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Detroit: An American Autopsy Paperback – January 28, 2014
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"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
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After a career as a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter with the New York Times, LeDuff answered the longing to return to his roots in Detroit, a city that was once at the forefront of American industry and growth. What he returned to was a city now more famous for its corruption and decay. LeDuff reprises the shenanigans of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and city councilwoman Monica Conyers and others before the slow-moving justice process caught up with them. Among the other signs of decay: a police department so broke that cops take the bus to crime scenes and a fire department so bereft it sells its brass poles as scrap. He reports on surreptitious meetings with police officers to counter rosy reports of declining crime rates. He also reports on the personal toll the city’s decline has taken on its citizens, including his own family, with grim stories of his brothers’ chronic unemployment and his sister’s and niece’s deaths from drug overdoses. With the emotions of personal connection and the clear-eyed detachment of a reporter, LeDuff examines what Detroit’s decline means for other American cities. --Vanessa Bush --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"LeDuff returns, by the books end, to the bar where his sister was last seen, only to find it unrecognizable. A black man outside explains the changes. 'they trying to put something nice up' in this hellhole he says, speaking of the bar specifically, though his words spread across the city and pay tribute, in equal measure, to its dreamers, its pessimists and to those, resigned and wrung out, who love it despite all. 'Can't say it's working. But what you gonna do? You ain’t gonna be reincarnated, so you got to do the best you can with the moment you got. Do the best you can and try to be good.' LeDuff has done his best, and his book is better than good."
—Paul Clemens, New York Times Book Review
"One cannot read Mr. LeDuff's amalgam of memoir and reportage and not be shaken by the cold eye he casts on hard truths... A little gonzo, a little gumshoe, some gawker, some good-Samaritan—it is hard to ignore reporting like Mr. LeDuff's."
—The Wall Street Journal
“Pultizer-Prize-winning journalist LeDuff (Work and Other Sins) delivers an edgy portrait of the decline, destruction, and possible redemption of his hometown…LeDuff writes with honesty and compassion about a city that’s destroying itself–and breaking his heart.”
—Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW
“A book full of both literary grace and hard-won world-weariness…. Iggy Pop meets Jim Carroll and Charles Bukowski”
“This is our pick for a sleeper nonfiction hit next year. Charlie LeDuff is a remarkable journalist, and this book is filled with incredible writing as he witnesses his home city crumble through neglect and corruption.”
“What to do when you’re a reporter and your native city is rotting away? If you’re LeDuff, you leave The New York Times and head into the wreckage to ride with firemen, hang with the corrupt pols, and retrace your own family’s sad steps through drugs. Others have written well about the city, but none with the visceral anger, the hair-tearing frustration, and the hungry humanity of LeDuff.”
"You wouldn't think a book about the stinking decay of the American dream could be this engaging, this irreverent, this laugh-at-loud funny. But not everyone can write like Charlie LeDuff. I'm tempted to say he's the writer for our desperate times the way Steinbeck and Orwell were for other people's desperate times, except he's such an original he's like no one but himself."
—Alexandra Fuller, author of Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness and Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight
"Charlie LeDuff is a drunkard, a blowhard, a Fox News Reporter -- and a brilliant writer. Detroit is full of righteous anger and heartbreaking details. It's also funny as hell. Hunter S. Thompson would've loved every page of this book."
—Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness
"In Detroit: An American Autopsy, Charlie LeDuff brings alive the reality of our beloved city. The city where I was shot at eight times during my twenty six year police career. Yet, Detroit has survived in spite of corruption, political ineptness, poor education, and decades of unemployment. Detroit: An American Autopsy is a must read for all of America."
—Detroit Police Chief Ike McKinnon (retired); Associate Professor of Education, University of Detroit Mercy
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I left Michigan shortly before the Wall Street Debacle and the housing market crash and the auto bailout... Not from "white flight" as my mother calls it, but because my life and my fiance's work took us other places. Downriver and Detroit were always fondly "home" for me. I would hear about Kilpatrick and the death of the factories and the breaking down of Detroit from the news and from friends. I would feel rage and sadness. I knew about the scandalous Detroit City Council and the slimy Matty Moroun, and thought I knew all the ins and outs of what made Detroit.
Turns out, I knew nothing at all.
I'm so happy to have finally read this, to have finally gotten the inside view. I'm a little sad that I've gotten it safely from the outside, as if I've become one of those outsiders again.
I've loved Charlie LeDuff's stuff for a good while, and have always enjoyed his reporting clips. This book was 100% everything I expected it to be.
My mother, who has always been scared sick of Detroit, blames Detroiters for their own predicament. "They voted them in, why should I have to help fix it?" I would love for her to read this, to get a view from the other side. I know she never will, though, because it might put a chink in her carefully crafted confirmation bias.
Thanks, Charlie, for giving us a look inside Detroit where most of us have never really been. I have sadness, but I have hope. And I look forward to enjoying more of your work!
