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“LeDuff explores it all with literary grace and justified indignation about what’s befallen a place he loves.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
I reached down the pant cuff with the eraser end of my pencil and poked it. Frozen solid. But definitely human.
I took a deep breath through my cigarette. I didn’t want to use my nose. It was late January, the air scorching cold. The snow was falling sideways as it usually did in Detroit this time of year. The dead man was encased in at least four feet of ice at the bottom of a defunct elevator shaft in an abandoned building. But still, there was no telling what the stink might be like.
I couldn’t make out his face. The only things protruding above the ice were the feet, dressed in some white sweat socks and a pair of black gym shoes. I could see the hem of his jacket below the surface. The rest of him tapered off into the void.
In most cities, a death scene like this would be considered remarkable, mind-blowing, horrifying. But not here. Something had happened in Detroit while I was away.
I had left the city two decades earlier to try to make a life for myself that didn’t involve a slow death working in a chemical factory or a liquor store. Any place but those places.
But where? I wandered for years, working my way across Asia, Europe, the Arctic edge working as a cannery hand, a carpenter, a drifter. And then I settled into the most natural thing for a man with no real talents.
It required no expertise, no family connections and no social graces. Furthermore, it seemed to be the only job that paid you to travel, excluding a door-to-door Bible salesman. Nearly thirty years old, I went back to school to study the inverted pyramid of writing. I landed my first newspaper job with the Alaska Fisherman’s Journal, where I wrote dispatches in longhand on legal pads and mailed them back to headquarters in Seattle.
So I went out into the Last Frontier with my notepad and a tent and wrote what I saw: stuff about struggling fishermen, a mountain woman who drank too much and dried her panties on a line stretched across the bow of her boat, Mexican laborers forced to live in the swamps, a prince who lived under a bridge, a gay piano man on a fancy cruise liner. People managing somehow. My kind of people. The job suited me.
Working off that, I tried to land a real job but couldn’t find one. The Detroit Free Press didn’t want me. Not the San Francisco Chronicle. Not the Oakland Tribune. I was thinking about returning to the Alaskan fishing boats until a little Podunk paper called me with an offer of a summer internship— the New York Times.
Luck counts too.
I ended up working at the Gray Lady for a decade, sketching the lives of hustlers and working stiffs and firemen at Ground Zero. It was a good run. But wanderlust is like a pretty girl—you wake up one morning, find she’s grown old and decide that either you’re going to commit your life or you’re going to walk away. I walked away, and as it happens in life, I circled home, taking a job with the Detroit News. My colleagues in New York laughed. The paper was on death watch. And so was the city.
It is important to note that, growing up in Detroit and its suburbs, I can honestly say it was never that good in the first place. People of older generations like to tell me about the swell old days of soda fountains and shopping stores and lazy Saturday night drives. But the fact is Detroit was dying forty years ago when the Japanese began to figure out how to make a better car. The whole country knew the city and the region was on the skids, and the whole country laughed at us. A bunch of lazy, uneducated blue-collar incompetents. The Rust Belt. The Rust Bowl. Forget about it. Florida was calling.
No one cared much about Detroit until the Dow collapsed in 2008, the economy melted down and the chief executives of the Big Three went to Washington, D.C., to grovel. Suddenly the eyes of the nation turned back upon this postindustrial sarcophagus, where crime and corruption and mismanagement and mayhem played themselves out in the corridors of power and on the powerless streets. Detroit became epic, historic, symbolic, hip even. I began to get calls from reporters around the world wondering what the city was like, what was happening here. They wondered if the Rust Belt cancer had metastasized and was creeping toward Los Angeles and London and Barcelona. Was Detroit an outlier or an epicenter? Was Detroit a symbol of the greater decay? Is the Motor City the future of America? Are we living through a cycle or an epoch? Suddenly they weren’t laughing out there anymore.
Journalists parachuted into town. The subjects in my Detroit News stories started appearing in Rolling Stone and the Wall Street Journal, on NPR and PBS and CNN, but under someone else’s byline. The reporters rarely, if ever, offered nuanced appraisals of the city and its place in the American landscape. They simply took a tour of the ruins, ripped off the local headlines, pronounced it awful here and left.
