Detroit: An American Autopsy. By Charlie LeDuff. Penguin, 2013. ISBN: 978-0-14312446-7.
Charlie LeDuff’s portrait of Detroit is horrifying and uncompromising. It’s guys who take $20 and the promise of a truck to torch a house, of street walkers turning tricks inside of derelict auto factories, of fried corpses hanging from the live wires they tried to strip for copper, of a dead man chucked down a shaft and frozen in a block of ice, of police cars without radios, and fire fighters with holes in their boots. Forget Motor City; it’s Murder City USA. The auto plants are mostly gone and the few jobs that remain pay $14 an hour, which adjusted for inflation, “…is three cents less than what Henry Ford was paying in 1914 when he announced the $5 day. And, of course, Ford isn’t hiring.”(6)
Who would want to live there, let alone do what LeDuff did: walk away from the New York Times to write a book, move from the warmth of Los Angeles to Michigan in the dead of winter, and take a job with the Detroit News? It might be home, but Detroit? After all, Le Duff’s book is subtitled An American Autopsy. There’s no money to be made in Detroit, unless you’re a politician like Kwame Fitzpatrick, who is doing 28 years when instead of being the city’s first self-proclaimed hip-hop mayor he became a crook with a penchant for phone sex, strippers, and skimming the city’s shallow public trough–just like his predecessors. Or Michelle Conyers, the 47-year-old wife of 84-year-old U.S. Congressman John Conyers, who did 27 months for bribery and kickbacks during her eight months as president of the Detroit City Council. Or white auto executives who took taxpayer bailout money and invested it elsewhere.
LeDuff’s story is heartbreaking. Detroit is where his prostitute sister died when she leapt from a car driven by a dangerous john, where his niece overdosed on heroin, and where a fire fighter buddy died in a blaze started by a street punk hired by a shady landlord that wanted to collect insurance money. It’s a city in which children must bring their own toilet paper to school, arson is as common as a snowy winter day, and a guy who threatens to mug you for a dollar can be bought off for fifty cents. Along the way we meet people trying their best to scrape by with wallets, integrity, and pride intact, and several that LeDuff’s investigative journalism manages to help. Some have called him a Good Samaritan, but LeDuff’s having none of it. “Why not admit it? I’m a reporter. A leech. A merchant of misery. Bad things are good for us reporters. ” (19) A very good reporter, I hasten to add–one whose gonzo journalism is eminently more vivid and readable than anything coming from academia. His socially conscious writing rivals that of Jonathan Kozol and Alex Kotlowitz.
LeDuff chronicles the city’s birth as a beaver-trading post in 1701, through its salad days as the world’s automobile capital, and into a long decline marked by race riots, deindustrialization, appalling corporate stupidity, union greed, and denial. LeDuff has no time for the latter. His gritty stories sparked numerous complaints from city boosters demanding to know why he never wrote of “lawyers and doctors and auto executives with nice homes and good jobs and community elders trying to make things better, teachers who spend their own money on the classroom… parents who raise their children, ministers who help with funeral expenses.” LeDuff tartly retorts, “[T]hese things are not supposed to be news. These things are supposed to be normal. And when normal things become the news, the abnormal becomes the norm. And when that happens, you might as well put a fork in it.” (129) Indeed. Nearly 2 million once called Detroit home; now fewer than 700,000 do so.
LeDuff doesn’t want us to mourn for Detroit. He wants us to look at it deeply–as if we’re looking into a mirror, because he thinks it is a mirror: “Detroit can no longer be ignored because what happened here is happening out there. Neighborhoods from Phoenix to Los Angeles to Miami are blighted with empty houses and people with idle hands. Americans are swimming in debt, and the prospects of servicing the debt grow slimmer by the day as good-paying jobs continue to evaporate or relocate to foreign lands.” (5)
LeDuff tries to end his book on a high note but the book does feel like an autopsy. Is there any hope? LeDuff sees America in decaying Detroit, but it may just be industrial America that’s on its deathbed. Salem, Massachusetts was once the capital of maritime America; Buffalo, New York that of the canal boat trade; Wichita, Kansas the queen city of the cattle drive; and Sacramento where gold mine fever raged hottest. Maybe we need to admit that Redmond, Washington now matters more than Detroit. Or, maybe, LeDuff is right. We’d better hope he’s not.
Robert E. Weir, Ph.D.
University of Massachusetts Amherst