I’ve always thought I liked Detroit. But I now realize what I liked was the idea of Detroit.
Credit the difference to “Detroit,” a hard-hitting book published in 2013 by Charlie LeDuff, a former New York Times reporter who returned to his hometown to write for the struggling Detroit News. “Detroit” chronicles the sorry state of the Motor City and how it got that way.
LeDuff grew up in a working class suburb of Detroit and his mother and brothers still live in the area. He quit the Times in 2007, then joined the News hoping to write stories that would reveal how a once-mighty city fell into a decades-long tailspin. This isn’t a book about macroeconomics or geopolitics nor is it a feel-good story with a happy ending, LeDuff says in the prologue. “It is a book of reportage,” he says. “A memoir of a reporter returning home — only he cannot find the home he once knew.”
The city that gave us the automobile, unions that helped secure family-wage jobs and benefits, and the enduring Motown sound today is a shell of itself. Since 1950, Detroit has lost nearly two-thirds of its population, sliding from a peak of nearly 1.9 million residents to about 700,000 today.
Once the richest city in America, Detroit is known today as a center of misery — a place plagued by crime, drugs, poverty, illiteracy, dropouts and foreclosures. Layered atop it all is a political culture defined by cronyism and corruption, with city council members and a recent mayor — the disgraced Kwame Kilpatrick — having been sent off to prison.
With a reporter’s nose for news and a gift for storytelling, LeDuff presents a compelling portrait of the city’s fall from grace. If you’re like me, you may think you know the Detroit story — a city wracked by race riots in 1943 and 1967, a city that’s become 90 percent black after decades of white flight, a city that nearly went bankrupt earlier this decade, and whose Big Three automakers had to beg Washington for a bailout after the auto industry collapsed during the 2008 recession.
But again, if you’re like me, you don’t really know the depth of dysfunction in Detroit.
In 287 compelling pages, LeDuff traces the city’s recent history and shares the backstory behind some of the most memorable stories and columns he produced at the News. Some material in the book appeared in different form in the News and Mother Jones magazine. But it is fleshed out with additional reporting that calls out the scoundrels while also singling out the unsung heroes and ordinary citizens who strive against all odds to make Detroit a better place.
My affection for Detroit began more than 30 years ago. I was among a dozen U.S. journalists chosen to spend a sabbatical year at the University of Michigan in nearby Ann Arbor. During my 10 months living in one of the nation’s great college towns, I experienced Detroit as an occasional visitor and nearly always as part of a group. We toured the Detroit Institute of Arts. We dined on lamb and sipped ouzo at Greektown restaurants. I caught a Saturday afternoon baseball game at venerable Tiger Stadium and began a fan from that day on, enjoying the thrill of seeing the Tigers win the World Series in the fall of 1984, just months after I had returned home to Oregon.
I would return frequently on behalf of The Oregonian, delighted to recruit several students from the U of M, Michigan State, and Wayne State to Portland, and happy to establish friendships with many more who went on to succeed in other newsrooms. On one trip, I visited Hitsville, U.S.A., the Motown-themed museum where so many R&B artists launched their careers.
But it was a false picture. I knew how to get from the airport to Greektown, a safe haven with familiar hotels and restaurants, but little else. I wasn’t exposed to the urban wasteland described by LeDuff.
I’ve been a LeDuff fan for years. He’s a drinking, smoking, cussing old-school reporter with blue-collar roots who started his newspaper career at the Alaska Fisherman’s Journal, landed a summer internship at the Times, and went on to become an award-winning staff writer.
I discovered his book by chance. While waiting for a late-night flight to Detroit as part of my Midwest baseball road trip, I noticed the paperback on a table at an airport bookstore and snatched it up. Good call.
“Detroit” is one of those books where you wind up with more than a dozen dog-eared pages. The stories are so arresting, the writing so vivid, that you can’t help but savor these scenes.
— The city, what’s left of it, burns night after night. Nature — in the form of pheasants,, hawks, foxes, coyotes and wild dogs — had stepped in to fill the vacuum, reclaiming a little more of the landscape each day. The streets were empty and cratered. The skyscrapers were holograms. I stood and admired a cottonwood sapling growing out of the roof of the Lafayette Building. This was like living in Pompeii, except the people weren’t covered in ash. We were alive.”
— We sat in a local diner, a rundown joint with walls the color of an old man’s teeth. I watched the detective tear into a chili dog. He weighed 350 pounds and was trying that meat-only diet.
“The whole shit is corrupt from top to bottom,” he said through his mustache and mouthful of dog. “Cops to judges. The fucking radios in the cars don’t even work. Why you think so many guys are leaving the department?”
Reading “Detroit” was the equivalent of taking the Ice Bucket Challenge. The naive picture I had of the city was doused with a bucketful of grim reality. I knew things were bad. I just hadn’t realized they’d been this bad for so long and gotten even worse.
It’s hard to feel optimistic about Detroit’s future. Like other Midwest cities, it’s experiencing a renaissance of sorts.
But “Detroit” isn’t about happy endings. It’s about looking at what went horribly wrong, at who and what destroyed the city, and what we should all know about a city that played such a critical role in the U.S and world economy.