And it is awful here, there is no other way to say it. But I believe that Detroit is America’s city. It was the vanguard of our way up, just as it is the vanguard of our way down. And one hopes the vanguard of our way up again. Detroit is Pax Americana. The birthplace of mass production, the automobile, the cement road, the refrigerator, frozen peas, high- paid blue-collar jobs, home ownership and credit on a mass scale. America’s way of life was built here.
It’s where installment purchasing on a large scale was invented in 1919 by General Motors to sell their cars. It was called the Arsenal of Democracy in the 1940s, the place where the war machines were made to stop the march of fascism.
So important was the Detroit way of doing things that its automobile executives in the fifties and sixties went to Washington and imprinted the military with their management style and structure. Robert McNamara was the father of the Ford Falcon and the architect of the Vietnam War. Charlie Wilson was the president of General Motors and Eisenhower’s man at the Pentagon, who famously said he thought that “what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.”
If what Wilson said is true, then so too must be its opposite.
Today, the boomtown is bust. It is an eerie and angry place of deserted factories and homes and forgotten people. Detroit, which once led the nation in home ownership, is now a foreclosure capital. Its downtown is a museum of ghost skyscrapers. Trees and switchgrass and wild animals have come back to reclaim their rightful places. Coyotes are here. The pigeons have left in droves. A city the size of San Francisco and Manhattan could neatly fit into Detroit’s vacant lots, I am told.
Once the nation’s richest big city, Detroit is now its poorest. It is the country’s illiteracy and dropout capital, where children must leave their books at school and bring toilet paper from home. It is the unemployment capital, where half the adult population does not work at a consistent job. There are firemen with no boots, cops with no cars, teachers with no pencils, city council members with telephones tapped by the FBI, and too many grandmothers with no tears left to give.
But 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. Economists talk about the inevitable turnaround. But standing here in Michigan, it seems to me that the fundamentals are no longer there to make the good life.
Go ahead and laugh at Detroit. Because you are laughing at yourself.
In cities and towns across the country, whole factories are auctioned off. Men with trucks haul away tool-and-die machines, aluminum siding, hoists, drinking fountains. It is the ripping out of the country’s mechanical heart right before our eyes.
A newly hired autoworker will earn $14 an hour. This, 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.
Come to Detroit. Drive the empty, shattered boulevards, and the decrepitude of the place all rolls out in a numb, continuous fact. After enough hours staring into it, it starts to appear normal. Average. Everyday.
And then you come across something like a man frozen in ice and the skeleton of the anatomy of the place reveals itself to you.
The neck bone is connected to the billionaire who owns the crumbling building where the man died. The rib bones are connected to the countless minions shuffling through the frostbitten streets burning fires in empty warehouses to stay warm— and get high. The hip bone is connected to a demoralized police force who couldn’t give a shit about digging a dead mope out of an elevator shaft. The thigh bone is connected to the white suburbanites who turn their heads away from the calamity of Detroit, carrying on as though the human suffering were somebody else’s problem. And the foot bones—well, they’re sticking out of a block of dirty frozen water, belonging to an unknown man nobody seemed to give a rip about.
We are not alone on this account. Across the country, the dead go unclaimed in the municipal morgues because people are too poor to bury their loved ones: Los Angeles, New York, Chicago. It’s the same. Grandpa is on layaway while his family tries to scratch together a box and a plot.
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. This is a book about living people getting on with the business of surviving in a place that has little use for anyone anymore except those left here. It is about waking up one morning and being told you are obsolete and not wanting to believe it but knowing it’s true. It is a book about a rough town and a tough people during arguably some of the most historic and cataclysmic years in the American experience. It is a book about family and cops and criminals and factory workers. It is about corrupt politicians and a collapsing newspaper. It is about angry people fighting and crying and snatching hold of one another trying to stay alive.
It is about the future of America and our desperate efforts to save ourselves from it.
At the end of the day, the Detroiter may be the most important American there is because no one knows better than he that we’re all standing at the edge of the shaft.
Posted February 19, 2013
I read the entire book in one sitting!!! Leduff tells the story of Detroit like it is, without all the PC rhetoric that has kept the city from making the changes necessary to rebound. Detroit is the end result of liberal entitlement programs and the future of this country as a whole. What a shame.
