Hadrian's Reviews > Detroit: An American Autopsy

Detroit by Charlie LeDuff
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's review
Dec 04, 2013

it was amazing
bookshelves: american, biography-memoir, history, nonfiction, politics-and-foreign-policy, society-culture-anthropology-etc, urban-studies
Read in August, 2013

Here is an elegy for a city, and the funeral oration is delivered by the long-lost son of Raymond Chandler and Hunter S. Thompson.

I have a personal bias towards any stories about Detroit. I was raised in what was once an industrial town in Michigan and grew up among rust. My parents, who worked in medicine, were fortunate enough to still have jobs, as people don't stop dying when they get poorer.

This book hit me. It is not from the journalism as prose-poetry style, although that helps. It is not exploitative 'ruin-porn', the stuff of a cottage trade of tourists playing paintball in factories without roofs and taking photographs of the natives like a safari. Or of the jounralists who visited Detroit in 2008, saw things were bad, and then left without asking why.

Here is instead a story of real breathing people. Of too short lives and forgotten homes, of dead children and firefighters with holes in their suits and weeping grandmothers and the weary resignation which often precedes an acceptance of death. I quote: “Detroit is full of good people who know what pain is.”

So LeDuff asks the big questions up front. How did a city which was once America's richest become it's poorest? How did a city which once housed above one million souls shrink down to 700,000? There is another cottage industry which seeks to analyze this decline, and various suspects include the mayoral tenures of Coleman Young, race riots, institutional racism, free-trade agreements, outsourcing, oil prices, corporate mismanagement. LeDuff focuses on two of the more primal instincts: flight and greed.

After the race riots in 1964, when the city was occupied for the third time by the US Army, mass flight began to the outlying suburbs. There was white flight, (and the richer blacks fled too), then industrial flight, and also brain drain (Graduates from Ann Arbor's University of Michigan are not likely to live in their home state again). Now there is 'dead flight', where those who can afford it exhume their relatives and move them to safer eternal resting grounds in the suburbs, so they will not have to endure the long trek out to the decayed inner center. There are three kinds of people left: those who cannot leave, out of duty or loyalty (the firemen and police), those who cannot leave because they are too poor to do so, and the thieves.

LeDuff does not refer here solely to the people who steal copper and other metals from the wiring of abandoned buildings, power lines, and statuary, although they make a brief mention. He refers to the staggering corruption of the city political machine, enough to make a few Roman Emperors nod with recognition. There is Kwame Kilpatrick, the mayor who spent millions decorating his office, and Monica Conyers, who yelled at elementary schoolers during a town hall meeting and allegedly tried to squeeze LeDuff's testicles during an interview.

So what do these twin forces leave behind? There is the decaying infrastructure, like the roads full of potholes, or the streetlights which don't work half the time, or empty fields where there once were city blocks, or police who take up to four hours to respond to calls, or firefighters with holes in their boots and trucks which can't even pull up the ladders. This leaves behind people who feel abandoned.

For them, LeDuff is at his journalistic best. He shadows the people of Detroit around, learns their stories, puts them "in his fucking notebook", to quote one. He follows the firemen of Detroit, working with their threadbare equipment, with the brass firepole sold for scrap, with broken ladders, as they try desperately to scrape away at the edges of decay. He talks to the very poorest. He talks to them as only a native but wandering son can. He finds one buried up to his ankles and frozen in ice, telling the story about a photograph which would later become world famous. His sister and aunt died in Detroit.

His tone, like that of the other inhabitants of the city, is one of indignation, of anger and betrayal. The anger boils over where it should not, and he wanders in places where they should not. He is not the only one - the police understand that the city itself seems to have that enraging effect on people. The firemen want to burn down a house where one of their best comrades died. Life here is a combination of rage and despair.

The future of Detroit is the greatest unknown. There are only a few scattered signs of what might be the future of the city. Beavers were sighted near the Detroit River for the first time in eighty years. Vast tracts of the city, where the houses have either crumbled or have been bulldozed, now are home to wild deer or dogs. The city of Detroit will endure, but in some new form that neither its past nor its present would recognize. After all, Rome rebirthed itself after 1000 years of decline, why couldn't Detroit eventually do so?

There has been talk about a greater economic recovery, especially after the supposed rebirth of the auto industry after the inane bungling of 2008 and the collective shaming of their CEOs in a struggle session before the Senate. However, many of these jobs have disappeared either through automation or by outsourcing, to Mexico, China, or elsewhere. The outside suburbs have recovered some jobs and indeed are prospering. The nearby city of Ann Arbor holds one of the best universities in the country, and Oakland County, another neighbor, has a median income twice that of the national average.

A real fear that he touches on is that of two Americas. One is rich and prosperous, the other is dirty, poor, ignorant, forgotten, and ignored - Detroit proper. It would not be America if so many people in city sumps were left behind in this manner, while a select upper class get to enjoy all the benefits of the recovery and plunder the coffers of the poor and the public commons to do so.

Mayor Bing, Emergency Manager Orr and Governor Snyder are peddling their plans to save the city. I don't believe a word of them. I suspect the people of Detroit don't either. They are the latest lot, it seems, of a ruling class of thieves. There is talk of liquidating the collection of the Detroit Institute of Art, a charge which is firmly denied by the state government, even though they have already called in Christie's to appraise the collection.

