In Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit, police cars take hours to arrive at the scene of an emergency. Dead men stay frozen in blocks of ice at the bottom of abandoned elevator shafts for months, and dozens of bodies pile up in the city morgue with no one to claim them. Overworked firefighters with torn uniforms and holes in their boots die unnecessary deaths, and those deaths are usually in vain.
In Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit, the landscape is pockmarked by fire-ravaged factories whose assembly lines shuddered to a halt a half-century ago. The political structure is so thick with corruption from top to bottom that the state of Michigan had to appoint a manager with dictatorial powers
to save the city from descending into complete anarchy.
In Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit, no one cares and hope is dead.
Or just about.
In his book “Detroit: An American Autopsy,” the former Detroit News and New York Times reporter (he objects to the term “journalist”) takes a hard look at the troubles of his native city as it struggles to survive in America’s new post-industrial economy. The book, a diary of the major stories and scandals he covered during his productive two-year stint at the Detroit paper, is a jaw-dropping document that seems destined to become one of the defining pieces of urban journalism in this young century.
The picture LeDuff paints of his abandoned hometown makes Buffalo, one of the poorest and most blighted cities in America, look like Disneyland. Detroit’s problems – its nose-diving population and wrecked economy, abandonment and blight on an unimaginable scale, malignant political corruption and a hopeless malaise pervading it all – are those of Buffalo writ so large that they seem utterly unsolvable.
From the very first line of “Detroit,” it is clear that LeDuff is out to shock:
“I reached down the pant cuff with the eraser end of my pencil and poked it. Frozen solid. But definitely human.”
He’s describing the corpse of a homeless man at the bottom of an elevator shaft frozen solid in several feet of ice. That body, which had been there for weeks, had been noticed by a group of people LeDuff derisively calls “urban explorers,” who had been ice skating in the abandoned space and had noticed the body but hadn’t bothered to tell anyone.
But when LeDuff called the cops, the cops didn’t seem to care. It took them until the next day to show up, and when they did, LeDuff turned the story of this abandoned man into a symbol for how far Detroit had sunk on its descent into complete chaos.
The most heartbreaking tale LeDuff relates, told across several chapters, is the unnecessary death of his firefighter friend Walt Harris, who died in a fire set by a businessman hoping to cash in on the insurance money. He quotes Harris in an early chapter predicting that if that city doesn’t do something about its underfunded fire department, someone’s going to die because of it. Sure enough, as Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick funneled money into his own pockets and those of his connected friends, Harris became the victim of his own prophecy. Kilpatrick is currently serving time for racketeering, fraud and extortion charges. Harris remains dead.
By pouring his blood and tears into this book, LeDuff makes your own blood boil.
Fortunately for the reader, LeDuff’s anecdotes – each one written with the crackle of a reporter who knows how to keep readers’ eyes glued to the page – aren’t all so grim. Some of them, like his beautifully reported coverage of the wacko City Council Member Monica Conyers (think of a combination of Carl Paladino and Barbara Miller-Williams) are tragic comedies that made me laugh out loud. But after LeDuff makes you break down laughing, he hits you with his big point:
“Go ahead and laugh at Detroit,” he writes. “Because you are laughing at yourself.
“Detroit” is meant to reflect the wider disease of American decline that LeDuff has detected in other cities and towns around the United States. And looking out at our own landscape in Western New York, it’s clear that there are plenty of salient parallels to be drawn.
There is no doubt that Buffalo has emerged from the dark cloud of the ’80s and ’90s, when hopelessness was the order of the day, into a more optimistic and progressive place.
But it’s also true that stretches of Buffalo and Niagara Falls continue to resemble war-torn Third World countries. The FBI is still sniffing around Buffalo City Hall and trying to root out pervasive corruption in our worse-off sister city in Niagara County.
Former State Sen. Antoine Thompson, who used campaign funds to take a trip to Jamaica and to publish a book about himself, was appointed to an $80,000 patronage job by Mayor Byron Brown last year. And it wasn’t so long ago that former Buffalo housing and development chief Timothy Wanamaker was convicted of charging $30,000 worth of personal perks to the public.
News investigative reporter Matt Spina, who spent years rooting out corruption in his former beat covering county government, said that Buffalo is “kind of like Detroit light.” Just as LeDuff points to Kilpatrick’s political machine, which emerged from a political movement centered around the city’s Church of the Black Madonna, Spina noted that Buffalo is still struggling to rid itself of the last vestiges of the machine politics that dominated the city for much of its history.
As for ambulance and police response times, which LeDuff writes can be 12 minutes or much longer, Buffalo City Hall was unwilling to disclose its own information on response times after repeated requests.
Buffalo, though certainly not free of mismanagement, political patronage or a crushing blight problem, is probably not as much of a parallel to Detroit as Niagara Falls is. News reporter Charlie Specht, who has been doggedly covering that struggling city’s bumbling political apparatus for the past two years, said that his sources have sometimes joked that the FBI is such a constant presence in City Hall that they should just set up their own office there.
The current Feydeau farce now playing there, in which a trio of intransigent councilmen are refusing charitable contributions to a city in desperate need of them as their city struggles to stay afloat, mirrors the circuslike political atmosphere of Detroit. So does the egotism, self-interest and flagrant disregard they have shown for the fortunes of the citizens they claim to represent.
The story of early 21st century Detroit, so eloquently captured in this book, is tragic to behold.
By contrast, the story of Buffalo during the past decade is the story of city slowly awakening to its own potential and just as slowly shedding the heavy remnants of its corrupt and downtrodden past. The transition has been gradual enough to escape notice from one year to the next. But if you look back a decade – as News columnist Denise Jewell Gee pointed out in a recent piece about Detroit – you see a rusting metropolis that seems comatose compared to the pulsing and increasingly progressive cityscape that has since emerged.
The force powering Buffalo’s renewal, of course, is not a grand economic resurgence born of some visionary plan from City Hall. It’s not even the promise of the burgeoning medical campus or the fever dream of a biotech-powered future. And it’s certainly not an influx of new residents. It is merely hope, a feeling that residents and politicians alike have allowed themselves to experience again after too many decades of creaking despair.
Looking west, toward Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit, we see a version of our own broken city, circa 2003. It would be easy for Detroiters to give up hope. Some of the hobbled figures profiled in LeDuff’s stunning piece of journalism have done that. But most of them have held on to some tiny kernel of optimism. They’ve kept their hopes on simmer.
And LeDuff, who has gone on record to say that he thinks Detroit will rise again, gets at that idea in one of his final stories. That tale describes the sad state of a woman whose daughter was killed in a botched drive-by who can’t scrape together enough money to give her daughter a proper burial. After LeDuff writes a story about her struggle, $3,000 in donations trickle in from across the city in the form of $5, $10 and $50 bills.
“If there is any hope for Detroit,” LeDuff wrote, “it is the thousands of good people like this, afraid but not wanting to be afraid anymore.”
We know exactly what that feels like. And know there is a way out.
“Detroit: An American Autopsy”
By Charlie LeDuff; Photographs by Danny Wilcox Frazier
304 pages, $27.95