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."