Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Detroit: An American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff

Penguin, 2013
286 pp + photos

"... it is awful here, there is no other way to say it. But I believe that Detroit is America's city. It was the vanguard of our way up just as it is the vanguard of our way down. And one hopes the vanguard of our way up again."
Detroit: An American Autopsy is a combination of gritty reportage and personal memories punctuated with a  vein of dark humor that tells the author's story of his attempt to understand what has happened to this city.  Detroit is where Charlie LeDuff grew up and after some time away, where he lives now.  The book is an uncompromising account of  a city that was once the richest in America and the forces, both external and internal, which have led Detroit down a steep path of decline. At the same time, it's also the story of some very resilient people who continue to work and live there despite the challenges they come up against each and every day. 

LeDuff opens his prologue with the discovery of a dead man nicknamed Johnnie Dollar  found in an abandoned building "encased in at least four feet of ice at the bottom of a defunct elevator shaft..."  All that could be seen of him were his feet, covered in white socks and black gym shoes.  LeDuff notes that anywhere else, this sight would have been tragic, "mind blowing," but not in Detroit -- and he wonders what has happened  while he was gone.  He sizes up the situation in a holistic sort of way, noting that
" come across something like a man frozen in ice and the skeleton of the anatomy of the place reveals it to you.

The neck bone is connected to the billionaire who owns the crumbling building where the man died. The rib bones are connected to the countless minions shuffling through the frostbitten streets burning fires in empty warehouses to stay warm -- and get high. The hip bone is connected to a demoralized police force who couldn't give a shit about digging a dead mope out of an elevator shaft. The thigh bone is connected to the white suburbanites who turn their heads away from the calamity of Detroit, carrying on as though the human suffering were somebody else's problem. And the foot bones -- well, they're sticking out of a block of dirty frozen water, belonging to an unknown man nobody seemed to give a rip about."
And, as he notes, "we're all standing at the edge of that shaft."

LeDuff is a very hands-on, no-fear, outspoken investigative reporter who cares.  For example, while tackling the question of what's happened to his city, he embeds himself with a local fire squad struggling to keep up with multiple fires with bad or broken equipment (down to holes in their boots); in one case he discovered that a firefighter's death when a house collapsed was due in part to equipment failure.  He also tackles the corruption of the city by following the money and paper trail of misallocated funds and discovers outright theft and an appalling lack of accountability.  Worse, when he prints his findings, nobody cares -- there are no investigations, nothing.  But imho, the best writing in this book comes from his accounts of the people living in the city: good people who learn to endure, as they are often stuck where they are, unable to leave; others are too poor to afford heat for their families; there are victims of violence whose families can't afford to bury them; he reveals unresponsive ambulance and police services; and his story of  a one year-old baby playing in the detritus of an abandoned house just about did me in. These stories are not only sad, but alarming and downright shameful.   Including his own family's experiences in the city adds a very personal feel that is also just plain gut wrenching at times. 

I loved this book -- I love LeDuff's crazy personality and most of all I like his dogged determination in getting to the root of the problems facing his city. A lot of people talk the talk -- this man walks the walk and reports what he sees in an unflinching manner.  At the same time, parts of this very serious book made me laugh  out loud.  He's definitely got the knack of being serious and entertaining at the same time as he examines why people in many cases don't even have access to the basic services a city should provide. Unlike many reviewers, I don't live in Detroit, nor do I have a connection to it unless you want to count our American-made cars.   I chose to read  this book for the human story which LeDuff tells and tells well, becoming interested in it some time back when  I had read a brief excerpt where LeDuff mentions schoolkids in the city having to supply their own toilet paper, which stuck a chord. A couple of years back I had read a story about the items people were being asked to supply for their children's school year and I was frankly appalled. Well beyond the crayons, pencils, and the other supplies one might consider normal,  also on the list were paper plates, plastic silverware,and  toilet paper, and that was right here in the state where I live.  I remember telling a friend about this and asking where is all the money going that is allocated for schools?  And just recently, a company whose name I won't mention set up shop here in my area and somehow was allowed to sidestep the normal investigative process because local politicians received places on the company's  board of directors or other perks (some financial, as it turns out) for looking the other way.  People who were hired for jobs in this company moved their lives to come here only to find that shady business practices and greed sent the company into bankruptcy while these new employees were still traveling to get here.  Then there's the costs to the city -- millions and millions of dollars just gone.  And that's only one example right here in my neck of the woods.  Somehow, things have just gone appallingly wrong. LeDuff is right -- this kind of thing is happening all over.  He  is a guy worth listening to.

03/01:  imagine my surprise -- NOT:  Detroit in state of emergency

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