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Posted February 15, 2013
This book was AWESOME!!! LeDuff gives great incite into the many transitions that have taken place throughout the history of Detroit. Seeing as though he and his ancestors have evolved with the city, it really places a nice touch upon the story and gives the reader some understanding of LeDuff and Detroit alike.
11 out of 11 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 19, 2013
I lived in Detroit and saw it decay. Kudo's to Chalie Leduff!!!! It intrigues me to see the changes I have seen in Detroit and lived there through too many of them to count. Detroit is like a good dream gone wrong.
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Posted February 24, 2013
Having been born and raised in the Chicago area, and lived in the Midwest Rust Belt during much of the period this Author chronicles in his book, I can assure you he writes the truth and pulls no punches. Well crafted in every respect, this book should not be missed. I literally felt the Author's emotional exhaustion by the time I turned the last page. Kudos to you Mr. LeDuff, . . . your project was worth every bit of the emotion you poured into it.
6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 19, 2013
People live in Detroit. Charlie LeDuff called the book an American Autopsy because he's picking through the bones of the city he grew up in. The way he describes it, I feel like I'm reading a futuristic tale about the earth after it is all but destroyed. And it's real and people live there. Detroit is a great book, really well written and EVERYBODY should read it because there's no stopping this kind of destruction to any city. Every congressman and every senator and every mayor and councilman and taxpayer and student should read this book and demand more of their own town and themselves.
3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 27, 2013
LeDuff is a gritty and engaging writer. This is *the* book to read about the current state of Detroit and how it all came to be.
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Posted April 12, 2013
I liked the hard-hitting, nothing-but-the-facts approach to describing and personalizing the decay of Detroit. It seems Detroit's idea of urban renewal is to let the vacant buildings stand until they fall down themselves - or are torched. However, LeDuff has written the book in such a way that is compellingly entertaining and will make you laugh at the absurdity and audacity of the corruption that was the driving force in Dettroit's demise. An excellent read, hard to put it down once you get started.
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 18, 2013
From the first page to the last you FEEL the pain of a city with a bad case of Cancer. If you live in Detroit, read this book. If you live in Michigan, read this book. For that matter, if you live in America read this book. This is US people! Dont look the other way!
1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 11, 2013
Posted March 8, 2013
Posted February 28, 2013
I could not put this book down. I was born and raised in Detroit and left the city in 1969. It is such a shame what has become of this city. Leduff tells it like it is, geat read, I highly recommend!
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Posted December 7, 2014
I found myself laughing in places of this book as I know well some of the locations. Other times I nearly cried as the once great city has been dead for some time now and none of its residents know it. There have been some signs of a rebirth but the sad fact is, Detroit has been raped, pillaged and plundered for a long time by a good many people and Charlie LeDuff spent time sifting through the wreckage to bring us a sad report. Like a crime scene investigator, he details not so much as the why but lots of the how. He doesn't flinch in what he says and it's easy to love him for it. Such an account is refreshing and also sobering.
Those who stay, whether trapped by circumstances or compelled to, are here in the book and your heart goes out for them. Detroit is its people and there are lots of good ones there. LeDuff's words are also sage; more than once he tells the reader that this blight is not an isolated incident but is reaching out to other big cities. Maybe yours will see this decline someday so strengthen that which remains.
Posted November 18, 2014
A very good look at the true Detroit! It's a sad story but a truthful look at one of many cities in the U.S. full of corruption and not much of a future. I pray the city's bankruptcy is not the waive of the future but there was no other choice for Detroit. It's too bad Obama has not helped Michigan in the least. So many of Michigan voted for him, even a second time, & believed his many empty promises. Yes, I live in Michigan & voted for him once, but I won't live here for much longer. Obama has created an exodus, no matter your race. That's right the economy is still horrific in 2014. In Michigan & many other states.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 6, 2014
This is the story of the once great city of Detroit. It's a tale without a protagonist or any hint of a happy ending -- just malfeasance mixed with the constant presence of decay. Unfortunately, in all this, it's completely honest.
LeDuff's writing echoes Hunter S Thompson, with hints of Bukowski. Most importantly, for this story, it speaks from the street level. It's very effective here.
