Detroit: An American Autopsy (2013)
Charlie LeDuff (1966)
A week ago Monday I went to Detroit with my parents; “a tour down memory lane” my dad called it, as we visited places where my parents had lived and worked some fifty years ago, before life took them first to Flint and then eventually out of state. Over the previous weekend I had read through most of Charlie LeDuff’s new book Detroit: An American Autopsy --- as had my mom --- and reading it heightened my curiosity about what we would see. I normally make it to Detroit a couple few times a year, but generally only to Hart Plaza on the riverfront, nearby Cobo Hall and the short block of Greektown; not a very representative range of stops.
For anyone living in south-eastern Michigan and paying even passing attention to the local news, the decay and corruption of Detroit that LeDuff describes in his book will not come as a surprise. One only has to glance out of the car window on the drive downtown on the expressway to catch glimpses of broken down and boarded up houses on the streets above the fast moving lanes of traffic. Whether in the news or from the car window, however, the problems seem contained in another world, parallel to and mostly outside of the “normal” lives of those not living in the midst of Detroit’s struggles. What LeDuff’s book does with great effectiveness is personalize that decay and corruption, as well as the heartbreak and helplessness that accompany it. Although he sprinkles in a few statistics to highlight the dramatic changes that have occurred in Detroit over the last 50 years, LeDuff has not written a sociological analysis of the decline of the city, but rather has provided a heartfelt look at his hometown, a hometown that has for him become a shadow of its former self. As he writes in the first few pages: “This is not a book about geopolitics or macroeconomics or global finance. And it is not a feel-good story with a happy ending. It is a book of reportage. A memoir of a reporter returning home --- only he cannot find the home he once knew.” (6)
The widely publicized corruption in Detroit’s city government that LeDuff also touches on in the book has played a key role in the deterioration of city services. But the most devastating impacts on the city seem to have come from issues more difficult to appreciate from the outside: the significant loss of jobs and the accompanying tax base, and the related reduction in the population of the city from nearly 2 million in the late 1950’s to roughly 700,000 today. The loss of jobs has led to people losing their homes, and the loss of population means that these homes generally stand empty, a double tragedy. These abandoned houses become at best boarded up eye-sores, and at worst crack houses or arsonist targets; one firefighter tells LeDuff that arsonists are essentially in it for the entertainment value, since a “fire is cheaper than a movie”(49). Families who remain in these neighborhoods, though, struggle to maintain both the value of their homes and the safety of their kids, amid the decaying buildings on nearby lots. From newspaper reports it is easy to simplify the situation in Detroit down to being a huge no man’s land from border to border. But, from LeDuff’s telling, it is more like a life-or-death obstacle course, with good people and bad, good homes and bad, crammed in next to one another.
Through LeDuff’s reporting, we learn about the struggles of the fire fighters and police officers of the city not by way of a dry examination of their budgets and workload, but by meeting individuals, hearing their stories, and witnessing their lives and losses. We meet families living in homes where they struggle to hold back the chaos of crime and drugs that have spread throughout neighborhoods decimated by unemployment as so many jobs have left the city during the past few decades. In his book a teen killed by senseless violence is not a minor character in a short newspaper column, but a student with dreams whose mother mourns the death of a second child. The many fires engulfing abandoned buildings are not statistics to be read and dismissed, but unforgettable stories of firefighters put in unnecessary danger by an act of arson, or of a neighborhood so fed up by the lack of action from the city that they burn down an empty home on their block that has turned into a crack house, preventing the fire department from entering the street to put out the fire. And these stories truly are personal for him, as he describes how his own family has been impacted by the lack of jobs and the overwhelming violence.
LeDuff captures also the incompetence and corruption of the city leadership. His interviews with city council members, and others in positions of power in the city government, reveal a cynical focus on their own careers and a fear of anyone who tries to stand in their way by pointing out the truth of their complicity in the city’s decline. What astonishes more than anything in his interviews with people in power is their seeming belief that they can sweet-talk and co-opt him to their side --- representative, I suppose, of the prideful and arrogant nature of power.
And what of our trip to Detroit last Monday? In a small way, without the drama that LeDuff has encountered regularly as a reporter in the city, we experienced the collapse of the neighborhoods that he describes. Our trip began north of the city in Warren, just off of Mound Road, where I lived for the first few years of my life. As we got out of the car and walked the streets around our old home on that cool but sunny Monday morning, we had no idea that this would be the most tranquil stop of the day.
From Warren we traveled south on Van Dyke Avenue, crossing into the city of Detroit, and the area of Hamtramck. At Seven Mile Road we headed west for a short distance before turning into a neighborhood where my mom had lived with an aunt and uncle for a few years when she first came to
The reality on the ground that morning turned out to be quite different. The stretch of Seven Mile from Van Dyke had shop fronts that were mostly closed and boarded up, and it turned out that we had seen on Street View one of the few stores that still seemed to be in business. As we then turned into the neighborhood, we drove by homes in various states of decay, windows broken out or boarded up, walls sometimes charred from having burned, and these ruined homes sitting next to homes that did in fact look “normal.” As we drove on to the house my mom had lived in, we wondered what we would find, whether the Google Maps picture was older maybe, from before things had declined. But, finally arriving in front of the house, it looked just as it had in the Street View we had seen, as did the houses next to it. What we had not done in the Street View, however, was rotate the view and look across the street, where as we drove past we saw two boarded up houses standing forlornly on neglected plots (picture below left); and farther up the street stood even more boarded up and burned houses (picture below right).
Continuing downtown, we encountered the same mixed reality. Seen from Hart Plaza on the riverfront, it is easy to assume that the office buildings that Monday afternoon were full of people going about their work. Up close, however, as we walked up Woodward and then later took the People Mover on a loop-tour of downtown, though some buildings were indeed full and active, others were boarded off, with windows either broken out or empty and silent. Along with vacant lots covered in gravel and fenced off, these empty buildings sap the downtown area of what life the existing businesses might give it.
LeDuff subtitles his book “An American Autopsy,” and if his examination is not precisely of a corpse, it is certainly of a patient laboring to stay alive. He wears his heart on his sleeve as he tells the story of his city, and is often barely able to contain his rage at what he sees and hears; cigarettes, stiff drinks and profanity frequently provide him support and outlet in these pages. But for all that his writing never falls into the detached feeling that can rob a book on a topic such as this of its feeling and life. Instead the reader is able to empathize with the pain LeDuff obviously feels as he reports from his hometown on the inexplicable behavior he often encounters from city council to the mayor’s office, and the devastating stories he captures of the fire fighters and police officers on the streets and the families holding on in the neighborhoods.
Detroit: An American Autopsy has arrived on the shelves at yet another potential turning point in Detroit’s history, as the governor of the State of Michigan has put in place an Emergency Financial Manager to try and rescue the city from imminent bankruptcy. Although difficult to imagine after viewing the current reality, hopefully this moment will mark the definitive turning point for Detroit, and one day LeDuff will be able to write a happier sequel about his hometown, perhaps subtitled “An American Resurrection.”
Other reviews / information:
Charlie LeDuff's website.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION