Book Review: Detroit, An American Autopsy

By Jason Segedy

Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy is a life-changing book. It is as simple as that. If you read it, and if you take it to heart, I wager that you will never view Detroit, or the Rust Belt the same way ever again. Hopefully you will get angry. You should. This book is the Fast Food Nation of America’s decrepit industrial cities, and Detroit is McDonald’s.

I just can’t get over this book. It haunts me. Living nearly my entire life in Akron, I am familiar with the Rust Belt and with urban decline. I am a regular visitor to Cleveland, to Youngstown, and to Pittsburgh. I’ve been to Detroit itself several times and have walked and driven around. I’ve seen the tragic art exhibits documenting the decay, and I’ve leered at the ruin porn.

But nothing prepared me for this book. Hard-bitten skeptic and cynical Northeast Ohioan that I so often am, I was still flabbergasted by what I was reading here: frozen corpses; burning houses; corrupt, thieving politicians; strung-out derelicts; murdered children – as common and as unremarkable to the jaded denizens of Detroit as the pallid sun that rises each morning behind a steel grey sky.

What kind of society lets this happen to its cities? How are people actually okay with the post-apocalyptic, Mad Max hellscape that is present-day Detroit? The apathy – at all levels of government; in the corporate world; of the mostly-white suburbanites that ring the city; and, saddest of all: the fatalistic resignation of the residents of the mostly-black city of Detroit itself – it is all soul-crushingly pathetic.

So this is a book about Detroit, but it’s also about all of us. Charlie LeDuff says it best: “it is about the future of America and our desperate efforts to save ourselves from it.”

Charlie LeDuff is a mensch. He is an authentic human being. He has a big heart and a good soul. He is also a hot mess. He fights with his wife. He gets arrested. He’s quite frequently drunk. Critics accuse him of being a showman; a shameless self-promoter, and inserting himself too heavily into the story.

Yes, he does insert himself into the story. But that’s the whole point of this book. His methods may be unorthodox, but goddamn it, the man refuses to be dispassionate and clinical about something that requires passion and urgency.

It’s obvious by both his words and his deeds that he cares deeply about what is going on in this modern-day Pompeii: about the firefighters, their broke-ass equipment, and their fallen comrades; about the bereaved mothers that have lost children to the streets and have to store a dead child’s ashes in an urn at the back of a closet, because they can’t afford to bury them. He cares about the down-and-out and the down-on-their luck. In a word: he cares about the people of Detroit. As ruinously as Detroit’s built environment and urban landscape have been ravaged, its people have fared even worse. This is a book about a broken city, full of broken people.

He speaks movingly about losing some of his own family members to the streets. This is a man that is tired of waiting for someone to come save Detroit; be it a politician, a corporation, or the “government” in general. He has been known to report on stories wearing only his underwear to draw attention to the corruption and graft.ii Desperate times call for desperate measures.

He exemplifies the best of the Rust Belt ethos – hard work, not being afraid to get one’s hands dirty, not being afraid to speak truth to power, and not waiting for salvation to come from above. He stares into the abyss – into the entire hellacious, smoldering mess, shambling right up to the point of despair – and is still able to laugh. It may sound incredible, given the subject matter, but this is a laugh-out-loud funny book at times.

You can’t read too many pages in this book without reading about race and class, and the way that the pervasive segregation that is based on both has, and still does, affect this city in profound and terrible ways. The poor in every city live in crummy neighborhoods, but in Detroit they also have a completely dysfunctional city to contend with. This is the tale of a city that has descended into anarchy and corruption; where the street lights no longer work; and where the safety forces are no longer even able to help those that need it.

It is a truly frightening spectacle to behold. Today, almost half of the black people in Michigan live in places where local government has effectively lost power – just recently, Detroit joined Flint, Benton Harbor, Pontiac, and a few other smaller cities now under emergency management.

Another recurrent theme of this book is leadership – as in “Where the hell is it?” LeDuff makes an understated, but compelling case that it is high time that so-called community “leaders” and the power elite get out of their echo chambers; out of their glass and ivory towers, and start listening to the young, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised.

Being from Northeast Ohio, this point in particular resonated with me. Far too often, our leadership simply talks to itself at the seemingly endless panel discussions, conferences, and wine-and-cheese soirees, without ever actually engaging with the very people that it is claiming to help. The very real problems of joblessness, crime, urban decay, and abandonment are too often discussed as bloodless abstractions, to be endlessly dissected in an academic fashion, rather than as the inescapable evils that they really are for the ordinary people that struggle just to get by every day.

As I read this book, one passage in particular sent chills up my spine, because it sounded so achingly familiar in its depiction of the cluelessness of the white liberal establishment:

“The small, white ‘art community’ in Detroit complained that I was focusing on the negative in a city with so much good. What about all the galleries and museums and music? They complained in a flurry of e-mails and blogs. What about the good things?”

“It was a fair point. . .But these things are not supposed to be news. These things are supposed to be normal. And when normal things become the news, the abnormal becomes the norm. And when that happens, you might as well put a fork in it. . .Writing about shit like that in the city we were living in seemed equal to writing about the surf conditions while reporting in the Gaza strip.”

LeDuff doesn’t let us off the hook with any bromides, quick fixes, or seven-point plans for saving Detroit. One gets the impression, however, that salvation, if it comes at all, may have something to do with those under 40 – with the people that never knew a Detroit that worked right.

“It didn’t seem to matter. Black or White. Liberal or Conservative. White collar or Blue. Nobody could run shit. . .The entire country was being run into the ground by a generation infected with incompetence and greed.”

There is plenty of blame to go around for what ruined Detroit, in particular, and the Rust Belt, in general. There has been for years: an inept and dysfunctional government; feckless and corrupt politicians; mercenary corporations; greedy unions; irresponsible, weak, and broken people. All of it is true. It was a team effort. It took a “we” to ruin Detroit. And I think it is going to take a “we” to fix it.

This book is required reading for anyone that cares about cities, and I would go so far as to say “cares about this floundering nation of ours”. Charlie LeDuff has spoken truth to a country that is currently living so many lies. Good for him. Good for us – if we take the time to listen to him.

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