Detroit: An American Autopsy’ is a sad but worthwhile portrait


four stars

Detroit: An American Autopsy By Charlie LeDuff, $28.

I grew up in a suburb of Detroit, which, as anyone who grew up in a suburb of Detroit can tell you, is very different from growing up in the city. My family and I drove downtown for Tigers games, special events, Fox Theatre performances and then for casinos. Usually, we went only once or twice a month—unlike other suburbanites, I don’t want to overstate my connection to Detroit—but it was enough to feel a real affinity for the city that was once the country’s fourth largest.

Now it’s 18th.

In Detroit: An American Autopsy, former New York Times reporter Charlie LeDuff details just how bad things have gotten. It’s not a fun book or an entertaining book by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a good book.

Here’s the problem: The politicians are corrupt; the firemen don’t have proper equipment; the police are understaffed and take forever to respond to calls. Some poor guy fell down an elevator shaft and stayed there until LeDuff found him, face down, completely frozen in a giant block of ice.

The living aren’t doing much better in Detroit. Many are unemployed, and many of those who aren’t have terrible, low-paying jobs. Take that of LeDuff’s brother, who “aired out screw nipples made in China with a hose, cleaning them and repackaging them for American customers who don’t want to know they’re made in China, only that they come cheap.”

Instead of fighting for better, higher-paying jobs for their constituents, the politicians are immersed in the quest for personal gain and wrapped up in scandal. Take former councilwoman Monica Conyers, “the youngish and voluptuous wife of the doddering congressman,” who, when asked a tough question by LeDuff, “straightened her shoulders, leaning over the table and patted [LeDuff’s] chest. Her hand wandered down [his] torso and lingered on [his] testicles. She gave a gentle little squeeze.”

Or take former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who admitted in court to sexting his chief of staff Christine Beatty things like “My shit is so hard already,” and “I’m about to come right now.” Their salaries, their phones and their transport were all paid for by Detroit taxpayers.

Like LeDuff, I want the city to get better. One recent morning, I eagerly clicked on the story topping my Facebook feed: A Huffington Post photo gallery titled “Detroit is Not Dead,” which contrasted images of urban decay with vibrant images of young people bringing the city back to life. Problem was, the decay pictures only showed the buildings, not the people—the starving ones, the jailed ones, the dead ones.

LeDuff has pictures of all of them in his book’s appendix. An American Autopsy: Highly—and sadly—recommended.

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