Usually when I type up a book review for a nonfiction book, I’ll note whether the book had an index, bibliography, footnotes or endnotes, and I’ll type up the table of contents. However, because this review is for an audiobook, I have no idea if LeDuff’s book included any of those in the print version.
Also, because it’s an audiobook, the reader plays an important part in the listener’s experience. And I have to commend Eric Martin for his voice acting abilities. He creates distinctive voices for the various people who appear in the story. In particular, there’s an exchange of text messages between a politician and his mistress which LeDuff recounts, and Martin reads. The texts oscillate between a mistress who writes grammatically correct and quite descriptive erotica, and a politician whose texts are short and often one or two words and are usually profanities. Martin not only captures the abrupt changes in tone and erudition with his voice, but even manages to have a undertone like he’s looking at the listener and saying “Can you believe this? I’m not sure which is more ridiculous, that they wrote this, that I’m reading it, or that I’m being paid to read it.”
And now to address the text of the book. It’s a painful and tragic book, but also inspiring in its own way. I’m glad I listened to it.
Charlie LeDuff is a journalist and reporter who grew up in the Detroit area then left to work in other places. I haven’t read his other books, but in _Detroit: An American Autopsy_ LeDuff comes across as almost a stereotype from decades past — the journalist who sees journalism as a craft that “afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted,” and who goes into each interview with politicians thinking “how is this lying jerk lying to me now?”
At the start of the book, LeDuff leaves his job in California to move him and his family back to Detroit and work for one of the small local newspapers. Some parts of Charlie LeDuff’s family go back in the Detroit area multiple generations and most of his family still lives in the area. In the second half of the book, LeDuff looks into his own family history and discovers that one branch of his family has some recent African American ancestry, and LeDuff marvels at how one of his grandfathers went from “mulatto” or “negro” or “black” in government documentation in the American south to “white” in Detroit. LeDuff’s family have their own tragedies, including the death of LeDuff’s sister, and then the death of the sister’s daughter. At one point, LeDuff goes to an aunt’s funeral and is almost creeped out by the ordinariness of his aunt’s funeral with the quiet grieving and respectful silence, because he is far more used to family funerals which include meltdowns, breakdowns, and drunken fights.
LeDuff interweaves the history of Detroit as well as his own personal and family history into the book. Detroit was founded by a French man with the name of Cadillac (although that may not have been his actual name) to trade in beaver skins and other furs to send back to France. The name Detroit comes from the French word “detroit” which means “strait” and describes its location as being on a strait of Lake Erie. As time went on and various wars were fought, Detroit was ceded to Britain and then to the United States. There was always a lot of trade in Detroit.
Detroit has also always had diverse ethnic groups, often with tension between groups. This continued when it grew explosively from 1900-1930, with immigration from southern Europe, eastern Europe, the southern U.S. and areas of the Appalachian mountains in the U.S., all people coming to get jobs in heavy industry, the auto industry and defense industries. And that’s in addition to the descendants of earlier French and English settlers who were already living there. I was quite surprised to hear that a large percentage of the KKK was based in Michigan and Detroit in the early 20th century. There were two large race riots in Detroit in 1943 and 1967 which were so severe Detroit was occupied by armed forces of the U.S. federal government to end the riots.
Even before I listened to this book, I’d read multiple magazine articles over the years about the unique challenges Detroit faces today. Its population has shrunk by over half since the 1950s. This by itself is fairly unique for a large city to deal with. But Detroit has also seen most of its large industrial companies close or shrink and the blue collar wages from the existing companies have gone down precipitously, and many of its middle class residents have moved to the suburbs or out of the area entirely. So Detroit has seen its population and its amount of tax revenue per capita both decline dramatically. But its city borders and the miles of city streets, water pipes, sewer pipes and other utilities that all have to be maintained haven’t gone down.
These would be difficult challenges for any city with competent management, but much of what LeDuff documents is the corruption of Detroit’s city officials. There are many people down at the working level, such as police officers and firefighters, who work hard and try their best. But at some point in the city’s administrative structure, political connections and skill at office politics overtake any skill, scruples, or experience.
LeDuff talks to homicide detectives whose budget has been cut so deeply that they if they have a department car, it leaks inside and has water puddling on the floor, and in some cases homicide detectives have to take the city bus to go to a crime scene. There is great news about what a great job the police department has done in reducing the murder rate, but the homicide detectives are seething with rage because they know the actual murder rate is not any better at all. There are unsolved cases that will remain unsolved because the police department’s budget doesn’t include enough money in the budget to actually investigate and solve the crimes. But when LeDuff writes a news story about it, the detective who talked to him is put under such pressure the detective has to retract his statement. And after that, the detectives still meet with LeDuff to talk about their frustration and anger at the system, but only in off-the-beaten path dive bars and cheap diners and only after looking around the establishment to make sure there is no one to snitch on them for talking to a reporter.
