Francesca Berardi proves in Detour in Detroit, an entertaining map of personal encounters, Detroit is resilient, affable and astoundingly unique.
Everyone has seen the photos. Coinciding with the dawn of shareable internet content, the photographic “ruins” of Detroit went viral. Countless slideshows offered mold, decay and expired splendor. It was apocalyptic eye candy, and the popularity of these images confirmed a conception of Detroit as the hopeless armpit of the nation. As up-and-coming writer Francesca Berardi proves in Detour in Detroit, an entertaining map of personal encounters, Detroit is resilient, affable and astoundingly unique.
Berardi points out in the introduction that Detroit is “a city for builders” and is not “a little orphan that needs to be looked after.” Since the best course of action begins with listening, that’s exactly what Berardi does. Organized into compact and cleverly named chapters, Detour in Detroit concentrates on real people living and making change. Young, old, black and white, each person represents a new angle of the city’s revitalization. There’s Leni Sinclair, a photographer of legendary rock stars who advocates for a renaissance via cannabis legalization. There’s Jason Fiedler, the tattooed proprietor of The Hub, a bike shop that teaches disadvantaged Detroiters how to build and refurbish bikes. There’s even a protracted hang-out with Derrick May, one of the founders of techno music.
In the opening chapter, “The King of a Secondhand Realm,” Berardi profiles John K. King, the eccentric proprietor of Detroit’s most famous used bookstore. In addition to highlighting his collection, which includes works signed by Albert Einstein and Allen Ginsberg, she mentions King’s love of “freshly baked bread.” It’s the specificity of details like these that make Detour such a joy to read.
Not content to simply shed light on the city’s quirks, Berardi thoughtfully debunks its social and political history. The 1967 riots, notorious for driving out the white population, are reconsidered as inevitable rebellions against the racist policies of “redlining.” The city’s depopulation isn’t an overnight crisis so much as a gradual occurrence. It’s something that’s been happening in many cities since the early 20th century. Contextualizing fraught topics such as these makes Detour as important as it is entertaining.
Combating the proliferation of liquor stores (of which there are 810), the Michigan Urban Farming Institute (MUFI) redevelops vacant land into food producing plots, bringing sustainability and access to nutrition. Berardi talks to Banika Jones, who goes by Pinky. At first, she was leery of the white kids gardening down her street. Then she needed basil. Now she displays a resilience that’s all the more potent since her two year-old daughter disappeared. In retelling Pinky’s story, Berardi admits to humility in the face of a struggle far different from her own. She pays such close attention to Pinky that she neglects her voice recorder and the sound from the interview turns out to be unusable.
Detroit is best known as the birthplace of the automobile, and Berardi’s chapter on the auto industry is one of the book’s strongest. Quoting E.B. White on the Model T of 1909, “It was the miracle God had wrought….It was like nothing that had ever come to the world before.” Thanks to affable and well-researched reporting, her notes on American innovation and industry dispel any desire to buy an imported vehicle again. Never far from the social reality, Berardi reminds readers that for all the pomp around cars, 60,000 Detroiters cannot afford one and public transportation remains a sore spot.
Detour’s coverage of Detroit locales is spot-on. Berardi visits Eastern Market, one of the oldest and biggest market districts in the United States; Belle Isle, the 982-acre park that Frederick Law Olmsted helped design; and The Redford Theatre, the 87 year-old movie house that still has an organ play during intermissions. More than a tour guide, Berardi becomes a companion. She focuses more on her surroundings than herself but when the glimpses into her personal life appear, it’s like a seeing a teacher in casual clothes. She’s smart, sweet and self-deprecating. Indeed, what makes Detour in Detroit so special is its mix of personal experience and intellectual expertise.
Photographs by Antonio Rovaldi provide an insightful visual complement to Berardi’s text. However, if the book has a weak spot, it’s the photography’s lack of clear captioning. When individuals appear, it’s hard to tell who they are and why they are relevant to the text below.
Berardi is a Brooklynite originally from Italy, though she writes with the warmth of true native. Her attraction to the city is rooted in the same curiosity anyone would feel around Detroit’s extraordinary post-industrial landscapes but whereas most people get bored or look the other way; she digs deeper, never falling back on surface impressions or easy answers.
Born and raised in a suburb of Detroit, I knew I was going to be a tough critic of Detour in Detroit. I was relieved to find that Berardi’s reporting is cautious and actively resistant to the usual sensationalism. She reminded me of all the reasons why I’m proud to be from Detroit. I couldn’t ask for more.