Review: Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff

Speramus Meliora: Resurget Cineribus

Goodreads
I am a product of the Rust Belt, born and raised in the Cleveland area after the collapse of the rubber industry in Akron and near the beginning of the collapse of the steel and automobile industries in the rest of the Rust Belt. So I have a very soft spot for these areas, and the major cities that still support the millions of families who relocated here in the Twentieth Century, looking to make a better life for themselves and their families through hard work and the promise of the American Dream.

I absolutely adore the cities of Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Detroit, but I've been away from the area for over a decade, so I take any opportunity I can to find out what's going on "back home" in these three cities in particular. Cleveland and Pittsburgh seem to be doing well, the latter with a booming healthcare research industry, and the former with a wealth of cultural events and world-renowned attractions. Detroit, on the other hand, hasn't done as well in the past decade, with a mass exodus of its citizens leaving behind thousands of empty buildings, the city declaring bankruptcy, and local governments seemingly unable to govern without being rocked by scandal. 

Hoping to gain some understanding about what's happening in Detroit, I picked up Charlie LeDuff's book, and in spite of having started one book already, and having another two I needed to read, I couldn't put it down. So come with me through the jump as I tell you what had me so captivated by this book.




It really is a beautiful city!
Opening with the discovery of a body, frozen in four feet of ice at the bottom of an elevator shaft, Detroit: An American Autopsy consistently tells stories of the forgotten and neglected--both people and places. It's the story of a once-great city that took care of it's own, led by an industry that understood that providing for one's workers kept its business in business, a town that made room for everyone, albeit begrudgingly and with restrictions much of the time. But when the driving industry collapsed and people moved away in droves, those left behind faced unimaginable difficulties, from the struggle to find work, awful conditions in schools, sky-high crime rates and gang violence, and a bankrupt city that can't afford luxuries like parks or fully funded and equipped emergency services. 

"The man took his factory away,
but he didn't take the people with him"


The tales that Charlie LeDuff tells are melancholy with a thread of hopelessness tying the anecdotes together. From the firefighters with shoddy equipment and facilities, to grandmothers who dream of leaving the urban wasteland that Detroit has become with no means to do so, to public officials who don't respect their colleagues and certainly don't put their constituents first. 

Detroit still has about 700,000 people--people who live and work and struggle to make a life in a place that so many have abandoned. But it's hard to abandon a place that holds your roots, your family, your heart. The disintegration of this most American of cities cannot be blamed on the residents who call Detroit home, who want nothing more than to see their home become a place where truly living, not just surviving, is possible again. The story of one of Charlie's firefighter friends is indicative of your average Detroiter:

His father was born a few blocks from the firehouse and retired after serving nearly thirty years in the department. And now Nevin was working here too, trying like all the brothers in the firehouse to keep the remnants and its people from burning to the ground. "I love this place, this neighborhood, these people," he said. "I'm angry with the people in power who are supposed to lead and don't."

The abandoned Packard Plant
The Detroit that Charlie LeDuff describes is not the Detroit that I know, and I'm still working to reconcile that. He describes the Detroit of the early 90s, when he left home, as "dark and broken and violent" but still a major city with well over a million people. That's the Detroit I remember from the early 2000s, as well. Dark and violent, maybe, but also vibrant and spirited with culture and history everywhere. Now, Detroit is desolate; "empty and forlorn and pathetic." That breaks my heart, but my eternally optimistic side holds tightly to the hope that Detroit can, once again, rise from her ashes. The people of Detroit deserve no less.

People often ask, where is the hope in Detroit? It was right here. I had just watched it. Society had functioned properly in this case because we all wanted it to. {snip} We got justice without harming the law. It felt righteous. In the end, if we are going to fix it, we are going to have to stand up and say "enough" and then get on with the difficult work of cleaning it up.

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