"Studying the city through the windshield now, it wasn't frightening anymore. It was empty and forlorn and pathetic. On some blocks not a single home was occupied, the structures having fallen victim to desertion and the arsonist's match. I drove blocks without seeing a living soul." -- p. 71
It was not quite the homecoming that Charlie LeDuff had hoped for. LeDuff had won a Pulitzer Prize during an 11year stint as a staff reporter for the New York Times. In 2007 he abruptly quit his gig as a member of the Times Los Angeles bureau after he decided that he was tired of L.A. and that his wife and three year old daughter really needed to be around family. Charlie LeDuff's clan resided in and around the city of Detroit. Much to his surprise when he contacted the lowly, virtually bankrupt Detroit News about a position he found that one was available. The die was now cast. His bosses at The News had already figured out the best way to utilize their talented new reporter. They told him to "chronicle the decline of the Great Industrial American City." This was going to be right up his alley. Charlie LeDuff liked to get his fingernails dirty. He knew things were pretty bad in his hometown but until he actually arrived there he had no idea just how ugly it had gotten. "Detroit: An American Autopsy" is the rough and tumble story of a city in total free fall. Perhaps what is most frightening about what you will read in this book is that what has happened in Detroit could well be repeated in a number of other major urban areas around this nation.
So just who is to blame for the demise of this once great American city? Depending on your politics just about everyone has a theory. Liberals point their finger at the greedy executives of the auto industry and Wall Street who shifted hundreds of thousands of jobs away from the Motor City to places like Mexico. Conservatives on the other hand would tend to blame ill-advised trade legislation like NAFTA and the corrupt Democratic political machine that has run this city for decades for many of the problems. But when Charlie LeDuff started to crunch some numbers what he found was simply astounding. To fully understand just how far Detroit has fallen you need to know that in its heyday in the 1960's the city boasted a total population of 1.9 million. By the early 1990's that number had fallen to 1.2 million. Now in 2013 the population of Detroit has dwindled to fewer than 700,000 people! Meanwhile, there are in the neighborhood of 62,000 vacant houses in Detroit. It seems all that left is a destitute underclass and an extremely corrupt bureaucracy. City services such as police and fire and public works are a joke. The equipment these public servants are forced to use is antiquated and extremely unreliable. Staffing has been cut to the bone. Another barometer of just how bad things have gotten in Detroit is the number of dead bodies piling up at the morgue. LeDuff reports that on any given day there are around 250 unclaimed bodies. One has sat there for more than two years!
Throughout the pages of "Detroit: An American Autopsy" Charlie LeDuff shines the spotlight on all of ills of this once proud metropolis including unemployment, illiteracy, foreclosure, arson, murder and widespread bureaucratic corruption. It is all too much for those who remain. This is a dangerous place to be. Along the way LeDuff investigates the corrupt city administration, looks into the death of a beloved veteran firefighter killed during an arson and chronicles the most bizarre real life murder story you will likely ever hear. And yet, despite it all the author points out that there are still many good people here who are doing their best to stop the bleeding. You will meet a number of them in this book who despite the odds consistently go above and beyond the call of duty in a largely vain attempt to save the city they love.
"Detroit: An American Autopsy" is a riveting expose of the decline and fall of a once great American city. Recently, Forbes magazine pointed to Detroit as "the most miserable city in America". After reading this book it is easy to see why! I had heard stories but had no idea that things were this bad. Some would argue that it is probably too late to save Detroit but Charlie LeDuff would beg to differ. In spite of all the problems he encountered during the two years of reporting it took to cobble together this book he still sees a glimmer of hope out there. This really is a story that needed to be told. Other American cities would do well to learn from the myriad mistakes made here lest they suffer the same fate. "Detroit: An American Autopsy" would be a great choice for anyone interested in the future of major American cities and for general readers as well. The language gets a bit colorful from time to time but as I pointed out earlier Charlie LeDuff likes to get his fingernails dirty. Highly recommended!
A lot's been said about "Decay Porn," where reporters/writers/photographers from out of the city sort of parachute into Detroit and then pontificate about whatever they've observed. It's not that their observations are invalid, but they obviously lack a personal perspective.
