A Native Son’s Shocking Look at His Hometown in “Detroit: An American Autopsy”

The fascinating story of Detroit’s rise and subsequent fall — and whatever the future holds for the city and its beleaguered residents — is something we’ll likely be analyzing for years to come. It’s stunning, really, when you think about the fact that at one point Detroit was the nation’s richest big city, and is now its poorest. It leads the country in illiteracy and high-school dropouts, and half the adults living there have no consistent job. The population of Detroit topped out at 1.86 million in 1950. It now hovers at around 700,000 residents, which means Detroit’s population now is about where it was in 1910, before the city’s automobile boom.


Along with assembly lines producing American-made cars, we can also thank the Motor City for innovations such as the refrigerator, home ownership, credit, and the cement road. Detroit, for a time, appeared to be the most American of cities, drawing in flocks of blue-collar workers from across the country, promising them good jobs and an ever-better way of life. Now, entire swaths of the city sit abandoned, and wild animals like coyotes are reclaiming their former homes amidst the apocalyptic scenery.

Journalist Charlie LeDuff, who was born and raised in Detroit, returned with his family to the city in 2008. He’d worked for The New York Times and lived in Los Angeles for a while after that, but felt that inexorable pull home. His book, Detroit: An American Autopsy, is a heartbreaking, brash, honest, and true account of both Detroit’s woes as well as his own family’s. It’s a curious mix of memoir and reporting, sliding easily back and forth between the general and the specific.

LeDuff chronicles examples of the city’s downfall that have to be read to be believed – and this was before the city’s current status as officially bankrupt. It’s hard to imagine how things could be worse now.

Arson has become literal entertainment, with bored, broke, strung-out residents setting abandoned properties ablaze just for kicks. The firefighters tasked with putting them out have holes in their boots, busted hoses, and broken-down trucks. There’s simply no money for new equipment.

In the city’s morgue, the unclaimed dead pile up into the hundreds, because their relatives can’t afford to bury them. And on the streets, dead bodies sometimes stay out for days, with repeated calls to 911 going unanswered. Cops are overworked, underpaid, and understaffed.

LeDuff’s book is bleak in many ways, but he also showcases and honors the many good people in Detroit fighting to do the right thing. Their stories deserve to be heard.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2014/05/23/book-biz-native-son-writes-movingly-detroits-downfall/)