Posted April 25, 2014
Compelling journalist first hand experience with the endemic problems of a rust belt city with non-reformed politics. The writing is well done, expressing the emotions of one who sees a city in which he was raised collapse and the damage done to individuals who are trying to do the best they can. The damage of non-reformed, unprofessional, partisan politics is honestly captured. How those politics become cancerous, malignant, is well captured. Illustrates how a city can lose over half its population and most of its wealth while the politics continue as they have in the past. With the investigative depth of the reporting it is indeed an autopsy and a must read for students of and citizens under urban politics.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 2, 2013
Good book. If your from Detroit, great book. Easy to relate to and understand everything he talks about. Love Charlie's style. I live in Charlotte, NC now but I watch Charlie's segment on my Fox 2 news app all the time.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 4, 2013
Posted August 28, 2013
A sad but truthful look into a once iconic American city. Told story by story which makes you not want to put it down.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 25, 2013
Posted August 14, 2013
I’ve just put down Detroit: An American Autopsy. And wow, what a great read! This is not something I would’ve typically picked up on my own, but about a month ago I heard an interview with the author on NPR that piqued my interest. Charlie LeDuff, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, who is actually from Detroit, returned home and after years of living in the country’s media centers of Los Angeles and New York. It was while he worked for the New York Times that he received his Pulitzer Prize, for a series called How Race Is Lived in America. It’s this provocative style of writing he is known for, and something that makes this particular book worth reading.
If you’ve never cared much about Detroit, that’s ok. Get just a few pages into this book and it’ll be nearly impossible to remain uninterested. Being his hometown, LeDuff has experienced just how tough this city is. The city itself is presented almost as a case-study of the decline of the American economy in this era, and the decline of the middle class overall. In my opinion, that is something everyone should be concerned about. Detroit had once been one of the most important cities in America, and certainly the most important industrial city of the 20th century. That era has passed, and with it went the city’s middle class workforce. When the economy collapsed in 2008, many questions were raised as to how this had happened (other than the obvious indicators). There were talks about bailouts of the auto industry, but the truth is, as LeDuff points out, Detroit had been dead long before:
“No one cared much about Detroit until the Dow collapsed in 2008, the economy melted down and the chief executives of the Big Three went to Washington, D.C. to grovel. Suddenly the eyes of the nation turned back upon this postindustrial sarcophagus, where crime and mismanagement and mayhem played themselves out in the corridors of power and on the powerless streets” – 3
There is much more to this book than just a chronicle of the decline of the city. The city’s economic decline is worsened by government corruption on every level, rampant crime, failing schools, and police officers and firemen who were understaffed and under-equiped. LeDuff uses his own history to illustrate the toll the city itself takes on the individual. Because race has been such an issue in the city (not unlike most major cities nationwide), he traces his own mixed-race lineage which includes African and native American blood. One of the most disheartening parts of the story includes his description of his sister’s own experiences. She and her daughter are victims of alcohol and drug abuse, unable to escape the city’s vices. So many of the city’s youth fall victim to the streets. LeDuff places the blame on the city itself. He expresses his contempt and feeling of hopelessness for the fate of the city’s youth:
“It would be easy to lay the blame on McNeal for the circumstances in which she raised her sons. But is she responsible for police officers with broken computers in their squad cars, firefighters with holes in their boots, ambulances that arrive late, a city that can’t keep its lights on and leaves its vacant buildings to the arsonist’s match, a state government that allows corpses to stack up in the morgue, multinational corporations that move away and leave poisoned fields behind, judges who let violent criminals walk the streets, school stewards who steal the children’s milk money, elected officials who loot the city, automobile executives who couldn’t manage a grocery store, or Wall Street grifters who destroyed the economy and left the nation’s children with a burden of debt while they partied it up in Southampton?” – 271
It’s a lot to digest! He makes a strong argument that Detroit is not alone in its decline. Beginning in the early part of the 20th century, Detroit was once a great city. A city in which the average American could find a well-paying blue collar job. This part of the American dream was also open to African Americans, long before they would enjoy similar opportunities elsewhere in the U.S. Yet, beginning in the late 1950s, when Japanese automakers began their ascent, Detroit began to close factories down. This continued, and resulted in the exodus of workers, businesses, educators, an overall loss of revenue for the city, and eventually the city’s ultimate collapse.