Detroit – An American Autopsy by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Charlie Deduff
This book steals time. It secrets away time the reader perhaps cannot afford to lose. “Put me down, then,” the book chides. But the reader cannot. Leduff has written a captivating story of the rise and fall of an American icon.
In the book’s prologue, Leduff writes: This is not a book about geopolitics or macroeconomics or global finance. And it is not a feel-good story with a happy ending. It is a book of reportage. A memoir of a reporter returning home – only he cannot find the home he once knew. This is a book about living people getting on with the business of surviving in a place that has little use for anyone anymore except those who left here.
For me, Detroit is a watershed moment in seeing relativism in shocking clarity. While we here in River City grouse about our problems, we ain’t got none like Detroit. We whine about our potholes and rush hour traffic on the Whitemud. But we ain’t got nothing like Detroit’s empty freeways and abandoned neighbourhoods. We bitch about our mayor and his unpolitical penchant for saying what’s really on his mind. But we ain’t got Detroit’s corruption that runs rampant through city hall and beyond. We protest against aging school closures because our kids might have to bus 20 minutes to class. But we ain’t got schools telling parents to have the kids bring their own toilet paper with them.
A fascinating read. Here are just a few excerpts…
Harris turned the rig left onto East Grand Boulevard, past Kirby Street. The firehouse is located on the city’s east side, near the hulking wreck of the Packard automobile plant that closed in 1956 but which nobody ever bothered to tear down. A square mile of industrial decay, scavengers had descended on it, ushering in a marathon game of cat and mouse. The scavengers, looking for metal to sell at the scrap yard, light a section of the building on fire. After the firemen dutifully extinguish the blaze, the scavengers return to help themselves to the neatly exposed girders and I-beams that form the skeleton of the structure. From the rig, you can see the missing roofs and walls and forty-foot holes in the ground and the trees growing inside, and the whole thing looks like a gigantic, cancerous atrium.
This time, it was a run-of-the-mill house fire in a city with 62,000 vacant homes. They jumped into the rigs and were off in seconds, barreling down Mt. Elliott Avenue. Motorists didn’t even bother to move to the side. The siren had become a nuisance here.
And when the firefighters arrived at the abandoned place, what they saw was a table that had been set for supper, eyeglasses left on top of a book. The cupboard was filled with cans and cereals. It was a though the owner went out for a walk with the dog two decades ago and never came home.
I went to visit Dr. Schmidt, the medical examiner. … I was shown to the examination room. The cooler was stacked to the ceiling with cadavers in vinyl zip body bags, and a tractor-trailer refrigerator truck in the parking lot handled the overflow….
“That is a sign of how bad things have gotten,” he said matter-of-factly. “It’s the economy. Some people really have to make a choice of putting food on the table or burying their loved ones. It is very sad, really.”
The people of Wayne County now couldn’t afford to bury their loved ones. More than 250 sat unclaimed. The doctor pointed out the saddest case – the cadaver of an elderly man that had been here for two years, shuffled to the bottom of the pile as his kinfolk waited for a ship to come in.
“You might say that this is a fairly decent barometer of where we are as a society,” the good doctor said with a shrug.
Frankly, the poverty is so severe in Detroit that I was surprised there weren’t more groups like the Brotherhood bubbling up. Just a few weeks before Abdullah’s killing, fifty thousand people had stormed Cobo Hall in hopes of getting one of the five thousand applications for federal rent and utilities assistance. The scene turned into a near riot, with people being trampled and applications being snatched from old people’s hands.
Walk a mile along Mack Avenue in each direction from Alter Road to Gratiot Avenue. You will count thirty-four churches, a dozen liquor stores, six beauty salons and barbershops, a funeral parlor, a sprawling Chrysler engine and assembly complex working at less than half capacity, and three dollar stores – but no grocery stores. In fact, there a no chain grocery stores in all of Detroit.
River City, you’re looking pretty good from here, girl!
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