Charlie LeDuff, a native Detroiter who grew up, left, then came back, has the zeal of a missionary and the anger of someone who knows nothing he says can make a lick of difference. So this narrative of connected essayish accounts doesn't offer a solution as much as a passionate sermon of rubbing-your-face-in-it. But if one can't offer a solution, at least a writer can take a reader to the ground level that's often overlooked by those more focused on the big picture.
Most of these chapters originally appeared as newspaper reportage that LeDuff has fleshed out in more detail. That's not a problem, and he's done a good job of connecting all the anecdotes together so it reads as a consistent narrative. LeDuff is both primary character and narrator, and his strong, sometimes strident, voice carries the story along.
His 'characters,' police, firemen, occasional politicians, are of the tough-as-nails variety. I don't think the 'good guys' will mind their portrayals, even if they are a little over-the-top at times. With that, they seem to be treated fairly and honestly and their stories are not exploited for casual emotional gain.
The villains come across as slothful, incompetent and venal - all believable politicians and hacks.
It's four stars mostly because it's one-note at times. The stories are generally depressing and terrible, just like Detroit life, and there's not too many bright spots. Hard to love a book like that - but LeDuff's great writing style and powerful storytelling makes it easy to like. Any fan of Hunter Thompson will appreciate his take-no-prisoners literary approach.
I can't imagine liking LeDuff if I met him. I feel like he'd be an overpowering personality interested in what people have to say only as long as it's interesting to him. But that sort of focus on the "people as story" is how you end up with a strong piece of reportage like this. Tell the story, don't spare the feelings, and if it's harsh and ugly, people need to suck it up and learn a few things.
I've read and written a lot about how America is dying. Regulatory capture, Wall Street, global arbitrage and deviant entrepreneurs collaborated to massacre the middle class.
But I always came at it from the perspective that the country is mid-collapse. That we still have time. That we can still swing the wheel and, for the most part, make it through. Sure, we'll pay $8 for a gallon of gas, we'll overpay for armies of contractors we don't need, but we will make it through. We're America after all.
Charlie LeDuff convinced me we may be too late. The book is aptly titled, Detroit: An American Autopsy. What if the land of the free, of prosperity, of two cars and a picket fence succumbed to the corrupt, the incompetent, the immoral?
He describes the imbeciles that run Detroit - not just its corrupt, race-baiting politicians, but also the evil puppet masters, the CEOs, that pulled their strings. He takes us on a journey through those we abandoned on the front line, one he describes as a "landscape of fire and human failing." We watch them live, fight, and die. He talks to the workers in factories, once producing subprime mortgages, now reduced to relabeling screws. He speaks with the mothers of the dead. We walk with him as he tries to make change, failing more often than not. His own life is inexorably tied into that of his failed city, so we feel his guilt, his family's mourning, the pain of finding work, the toll it takes.
He writes like Naipaul. Blisteringly honest. Solid, real flow.
And it presents the viewpoint that we're not careening into failure. We're already there. Ours is a state soon to be hollowed out by failed cities. America was murdered. What we live in is fundamentally different from what we had. We're in the middle of launching what is new. Its time to approach it that way.
Regardless of whether you believe in American decline or not, this book presents a compelling, unflinching perspective that is worth reading.
on February 4, 2013
Charlie LeDuff's DETROIT: AN AMERICAN AUTOPSY is a heartbreaking book--especially if you're a native Detroiter. Yet it was so compelling I couldn't put it down. More of an anecdotal evidence presentation than a scholarly analysis of what went wrong with the Motor City. But, I think that's why this book is so good. It puts faces to the stories and makes it all too real.
A mixture of Mr. LeDuff's personal and family story as it happens alongside the demise of a once great metropolis. Usually, I'm not a real fan of this type of book. However, this one was so well woven that I can't really find anything to dissuade me from given it FIVE STARS.
