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Friday, April 12, 2013

Detroit’s Postmortem

An insider’s look at a great city’s decline

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“Go ahead and laugh at Detroit. Because you are laughing at yourself.”

This indictment of homegrown schadenfreude appears early in the pages of Charlie LeDuff’s compelling—yet maddeningly frustrating—Detroit: An American Autopsy (Penguin). The decline of Motor City is an epic tale (featuring deindustrialization, white flight and the breakdown of city government, to name a few of the juicier chapters, and LeDuff, a former reporter for The New York Times, tells the story with aplomb. From dead bodies left to rot in abandoned buildings for weeks, to firefighters facing an endless supply of blazes on an ever-shrinking budget, LeDuff paints the story of a third-world country right in our backyard. You may think it’s bad, LeDuff almost gleefully points out page after page, but you don’t know the half of it.

What makes this narrative less overwhelming is the masterful way that LeDuff weaves his biography into this larger story. His family history is morbidly fascinating: growing up in a working-class suburb of Detroit (like many other white Detroiters), LeDuff’s family took refuge outside the urban center during the second half of the 20th century. Tellingly, LeDuff moved into a suburb himself when he returned to the metropolitan region in the early 21st century. LeDuff saw his family break up, siblings get addicted to drugs and his sister become a prostitute and die tragically while trying to escape a murderous john. All of this takes place as Detroit slowly begins to rot. “[T]he fact is,” LeDuff reminds us, “Detroit was dying forty years ago when the Japanese began to figure out how to make a better car.” And as global competition within the auto industry continued to increase, more and more Detroit families started to look like the LeDuffs.

To the author, there are plenty of villains to blame for the sorry state of contemporary Detroit. CEOs, city politicians, church leaders and law enforcement officials are all called out for contributing to the mess that Detroit has become. Yet LeDuff also takes to task the journalists who engage in what has come to be known as “ruin porn”—those from places like National Public Radio (NPR), The Wall Street Journal and Rolling Stone who “parachuted into town,” took a tour of the decaying ruins and “pronounced it awful here and left.” They didn’t take the time to really get to know the city LeDuff once again calls home.

But what makes LeDuff’s work ultimately less than satisfying is that he offers the same conclusions put forward by such interlopers. “[I]t is awful here,” LeDuff informs us, “there is no other way to say it.” There are no potential solutions offered here, just a death certificate. Yes, LeDuff’s account may be more authentic than others because he has embedded himself in Detroit, but that only elevates his status from ambulance chaser to ambulance catcher. In fact, LeDuff himself almost seems to be addicted to the sense of fatalism that has come to define Detroit, covering his condition by taking on the guise of the just-the-facts reporter. He’s not laughing at Detroit—he’s getting off, in a literary sense, on the carnage. Sometimes even ruin porn needs a good fluffer.

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