Detroit: An American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff
Behind the book About a week before it filed for bankruptcy, I went to Detroit. I’ve wanted to go for a long time and my husband and I finally drove through the tunnel from Windsor, Ont. to Detroit for my birthday. Most people don’t get my desire to visit the Motor City. But there is so much to see.
There is the decay and abandoned building porn, which, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit, was a big draw. With that, though, comes a city trying to reinvent itself. As lots sit empty, houses long demolished, some entrepreneurs are trying their hand at urban farming. There is also a large artists’ community in the city, with studios often situated in old, tumble-down factories. Detroit has a rich cultural history: Motown was founded here; this is where Diego Rivera painted his ‘Detroit Industry’ fresco, still on display at the Detroit Institute of Art; art deco architecture downtown and across the city make it clear that this was once a thriving metropolis.
Coming out the tunnel back into sunshine, our first view was of the incredible Wayne County Building, a historic courthouse, finished in 1902. In front, a big sign read ‘For Sale or Lease’. And so it went, during our two days in the city: empty storefronts and fantastic little cafes, side by side; in residential neighbourhoods, empty lots, high with weeds beside abandoned, burnt-out buildings beside rundown tenanted houses beside well-kept little homes with tidy front yards.
I became interested in Detroit, as many others did, in 2008. The city seemed to symbolize the entire collapse of the U.S. economy. I watched the Big Three auto companies appeal, at first with little humility or intelligent plan, to Washington for bailouts. I clicked through online photo galleries of abandoned factories and entire city blocks clawed back by Mother Nature. But Detroit’s decline has been going on for almost 60 years. The massive Packard plant, which sits on 40 acres in the city’s depressed east end, closed in1958. The human exodus began shortly after.
The book Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charlie LeDuff was raised in Detroit and in this book, he returns to the crumbling city with his wife and young daughter. Part memoir, part history lesson, part character study, Detroit: An American Autopsy is his account of a city that he clearly loves, but that also makes him sick.
The book reads like pulp fiction or a bad detective novel, but the subject matter and LeDuff’s obvious sincerity make it work. If you’ve seen the video of LeDuff golfing the length of Detroit, you get a sense of his humour that the book lacks. Detroit won’t make you laugh. The jokes, if there are any, are more likely to make you cry.
LeDuff is at his best when describing the humanity behind Detroit’s dwindling numbers. And more specifically, his own family. The quick, sparse writing leaves the reader space to interpret the words. He’s no more sentimental or apologetic describing his failure to help his niece before her death than he is in his descriptions of corrupt city politicians. LeDuff calls the book an ‘autopsy’ but it reminds me more of an insider’s eulogy. Either way, the city is dead. I’m just waiting to see what rises from the rubble.