Topically, having been born in Detroit and spending the first 20 years living just the other side of the "buffer zone", I could totally relate to Mr. LeDuff's narrative. I'd seen much of what he'd seen while I was growing up, including the sad decay of the Packard factory on East Grand Boulevard where one of my grandfathers worked. Detroit had already started its long slide by the late 1960s, yet retained some of its former glory. I can remember, as a kid, crossing the Eight Mile and getting the "make sure the car doors are locked" warning from my Dad as we headed south while still being regaled with stories of how Detroit was so much superior (even at that time) to New York or Chicago. "The city of trees and parks," as my mother described it. Still, there are many good memories--the Michigan State Fair, Belle Isle, the Detroit Institute of Arts, Historical Museum, Cobo Hall, J.L. Hudson's downtown store and more. I moved to the other end of the state in the mid 80s, haven't been back for a visit since 1998 and I've been warned not to go. Not because it's "dangerous", but because it's so hard to see what's happened. Better to imagine that what you remember is still like it was.
Back to the book. It's well written and fast paced. I whizzed through it in ONE DAY! (I said I couldnt' put it down!) Large amounts of profanity which might be disturbing to YOU. Probably not as compelling if you're not from or familiar with Detroit and what it used to be. Disturbing and depressing in a way, yet somehow in the end, Mr. LeDuff left this reader with some bit of hope that maybe the decent people can somehow wrest control back and at least stop the decay. The reality is I don't think there is any means to stop the snowball from rolling downhill, but at least this book imbued a feeling of hope.
If you are a native Detroiter, this book is a MUST to read. My only tiny gripe--Studebaker never built cars in Detroit--they were from South Bend, Indiana! FIVE STARS. It's sad and brutal, but if you grew up believing that it was DETROIT and not New York, Chicago or Los Angeles that made the U.S. the greatest economic powerhouse in the world, you need to read this. It'll break your heart. You might be able to leave Detroit, but Detroit never leaves you.
"I thought of all that and cried a little bit through my cigarette" (285). Pulitzer Prize-winner Charlie LeDuff takes a personal an in-depth look at his home town of Detroit. And what he finds will continually amaze and distress you. LeDuff returned to Detroit, after a long absence, to work at the Detroit News. And what he found surprised even him. Vacant lots that could contain an entire major city, the harbingers of decay and neglect on an epic scale.
LeDuff's narrative looks at many facets of Detroit's existence, always through a personal lens. He chronicles the appalling neglect of the fire, police, and ambulance by looking at the experiences of those charged with actually providing those services. The fire department especially comes under focus in arson-plagued Detroit (and it's still in the news today: just last week Michigan Radio reported that Detroit Fire's hydraulic ladder trucks can only be used when life is at stake because they haven't been safety checked in years). The equipment is inadequate and worn out, and the corruption and waste that have caused the crisis go right to the top of the management and government. One of the fire fighters LeDuff followed as a reporter died in a house collapse, partly due to equipment failure. And the state of the police department and ambulance service aren't much better. It's a tale too incredible to be believed if it were fiction. And his narrative is always colorful (even if at times appalling), such as the discovery and then neglect of a man frozen in ice (it took the police a number of days to even respond to the call).
The rot and corruption that LeDuff uncovers extend especially into the city government. Kwame Kilpatrick and Monica Conyers are two prominent examples of the almost unimaginable corruption that has so crippled the city and its finances. And LeDuff chronicles their rise and fall, in entertaining fashion. Especially his tales of his interviews and interactions with Monica Conyers are too good to be made up. Conyers's encounter with a school girl at a question-and-answer session leave the reader in wonder.
Even though it is a chronicle of a major city in decline, Detroit: An American Autopsy is also an intensely personal book, in a number of ways. As I've already mentions, LeDuff has a way of personalizing the issues he highlights through people he encounters, giving a glimpse of the human face of the city. But it is also personal in another way, as LeDuff himself is caught up in and in some way even embodies the city's decline. His ever-present cigarette highlights a self-destruction not unlike that of the city. And the experiences of his own family members, particularly his brother, sister, and niece, are emblematic of the plight of the people who live there. So clearly his own life is not untouched by places and circumstances he chronicles. And this makes Detroit not only an interesting piece of sociology and history but also a tale of humanity.