LeDuff has a special appreciation for firefighters and the culture of firefighters, seeing them as the spiritual descendants of the brave and sometimes slightly crazy cowboys of the Old West. As with the police, LeDuff finds the firefighters actually working in the stations and running into burning buildings to be mostly good people trying to do good while working without nearly enough funding and equipment. But the people who head the fire department for the entire city are not that way. One of stories that LeDuff comes back to repeatedly is a firefighter who was a mentor to many others and who died putting out a fire in an abandoned building. As LeDuff researches the story and writes articles for the newspaper he works at, his name and face become known and he finds himself personally escorted out of the public building housing the head bureaucrats of the fire department.
LeDuff realizes that similar to the police department, if he reports on what the firefighters are telling him, all that happens is those firefighters get told they can either publicly recant or be fired. LeDuff promises to find out where the rats are officially. So he looks up as much of the city fire department’s budget as he can, files Freedom Of Information Act requests for the rest, and when the fire department says he can only view the documents in person, during regular hours, with a city employee present, LeDuff sits in a small room for several days going through stacks and stacks of receipts and reports. LeDuff then confronts the fire chief with his findings, which include many millions of dollars in construction projects which seem to have no actual construction ever done on them. The fire department officials coolly explain that sometimes projects get started and then canceled, but LeDuff counters with the times that’s happened when the unspent money is never put back into the budget. And then LeDuff brings up the approved and spent construction projects on buildings that don’t exist or that haven’t been active fire stations in several decades. LeDuff writes it all up for his newspaper, with facts and figures and proof, and it gets published, and then nothing happens. (LeDuff says that as a result of all this, some of the firefighters thanked him for the work he’d been doing researching and publicizing this; he said it was only the second time he’d had public officials thank him for his work as a reporter, and the previous time it was the firefighters he was reporting on at Ground Zero after the 9/11 bombings.)
There are a lot more stories like that in _Detroit: An American Autopsy_. LeDuff talks to officials, he talks to people accused or under indictment, he talks to criminals, he talks to victims, he talks to grieving family members. There are a lot of things I remember reading about in national news, but without the context and details LeDuff supplies. I remember the hopeful articles about new Detroit Mayor David Bing, who was new to politics, a famous sports star and successful business owner, and someone who genuinely wanted to turn Detroit around. LeDuff points out that when Bing was elected mayor, only fourteen percent of the electorate showed up to vote, Bing’s company was on its way to bankruptcy when he decided to run for mayor, and for all the good intentions Bing expressed, he kept on most of the career bureaucrats who continued to do as much damage as they ever had.
LeDuff also talks about the mosque which was accused of being a Sunni Islam terrorist cell (I remembered reading about that too), and explains that to the neighbors, it was a bunch of young black men who were lost and used to a criminal life and who were trafficking in stolen goods and intimidating the neighborhood.
At the same time federal officials got into a firefight that resulted in the head of the mosque being shot twenty times while cornered in the back of a semi trailer full of stolen goods, the underwear bomber from across the Atlantic (who was on a federal watch list) was allowed to buy a ticket to fly to the United States and pay with cash only and to board the plane. LeDuff dryly notes that had the underwear bomber actually gotten his underwear bomb to go off, it might have exploded while the plane was above Detroit, and the wreckage might have fallen on Detroit, and might not have hit anybody because according to some estimates Detroit is 40% empty.
LeDuff does actually make some small differences, getting attention to a neglected case here, helping a grieving grandmother get a chance to bury her granddaughter’s ashes there.
But, at the end of the book, while reporting on a trial of a case where the accused should have been in jail for prior crimes, but that previous case was abruptly closed by a judge who was notorious for closing cases prematurely when she wanted to go on vacation but she still got reelected because she came from a family of judges and politicians and therefore had enough name recognition to get reelected, LeDuff finally gives up on Detroit entirely and also leaves. He has written up his most recent story covering the deaths that were the results of people under trial for criminal acts being set free because of the prematurely closed cases from the courtroom of the judge who didn’t like working full days and didn’t like missing her vacations, and his own employer sat on the story for a few days then published a highly modified and softened version of it, because it’s a judge likely to get reelected from a family of judges likely to get reelected, and that newspaper doesn’t want to rock the boat as much as that. So LeDuff calls a friend in maintenance, gets a large waste bin to his desk, pushes everything off his desk into the waste bin, and leaves.
What does a person do when confronted with people who are getting killed and are killing themselves, but aren’t yet miserable enough to want to risk change? What do you do when someone is brave enough to speak up and say the truths that no one want to admit are true, and the response from everyone else is “it’s no use” or “don’t even bother” or “nothing’s going to change”?
Most places aren’t as bad as Detroit; but Detroit also wasn’t always as bad as Detroit. For me, _Detroit: An American Autopsy_ was a reminder that I don’t have to try and set the world on fire, but I do have to be willing to state my own principles and be willing to stand up for them, because if I don’t, then how can I expect anyone else to do so? Because of that, it’s a painful and tragic book, but I’m still glad I listened to it, and I give it five stars.
In the light of our current political climate, the fate of these people in the cities has an impact that should resonate with all of us comfortably ensconced in the suburbs. We need to listen to these voices, and, we as a people should take action to solve it.