Berman: Writer’s ‘Detour In Detroit’ chronicles charms

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

Francesca Berardi’s book about Detroit will almost certainly inspire knee-jerk animosity: How dare a young Italian journalist drop by for a few extended visits and then publish a 250-page book about a city she barely knows?

This is a reasonable question.

And yet, Berardi, a 31-year-old journalist raised in Turin, Italy, and transplanted to Brooklyn, N.Y., brought a combination of charm, curiosity, intelligence and humility to her not-so-humble notion of writing a Detroit book in a category you likely never considered at all. Her goal: “To write the ideal book about Detroit by a foreigner.”

Like Alexis DeTocqueville, the French political writer who visited, and described, the village of Pontiac in the early 19th century, Berardi the foreigner goes on an extended journey into a land very different from either Brooklyn or Turin — or Paris or San Francisco or any other place she had visited, for that matter. After her first trip here, in 2013, she returned home describing Detroit in the language of love, “like a crush.”

The offspring of this infatuation is “Detour In Detroit” (Humboldt Press), in which a writer who combines an open heart with a keen and educated eye offers insights even to those of us who have spent our lives trying to understand and appreciate this place, at a precipitous moment in Detroit history. How she pulled this off says something about both Detroiters (who are very welcoming) and Berardi (whose genuine interest in the world around her is palpable) .

Those whose expertise she taps — an idiosyncratic selection of Detroit icons and everyday people — do not try to resist her.

“She cold-called me,” recalls Greg Baise, curator of public programs at MoCAD, the Detroit contemporary art museum. At first put off by her interest in writing a guidebook, he was disarmed by Berardi, the journalist, almost immediately upon meeting her. “She was open-minded, wide-eyed and curious.” He takes her to BookBeat, the independent book store in Oak Park, which now carries her book. No, it’s not in Detroit, which she acknowledges, but she’s flexible, even when we may not be.

Grace Lee Boggs, the centenarian icon of Detroit progressive thinking, wanted to know if Berardi had heard of the 3D printer, even as they discussed 50 years of labor struggles and politics.

Scott Hocking, the photographer, assumed she wore a shirt decorated in a ring-necked pheasant motif because the birds are flourishing in the city’s tall grasses. She assures him that’s not the case. “In Detroit, I have only seen Canada geese,” she admits, describing Detroit “as the most rural city I have ever seen.”

Why do we need a foreigner’s view of a place we know well? Perhaps because sometimes we know it too well. You think, Detroit and Turin — where Berardi’s father worked for Fiat — are both motor capitals, a link that originally struck her, even as she found few parallels. Her observations about Detroit are startling, though, as when she describes Eastern Market’s delights, saying, “when I leave Detroit to return to New York, I always have a jar or package from that market in my luggage, something that doesn’t even happen when I leave Italy.”

Berardi doesn’t shy from difficult issues, including race, guns and urban decay. There’s even an encounter in a parking lot with a man carrying a handgun who, noticing Berardi and friend’s horror-stricken expressions, yells: “Go! Move it!”

She rode a bicycle around the city, often feeling “like I was in the countryside,” sometimes feeling intimidated, a wisp of a woman rolling on two wheels, alone, in black neighborhoods, but fighting those feelings.“It was very important for me to overcome the stereotypes of fear, the feeling of being on an empty street,” she says, during a recent interview in a Midtown coffee house. She wanted, she says, “to give the city the time it deserves to be seen, to be understood.”

That spirit, the quest to understand a place on its own terms, is infectious, reminding us that places, like people, are always changing. Sometimes it takes a guide from outside the place you know too well to remind you why you are here.