So is Detroit "an outlier or an epicenter" (3)? That is certainly a question to ponder, one that drives the narrative of the book. In the end, the book provides a vivid portrait of an arson-torched city with a frozen heart and corrupt head, rotten almost to the core. Its a depiction of the human condition, in appalling detail. It is a bit like driving by a horrible accident scene; even though violence and death are repulsive, you can't quite look away. Is this the dystopia toward which our humanity will carry us? It certainly shows us what humanity is capable of.
Charlie LeDuff is a good writer, a strong stylist, and he writes, spare, powerful prose from the Gonzo, AKA Hunter S. Thompson School of journalism. His credentials are impressive. He is a Pulitzer Award winning author and a journalist who embraces confronting the underbelly of the American experience, its tormented, its down and out, its outcasts.
With the Great Recession of 2008, he feels drawn to go back to his roots in Detroit, which he argues is a microcosm of what is going to happen to the rest of America. He leaves his job at the New York Times, then the Los Angeles Times and takes a job at the rundown Detroit Times, described as moribund with chalk line around his new office area rug that looks like, as he describes, a murder scene.
In his several, short chapters he captures the despair of scandalous politicians, laid-off workers, his own dysfunctional family members, his own dysfunctional marriage, and his own demon-possessed self.
In the process, he's held up by robbers at a gas station, he must confront the demons of losing his sister to a horrible, untimely death many years ago in Detroit; a call girl is murdered, there's a sewage scandal, his brother's dog dies from eating toxic dog food made in China; he finds a dead man frozen in ice; fighting with his wife about his obsession with his work and dealing with the darkness, they fight with such rage, that the cops arrive, hand-cuff him, and put him in the slammer.
The despair in this book is relentless with no comic respite and at times I felt there was an egotism that drove LeDuff to almost celebrate this dark madness, as if his graphic descriptions of it would somehow empower him.
The end result of these short chapters of brutal anecdotage is some strong pieces that stand well by themselves, but I'm sad to say they don't add up to much. The chapters lack cohesiveness and we, the readers, who have a grasp of what's going on in the headlines won't be shocked by the Great Recession's havoc on people's personal lives.
So while I was eager to read a coherent narrative about a man confronting his personal demons in Motor City, what I got was some disjointed chapters from a man who needs to find a way to shape, refine and package his rage into a more coherent whole.
Author Charlie LeDuff grew up in Detroit, as did his wife. His sister died there, after having taken up with drugs; one of his brothers, who sold sub-prime mortgages, now works for $8.50 in a screw shop. After twenty years away, he felt a need to return, feeling out of place in L.A. working for the New York Times after the birth of his little girl.
'Detroit was the vanguard of our way up, just as it is the vanguard of our way down,' he says. It's the birthplace of mass production, the automobile, installment purchasing (invented by G.M. in 1919), the cement road, the refrigerator, high-paid blue-collar jobs, and home ownership. It was called the Arsenal of Democracy in the 1940s, where war machines were made to stop the march of Fascism.
Today the boom-town is a bust, an eerie and angry place of deserted factories and homes and forgotten people. It's the nation's illiteracy and dropout capital, our unemployment capital, and a place with firemen w/o boots and city council members with phones tapped by the FBI. Newly hired autoworkers earn $14/hour; adjusted for inflation, that's three cents less than what Henry Ford paid in 1914 when he announced the $5 day. Now Ford isn't hiring either.
Arsonists burn buildings for entertainment - 'a can of gas is $3.50 and a movie is $8, and there aren't any movie theaters left in Detroit' says one firefighter. LeDuff pursues a tip and finds a body encased in ice in the elevator shaft of an abandoned building. Calls to homicide and 911 are ignored, it takes two days before authorities arrive and remove it. Don't get your gas on the east side of Detroit, even at high noon. It's semi-lawless. Then there's the story about a broken-down EMS van during gunfire on New Year's Eve; others arrive late while Detroiters die waiting.
'The unions took too much, and management merrily went along. And then it was my generation without the chair when the music stopped.' Councilwoman Monica Conyers, wife of congressman John Conyers is sent off for 37 months for taking bribes to vote for a $1.2 billion sludge disposal deal, and there are plenty of other public-sector scandals such as former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who's trial is just ending.
