Motor City requiemFebruary 8, 2013: 7:13 AM ET
In his new book, Detroit: An American Autopsy, journalist Charlie LeDuff chronicles his hometown's epic decline.
By Anne VanderMey, reporter
FORTUNE -- When Detroit's Big Three auto executives flew to Washington in corporate jets to beg for a taxpayer bailout a few years ago, they were sent home humbled and empty-handed. Their second trip, in which they drove company-made hybrid vehicles to the Capitol, was in some ways equally humiliating. Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli drove to D.C. in a soon-to-be-discontinued Aspen Hybrid SUV, traveling with engineers in tow in case of mechanical difficulties. On the way back, Nardelli told his driver to take the exit for the airport and flew home on a corporate jet.
That nugget of corporate duplicity comes by way of journalist Charlie LeDuff in Detroit: An American Autopsy, a new book about the decay of Motor City. There's a lot to be mad about in the story of the decline of Detroit, but few people do anger with as much flair as LeDuff. A son of Detroit (or nearby Livonia to be exact), LeDuff won a Pulitzer at The New York Times before returning home to work for The Detroit News. He's now an on-air personality at Detroit's local Fox affiliate. The book, which chronicles LeDuff's reporting on his hometown, is a sad and slightly unhinged tour of a broken city.
Part memoir and part reportage, Detroit: An American Autopsy offers a series of dystopic urban vignettes. As you might expect from the country's violent crime capital, the scenes are harrowing: ill-funded firehouses with broken toilets, exposed asbestos insulation, and feces that bubble up from basement sewer pipes; bodies that pile up in the city morgue because people can't pay to bury the dead; and a frozen corpse that sits unattended for three months in an abandoned building because no one bothers to report it.
LeDuff is an entertaining though at times infuriating narrator. In real life as on TV, he dresses a little like a musketeer: wide ties, white shirts, vests, and a goatee. His journalistic motto, aside from "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," is "don't be boring." He is not. In one TV segment he played a round of golf straight through the city, teeing off from vacant lots. In another, a mock interview with former mayor Coleman Young, LeDuff spoke to an old photo of the deceased official animated by a pair of oversized moving lips. It drew fire for perceived racial insensitivity. LeDuff's response: "God you all need to relax."
The biggest story that comes out of Detroit: An American Autopsy will likely be the very intimate portrait of disgraced City councilwoman Monica Conyers, who is the wife of sitting congressman John Conyers. At a jazz lounge on Livernois Avenue (much of the book takes place in bars), Conyers professes to be checking for a wire as she fondles LeDuff's testicles.
When LeDuff calls Conyers to ask about her involvement in a bribery scandal, she says her name is Teresa and tells him he called the wrong number. Later, he calls her out as they're standing outside taking a smoking break while filming a TV segment: "Sensing an opportunity, I dialed her number. Her phone rang. She looked at me. 'Teresa my ass,' I said." Conyers pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery soon after, sticking the citizens of Detroit with the tab for her court-appointed lawyer. The councilwoman was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison for corruption.
Conyers's antics weren't particularly lurid by Detroit standards. In a single week in October last year, police inspector Don Johnson reportedly texted a picture of his Johnson to a subordinate. The State Supreme Court reprimanded a judge for texting a mostly-naked photo of himself to a female bailiff. And Internal Affairs investigated a married police commander for punching an officer with whom he was romantically involved. Earlier that month, the chief of police resigned after a scorned paramour tweeted a picture of herself fellating a revolver. Earlier still, the city's "Hip Hop Mayor," Kwame Kilpatrick, sent an aide a series of messages that included the text, "I'm ABOUT TO COME RIGHT NOW!"
The lusty antics of Detroit's officials are just a sideshow to the global economic shifts that have ravaged the city in recent decades. At one point LeDuff follows a union captain as he packs up his own tools in crates bound for Texas and Mexico. At the L.A. Auto Show, the night before the debut of the Cadillac CTS Coupe in 2009, a drunken, unnamed General Motors (GM) executive slurs that "the new board of directors are fucking crazy."
Yet the Big Three are still in business. Despite the 2008 corporate jet snafu they still got their federal bailouts, enabling the region to hold on to thousand of jobs. All three automakers (even Chrysler) are now profitable. Detroit also has a renovated museum in the Detroit Institute of Art, and cheap studio space has paved the way for a vibrant community of artists. Upscale restaurants serve kale and quinoa salads and great barbeque. There's an apartment shortage in the up-and-coming Midtown neighborhood. Whole Foods (WFM) will open a branch on Woodward Avenue in the spring. Those signs of life go unmentioned in Detroit: An American Autopsy.
Instead LeDuff paints a portrait of a desolate, crime-ridden urban time bomb. In some ways, that's a shame. He chose to live in the suburbs (he has a young daughter), but there's a small yet significant population of young and educated Detroit residents, many of whom are entrepreneurs taking advantage of the city's low prices. By most accounts, they rarely feel threatened shuttling between work, home, and nightlife. To his credit, LeDuff addresses these criticisms in the book, responding that good museums and placid commutes shouldn't be news. And he's right that the reality of human suffering often gets lost in all the noise about Detroit's new urban cool.
LeDuff is at his best chronicling the routine injustice inflicted on Detroiters by an establishment that's often criminal, criminally incompetent, or both. His fierce advocacy for basic necessities like repairs to local firehouses, better meals for the elderly, and shorter waits for emergency services have made him generally well-liked in the city. (We also hear that he's fun to drink with.) Last year, LeDuff's well-sourced reporting led to the suspension of a circuit judge and the resignations of the chief of police and the deputy fire commissioner. For that he was named Journalist of the Year by local site Deadline Detroit, which affectionately described him as a "big-hearted jackass."
The book is at worst when it veers into self-indulgence, which happens maybe every other chapter. There's a bit too much family history (the LeDuff clan's Detroit roots date back to 1920). And his personal story is woven inconsistently through a narrative that's not quite linear, without being a distinct series of essays. The writing is engaging, though occasionally grandiose. For example: "Suddenly I was in the middle of a gangster picture and I didn't have the script." And his running theme of working man vs. The Man -- be it politicians, Wall Street, or automotive execs -- can be wearyingly simplistic.
That said, sometimes the story really is that simple. Detroit has always been about strife between haves and have-nots. By taking up cudgels for the working man, both in this book and in his many scoops as a metro reporter, LeDuff successfully puts the focus where it belongs: on fixing the city's problems. In Detroit, a little outrage may be exactly what's called for.
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