Detroit: An American Autopsy – Charlie LeDuff

Just before the lockdown, back at the end of February, we managed with my mum to go for a week in Tenerife. Since then we haven’t seen each other and neither of us could travel anywhere. But it was meeting and traveling that usually constituted the things we looked forward to. So in the lockdown, it felt like there’s nothing to look forward too. Until my mum started channeling this lack of purpose into putting together parcels for me, after receiving a second one I started doing the same. Works like a charm, it turns thinking about another person into something tangible, and for the receiver, there’s finally something to look forward too. It feels like Christmas every month! This is one of the books I got in such a parcel.

Charlie LeDuff worked as a reporter for years, he lived in many places. But at some point, he decided to leave NYT and became a full-time dad living in LA. But something was missing, he felt purposeless and alienated without the work or family. So, with his wife, they decided to move back to Detroit. His family still lived there.

Now, we all heard things about Detroit. Please keep in mind I live in Europe, so the American scale of things still sometimes eludes me. We all have this general notion in our minds that Detroit is the city that went bust. I didn’t know much more than that, and of course that it was the home to the Big Three American car manufacturers.

LeDuff’s book is a raging story of a decaying city. He goes back, is in touch with his family, but also continues to work as a reporter. And we get to see a lot of the stories he worked on at the time, as well as the personal stories of his family. Only when reading such stories one by one you never see the real span of things, while pulling them together in a book gives a lot better sense of the scale. Detroit is a city that has been gutted over and over, by racism, unemployment, corruption lasting for decades. It’s a city loved by its inhabitants and uncared for by the ones who should be leading it. A city treated like a personal one purse by its political class.

This is what I found most baffling, the scale of the problem. I don’t think anything like this happened in any of the European cities. During the 1950s the population reached its peak at 1.85 mln, but nor it’s at 0.678 mln. A fall of over 60%. According to some statistics around 40% of the buildings in the city are abandoned. On top of that public services pretty much atrophied. There’s hardly any funding for police, firefighters, or ambulances. It’s a disaster that I still find difficult to grasp.

As LeDuff rides with the firefighters, speaks to the homeless, tells us his family history you can see people want to live in the city. They genuinely care for it. And yet term after term the politicians coming to power have no idea how to turn things around in the best case or come to the office only to line their pockets in the worst one.

LeDuff’s book is a furious attack on the ruling class. On those who are leaving others behind, while caring only for themselves. It is a very one-sided story, but then it gives the voice to those who otherwise have to take to the streets. As it happens now, as it happened multiple times in the city’s tumultuous history.

In Poland, this book is published in the so-called American Series, I read one more book from this series, Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death, and Life in New OrleansIt was a very different portrait of a very different city, but both those books give a fascinating insight into American life. Also in his focus on people who have the odds inherently stacked against them, it brought to my mind the Hillbilly Elegy. Again, a very different story, but speaking about those who are often deprived of a voice.

This is book #2 of my 20 Books of Summer hosted by Cathy at 746books.
See my list as it grows here.

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska @vkphotospace.com 

20-books

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