Now garbage is often uncollected, streetlights broken or shut off, sewers backing up into houses, ambulances sometimes take hours to respond. Twenty percent of firehouses are closed at any time for lack of money; they all purchase their own cleaning supplies and toilet papers. Brass poles were removed years ago by the city and sold at auction. The police department is overloaded.
LeDuff provides no road back to Detroit's former glory; worse yet, readers don't have any problems recognizing this story as also sounding the alarm for many other cities as well. His journalistic motto is 'don't be boring.' And he isn't.
on February 24, 2013
Stories about life in present day Detroit. This former Detroit News reporter tells the reader what it is like by telling stories that chronicle real people's daily lives. His language is earthy and fits the narrative. The problems he describes exist to a much smaller extent in every large city. But I differ from the author in that other cities are tackling these problems and making improvements. His attitude is that all American cities are headed in this direction. NYC once had overwhelming crime, drugs and poverty. Mr. LeDuff writes about political corruption, loss of jobs, crime, drugs - it is simply almost too much. I lived just outside Detroit in the early 80's. I remember the vitriol that spewed from the mayor, Coleman Young. He drove the white middle class from Detroit to solidify his political base. They took their jobs and their tax base with them. Ushered in for decades has been inept and corrupt local government. As the author notes, race has a lot to do with the problems. The area that he does not address in any way is personal accountability. He seems to blame everyone except the thugs themselves. Things are bad, no doubt, no jobs, but no one is holding a gun to people's head forcing them to take drugs, beat their wives, burn down houses, etc. If anything, this book shows the results of not only bad public policy but what happens when the most basic and most important institution breaks down - the family. Government alone will never fix Detroit. How a young child can grow up normal in this environment is a moral tragedy.
On a separate note: the publisher should be congratulated for producing a high quality book. Great paper and print. Made it a pleasure to hold and read.
on February 15, 2013
I don't often write product reviews but after completing this book I felt I needed to give such respect.
Mr. LeDuff is a brutally honest author, and "An American Autopsy" says what those familiar with the situation in Detroit have been saying for years: those in government, business, and religion either do nothing or are complicit in the pillaging of this once great apex of American civilization. This is not just gonzo journalism, LeDuff is attesting to what he's lived and seen; Detroit is his city, and he and those he cares for have experienced their fair share of its sickness.
Once I started reading this book I plowed through the whole thing in one sitting. LeDuff's writing style is addictive and his sincerity is well appreciated in a time when sugar-coating and out right lies are all too common.
I was in Detroit a few months ago doing research at the Ford archives. People were very friendly to me during my entire stay in that down home, I put one pant leg on at a time way that they are in the Midwest. Even wealthy Grosse Pointe types were like this. Someone asked me how often I came to Detroit. "I was last here 34 years ago for my best friend's wedding," I said. "Well, it was a lot better here 34 years ago, that's for sure," he said. "He's damn right," another said who had been eavesdropping.
Detroit has been through hell since the 2008 stock market collapse. As LeDuff says in his book, it wasn't all that great before, either. LeDuff documents the hell of Detroit, frequently mixing in his personal tragedies and screw ups along the way. This is hard-boiled journalism. The sentences are short and snappy. The mood is one slow burn. I remember living in the Midwest many moons ago and walking by the porch of a songwriter on my way to college. Spring through Fall he'd sit in front of an Underwood on the porch with a fifth of Stoli that he'd drink straight from the bottle. The impression that you get while reading this is that LeDuff must write in much the same way.
The chapters move here and there in a fairly chaotic fashion. This isn't the most coherent book you'll find. But there is something about it that is compelling more often than not. Detroit is a quick read and a jolt. LeDuff seems to think that the current state of his hometown is a bellwether for the entire nation. I think he's off base with that idea. Detroit certainly is a mess. So apparently is LeDuff, but somehow he keeps enough of himself together to tell a pretty good story. If you want elegance, this book won't work for you. It's best for fans of Hunter Thompson, Jack Keruoac, and Jimmy Breslin.