At worst, LeDuff and the stories he tells will be a chilly reminder to the wealthy industrial cities of the world: "As you are now, so once was I. As I am now, you too shall be. Prepare, therefore, to follow me."
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08/14/2013 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-18 of 18) (18 new)

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message 1: by Ted (new) - added it

Ted Will be very interested in your views.

message 2: by Kris (new) - added it

Kris Hadrian, this is one of the best reviews I have read anywhere. You write with eloquence and heart and clarity. Magnificent piece.

Hadrian Thank you, Kris. That's a high compliment, coming from you.

message 4: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Beautiful review of what sounds like a great book.

message 5: by Ted (new) - added it

Ted Certainly sounds like a book that deserves reading, Hadrian, very nice review.

The decline of Detroit would seem to be part of a much larger story that I think you mention in the review, when referring to the "Two Americas". Detroit would certainly seem to be the nadir of urban decline in America.

The future will tell whether Detroit is the first step (or at least one of the most obvious early steps) on a downward path that is going to play out over the next few decades, or whether (miracle of miracles perhaps) it turns out to be one of the warning signs that is somehow heeded, and leads to a change away from this path that we seem to be on.

message 6: by Geoff (new) - added it

Geoff Hell of a review Hadrian. Thanks. I'm seeking this book out...

Hadrian Thanks everybody. I appreciate the kind words. I hope I gave justice to this book.

Ted, you raise a good point. There is an interview on the Colbert Report where Leduff asserts two things - first, that Detroit is not alone in urban decay and corruption, it just does so on a larger scale. For example, there's St. Louis and some of the cities in the Central Valley in California or the Mississippi Delta. Second, Detroit still has a very fragile foundation for rebirth. It still has a vital trading position with Canada, particularly now that a new bridge will be built to supplant the Ambassador Bridge. There is still a fledging manufacturing industry, and the neighboring towns are not doing as bad. Detroit might survive, he says, but those cities in the Southwest which are more dependent on water supplies will be at a sudden and immediate risk in recent years. So somehow, in spite of everything, Leduff has hope for Detroit. Less so for other cities, but there's still a stubborn flame left.

message 8: by Ted (new) - added it

Ted Hadrian wrote: "Thanks everybody. I appreciate the kind words. I hope I gave justice to this book.

Ted, you raise a good point. There is an interview on the Colbert Report where Leduff asserts two things - first,..."

That stubborn flame ... Well as Studs, who must have been familiar with Detroit to some extent, said, Hope Dies last

message 9: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant excellent review; watched a great documentary about Detroit just recently, otherwise I would throw this one onto the to-read pile.

message 10: by Laurie (new)

Laurie Hadrian wrote: "Thanks everybody. I appreciate the kind words. I hope I gave justice to this book.

Ted, you raise a good point. There is an interview on the Colbert Report where Leduff asserts two things - first,..."

Really enjoyed your great review Hadrian. But sadly I am a former denizen of another great city Memphis, Tennessee, which is also undergoing a similar decline. Memphis was never a great industrial center as Detroit of course but was once recognized as one of the most beautiful cities in the country. In fact Memphis is often called the Detroit of the south now as it continues it's decline.
For some reason, once the new civil rights laws were passed and people were no longer able to discriminate against blacks and segregation was no more back in the 60's, white flight began at record rates to the suburbs.
The fact that crime rates soared after the end of segregation didn't help matters either as white folks feared for their lives, selling their homes at a loss to escape to the safer suburbs.
Unfortunately, corrupt politicians now reign in Memphis and the future is not looking very bright, the same as Detroit. Watching Memphis die a long, slow and painful death hasn't been easy and I can sympathize with the former denizens of Detroit.
Don't think I can bear to read this book though, as it's just too painful for me personally.

Hadrian Paul: Which documentary was this? I'm interested in seeing it.

Laurie: Thank you for your story. This book was incredibly painful for me to read too, but I felt as though I gained from it.

message 12: by Zanna (new)

Zanna Thanks, you've inspired me to read this. It's hard to believe that such massive urban decay can happen in a supposedly prosperous country. It gives the lie to the assumption that we'll muddle through (stock optimism of all democracies no?) with the help of that 'invisible hand'. Neo-liberal policies continue to strip away the planned, socialised bits of a once reasonably healthy mixed economy, funnelling tax dollars into defence contractors and other mighty multinationals. Turning life (labour, investments, resources) into cash for the already wealthy... The US and UK are slipping back to the start of the Industrial Revolution! < gross simplifications?

message 13: by Paul (last edited Dec 06, 2013 02:02PM) (new)

Paul Bryant Hadrian - I found the documentary online:


(better late than never...)

message 14: by Ted (new) - added it

Ted Zanna wrote: "Thanks, you've inspired me to read this. It's hard to believe that such massive urban decay can happen in a supposedly prosperous country. It gives the lie to the assumption that we'll muddle throu..."

I certainly agree with your sentiments, Zanna.

message 15: by Kate (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kate Hadrian, I think you have crossed the line with this essay, posted as a review. While interesting, you've tangled your opinions into Leduff's story without making it clear which is which.

Hadrian I admit my bias freely. This is a highly personal topic, and I doubt I am capable of writing something more dispassionate about it.

message 17: by Hadrian (last edited May 21, 2014 10:13AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Hadrian J Frederick: I hope you enjoy it. As for me, I heard of the author from his special broadcasts on the Detroit news. Here's a sample: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vhsPi...

message 18: by Kendra (new)

Kendra Hadrian! Realm great review - eloquent and to the point. I loved the book and often recommend it...

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