Detroit has long been the poster child for urban blight, a city that gives rise to images of crack houses, senseless killings, burnt-out buildings, civic corruption, high unemployment, and flirtations with municipal bankruptcy.
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Charlie LeDuff, who grew up in Detroit and made his mark as a Pulitzer Prize winner for the New York Times, later returned home to immerse himself in his city’s despair. His book, Detroit: An American Autopsy, based in part on his reporting for the Detroit News, captures the sights, sounds, and smells of a crumbling, once-proud metropolis that he views as the template for other American cities in decline.
Readers might feel akin to rubbernecking motorists approaching a 50-car pileup as they accompany LeDuff through neighborhoods whose landscapes seem like the creation of a contemporary Dante. The author rubs shoulders with the city’s best and worst elements, arsonists who burn buildings for entertainment and firefighters struggling to protect innocent lives.
Fire is cheaper than a movie, one firefighter explains, noting that “a can of gas is three-fifty and a movie is eight bucks, and there aren’t any movie theaters left in Detroit.” To LeDuff, the Detroit firefighter “is the man holding Nero’s fiddle.”
Tragedy strikes when a firefighter who befriends the author is killed when the roof collapses on an abandoned bungalow while he battles an arson fire. The scene shifts from fire to ice as the reporter pursues a tip that leads him to the elevator shaft of an abandoned building and the discovery of a body encased in ice, its legs protruding like Popsicle sticks. Calls to homicide detectives and 911 are ignored, and it takes two days and five phone calls before authorities finally arrive and recover the body.
There are scathing portraits of corrupt politicians, including Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and City Councilman Monica Conyers, who meets with LeDuff for a surreal interview in a foul-smelling jazz club.
Woven into these episodes is a family memoir that traces LeDuff’s background and recounts how the pathologies that are destroying Detroit have also taken a personal toll. The author and his family are not immune from the broken homes, drug abuse, alcoholism, prostitution, and violence so commonplace in the city.
We follow LeDuff as he lands in jail following a drunken scuffle with his wife. And we tag along when he traces his roots that go back to Detroit’s early French settlers and his discovery that his grandfather on his father’s side was black. Weaving his own story into that of the city he loves imparts texture to the book.
In a city where hope is in short supply, the author takes solace in small victories. “It felt righteous,” he said, when a judge handed a long prison sentence to the man responsible for the fire that killed LeDuff’s firefighter friend.
While it provides no road map toward redemption, Detroit is a grim portrayal of the plight of one American city and sounds an alarm bell for others. It’s fast-paced, filled with unforgettable characters and laced with dark comedy. And it is enhanced in the final pages by a mesmerizing package of photographs by Danny Wilcox Frazier that is a perfect coda to the text.