Detroit: An American Autopsy

"Go ahead and laugh at Detroit," Charlie LeDuff sneers defiantly as the once-great metropolis teeters on the brink of collapse. "Because you are laughing at yourself." So begins LeDuff's haunting, angry and deeply personal account of what is left of his hometown. The city was once heralded as "Paris of the Midwest" for its cosmopolitan luxuries, broad boulevards and sweeping views of the Detroit River. Yet it was quintessentially American because of its unstinting work ethic and tireless inventiveness. Detroit gave birth to mass production, the automobile, the cement road, the refrigerator, frozen peas, high paying blue-collar jobs, home ownership and credit on a mass scale, LeDuff reminds us. "America's way of life was built here." It was also the last arsenal of Democracy on the planet fast enough, strong enough, rich enough and determined enough to stand up to fascism and stop its march across the globe.

Detroit: An American Autopsy captures the city today, sitting on the edge of modern civilization, slipping inexorably back into total chaos. Neglected streets have given way to craters and makeshift memorials to victims of murder. Entire blocks of homes have crumbled in upon themselves. Whole neighborhoods are engulfed in weeds and errant trees that now give cover to deer, wild chickens and wolves. Pheasants can be seen gliding between the high windows of once-grand skyscrapers downtown.

So much of LeDuff's book reads like scenes out of MAD MAX where bands of criminals roam the streets and rule the night in the post-apocalyptic city. It is gritty like Eminem's epic movie, 8 MILE. Only now, the beat has ceased. The music has stopped. LeDuff tells the story at sewer-level. He traces back the roots of the drifter whose body was found frozen in a block of ice at the bottom of an elevator shaft in an abandoned warehouse where hipsters sneak around on "urban adventures" and people play hockey around the man's legs jutting up, frozen stiff, from the ice.

He tells of the madness of crack dens in abandoned homes that plague neighborhoods, where children get shot, girls are raped and lawlessness prevails. The city is too defunct to deal with the hulking structures. Sometimes in frustration, well-intended neighbors try burning them to the ground. But even this draws a new breed of preying criminal: Serial arsonists who just like to watch fire burn.

Then come the last sentries of defense in this blinking, flickering ember of civilization: men from the fire department in rickety, broken trucks. These men risk their lives -- sometimes lose them -- to save a lost city from that final plague of fire. LeDuff recounts the aching details of one firefighter who rushed into an abandoned house in search of life. But he is killed when the roof collapses on him. The house was empty.

LeDuff also tells unflinching tales of his own family, including the death of his sister, Nicole. A "streetwalker" and druggie, she is killed leaving a dive bar with a strange man when she leaps out of his speeding van and into a tree on the side of the street.

What makes the book work is LeDuff's undiluted anger. His style is not taught in journalism schools. Which is why he is such an honest, powerful and relentless reporter. It is why his sources trust him. He is fearless and spares no one. Greedy Wall Street tycoons, union bosses, Big Three auto execs, corrupt politicians, lousy cops, LeDuff scorches everyone in his path with real and vivid tales of their dastardly deeds and ineptitude.


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commented 2013-03-13 23:53:47 -0400 · Flag
Spartacus writes:

perfect, Detroit is the paradigm that awaits All of America,
a hollowed shell of its former self.
commented 2013-03-13 23:50:09 -0400 · Flag
JcD writes:

One word: unions
This scenario not playing out anywhere else
Detroit will be the guiny pig
As for the Anerican way of life
What exactly is that prior to ww2 & gi bill?
Mythic making american media, controlled
by the self-titled “worlds most persecuted
people on earth”. If I am detroit mayor I would
lease the entire city to Israeli entrepreneurs
and only ask for a percentage of ipo profits.
commented 2013-03-13 23:48:58 -0400 · Flag
V.M. writes:

Forgot part that Detroit is becoming us Mecca for Muslims…