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 its once greatness, 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.