfect metaphor for all that has gone wrong with urban America. But perhaps due to how far the city has actually fallen compared with, say, Pittsburgh, Cleveland or Newark, Detroit has nowhere to go but up. And since it is at absolute rock bottom, "saviors" from all over the world have barged into town with plans both wacky and wonderful to turn the city into a post-industrial utopia.
Because Notre Dame High School alum Mark Binelli ('88) grew up in the Detroit area and witnessed some of the city's ups and most of its downs, he is well-positioned to chronicle this story of decline. But because he is such an insightful storyteller and historian as well as an optimist (hey, you have to be an optimist to live in this town!), Binelli is even better positioned to present a sometimes hilarious and often depressing account of the fall and now rise of Detroit from fifty years of ashes.
Binelli-book cover_200pxHis new book, "Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis" (Metropolitan Books), has won all kinds of critical praise worldwide, including this from the Sunday Times in the U.K.: “. . .a clever, endlessly inventive, passionate tour through the most down-and-out, yet still plausibly possible of American cities. Like any smart observer, Binelli moves beyond urban decay clichés and has written a searching account of life in a city that embodies all the manic energy and manic failures of a nation that still dismisses its mendicant underside as a sort of character flaw. Which is why the crazed, delinquent, ever-combustible, ever-wondrous city that is Detroit remains the ongoing bad-news, bad-assed dude on the American urban landscape.” The book also was named one of Publishers Weekly's Top 10 Best Books of 2012. Locally, the Detroit Free Press named it one of 20 Michigan Notable Books for 2013. Now living in Manhattan, Binelli said he recently got back to Detroit for a book release party at the Pure Detroit store in the Fisher Building.

He just knew
For Binelli, who published his first book "Sacco And Vanzetti Must Die!" in 2006 and is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and Men’s Journal magazines, writing about Detroit was something he just knew he was eventually going to do.
"For the longest time, I assumed it would be a novel, but then I returned to the city in 2009 to cover the auto show," he said. "Detroit had become the poster city of the recession and reporters from all over the world were flying into town to file stories. I decided I could do a better job and that nonfiction would be the way to go!"
The title of the book comes from the Ted Nugent song Motor City Madhouse, according to Binelli. "But it also refers to this particular moment in Detroit's history when Detroit had really become an all-purpose metaphor for the recession and people from all over the world began looking to the city as a laboratory to try out various experiments on reinventing cities, as a place to write or make movies about, as a place to make art—you name it."
Binelli said it took him four years to write "Detroit City is the Place to Be," but he certainly hasn't been lollygagging. He's written numerous magazine articles over the years, primarily for Rolling Stone, which he says occupies more than 50% of his time. "I have a contract with Rolling Stone, so I have to write a certain number of stories per year," he said. "Which is kind of perfect—I don't have to go into an office and have lots of freedom to do things like write books."

Nuns on a bus
Most recently, this U-M and Columbia University grad wrote an article for the Nov. 22 Rolling Stone, titled "The Sisters Crusade," in which he details how a group of activist nuns—"nuns on a bus"—are pushing a number of progressive causes and, not surprisingly, pushing some wrong buttons at the Vatican.
Binelli's work with Rolling Stone also led him to interviews with many celebs and artists. "I interviewed Norman Mailer a few months before he died as well as iconic figures like Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z. Purely in terms of personality, I'd probably say I got along best with Sean Penn, Conan O'Brien and Bill Maher. These days I tend to enjoy non-celebrity stories the most, though. I did a big story on teenage marijuana smugglers a few years back, another one on global warming where I camped out on the Greenland ice sheet with a group of scientists, and last year I did a couple of long pieces on Occupy Wall Street that I'm very proud of."
Binelli also is quite proud to say he went to Notre Dame High School. He says he has very fond memories of the school: "the Irish Games, though I avoided physical activity as much as possible; "Love and Marriage" class taught by Fr. Strasz—funny what becomes a fond memory—and the cafeteria jukebox. I believe Deep Purple and Run DMC were in particularly heavy rotation back then."
While living in Detroit a few years ago working on his book, Binelli, 42, was able to get on set when the movie "Red Dawn" was filming on the grounds of NDHS. "It was surreal being back in the school during the shoot," he said. "I snuck around a bit and ended up in a classroom where, if memory serves, I took trigonometry with Mr. Johnson."

Bird of prey
He speaks highly of Notre Dame's faculty but reserves a special place for his English teacher, the late Conrad Vachon. "Everything pales before the legend of Vachon," he says. "I remember how he'd refer to Joseph Conrad as 'Joe Conrad,' and how he told us never to leave a movie before the credits ended, and of course, the poems we'd recite at the beginning of every class. Funnily enough, my girlfriend teaches high school English here in New York and I mentioned Vachon's poetry regimen—and she loved the idea and started doing it with her kids! She even used Tennyson's 'The Eagle,' the very first poem Vachon had us memorize in 12th-grade English class, which I'm sure he chose in part because he knew how much he looked like a balding bird of prey himself. So anyway, because of Vachon, now there are a bunch of tough New York City public school kids who can recite 'He clasps the crag with crooked hands. . .'"

"Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis" is available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and Indiebound. Watch for more articles by Mark Binelli in upcoming issues of Rolling Stone.

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