A newly hired autoworker will earn $14 an hour. This, adjusted for inflation, is three cents less than what Henry Fort was paying in 1914 when he announced the $5 day. And, of course, Ford isn’t hiring.
Detroit reached a peak population of nearly 1.9 million people in the 1950s and was 83 percent white. Now Detroit has fewer than 700,000 people, is 83 percent black and is the only American city that has surpassed a million people only to contract below that threshold.
The only difference between Detroit and the Third World in terms of corruption is Detroit don’t have no goats in the street.
Charlie LeDuff grew up as a white kid in Detroit. He leaves Detroit to write at various major news outlets. Eventually he moves his young family back to Detroit to be closer to his extended family. He ends up depressed, violent, and just beaten down by the city. He also discovers he’s black. Along the way, he finds a lot of things that are incredibly interesting and criminally underreported. He’s an interesting guy.
The book opens with the beginning of the end for Kwame Kilpatrick. Just take minute to read that entry.
He moves relatively quickly to Monica Conyers, wife of the John Conyers (ahh, democracy, you are nothing if not entertaining). One of Detroit’s gift to the country is a chairman of the Judiciary Committee whose wife is in jail.
Monica failed the bar 4 times. When she arrived in her elected office, “her first order of business was to pummel a woman in a barroom brawl after the woman complained about Conyers chatting up her man. The woman left with a black eye as big as a tea saucer.”
During one interview with LeDuff, she reaches down and squeezes his balls.
By the end of the book, she’s in jail. These stories are incredibly good (and, after a while, terribly sad).
LeDuff does some good, old-fashioned (basically extinct?) investigative journalism. He rides with cops, he rides with firemen, he talks to the coroner, etc. He finds some fascinating stuff.
For example, he discovers that the city is wildly underreporting homicides. He discovers this by talking to the coroner and (literally) counting bodies at the morgue – it’s Detroit, so many of them are not picked up. The bodies just sit there waiting for something, apparently.
Later, he visits the cemetery and sees someone digging up bodies. He asks what’s going on. “’They’re removing the dead,’ Harris said without irony. ‘Taking him to the suburbs.’ . . . . White flight. Black flight. Now dead flight.”
The catalog of problems is terrible. Alarms don’t work at the fire stations. Fire men have to fix up the station to keep it from crumbling. LeDuff discovers that city officials have been embezzling money slated to maintain the fire stations. He writes a story on it. In perhaps the most revealing episode of the book, no one even pretends to care. City officials are stealing millions, firefighters are (literally) dying, the city is plagued by arson, and no one cares. Here’s one firefighter on the arson:
’Arson,’ he [a firefighter] said. ‘In this town, arson is off the hook. Thousands of them a year, bro. In Detroit, it’s so fucking poor that fire is cheaper than a movie. A can of gas is three-fifty and a movie is eight bucks, and there aren’t any more theaters left in Detroit, so fuck it. They burn the empty house next door and they sit on the fucking porch with a forty, and they’re barbecuing and laughing ‘cause it’s fucking entertainment. It’s unbelievable. And the old lady living next door, she don’t have insurance, and her house goes up in flames and she’s homeless and another fucking block dies.’
I think the best way to give you a sense of the book at this point, is to briefly list of the events:
* Sometimes the police don’t come – even for firefighters. They call and get a response of “No cruiser available.”
* LeDuff see a man plowing what used to be people’s yards. The guy has turned them into a hayfield.
* “Half of Detroit kids don’t even make it through high school, and of those that do, half of them are functionally illiterate.”
* He visits his brother’s job (his brother sold crappy mortgages, now he does minimum wage manufacturing work). On the wall above the toilet he sees that someone has written: “Fuck hard workers.”
* City schools issue a call for parents to send toilet paper with their children to schools.
* LeDuff discovers a frozen body in an abandoned building.
* There are other terrible stories.
* “In Detroit more than five children are murdered every month.”
* A firefighter LeDuff rides with dies. It turns out that someone paid a bum $20 to burn down his building.
* “Frankie [LeDuff's brother] had bought his house for $70,000 a decade earlier. It was an unpretentious two-bedroom with an unfinished attic on a double lot. It wasn’t worth $15,000 in 2008, if it was worth a nickel.”
After a while, the reader can’t help but agree with LeDuff that, “This place called Detroit wasn’t interesting to me anymore. It was breaking my heart. It was driving me insane. A whole generation of people relegated to the garbage pile.”
That’s not quite right, it’s still interesting. It’s fascinating. It’s probably the most interesting story in the world. Nevertheless, it’s terribly depressing.
More so for LeDuff. His family’s story is sort of the history of Detroit on a small scale. Along the way he discovers his grandfather was black, but passable. He left the South and moved to Detriot during it’s heyday. From then on they were white. He still is for purposes of the city’s dynamics. His sister dies in the city, as does his niece. It eventually gets through to LeDuff, and he acts out (he gets taken in for attacking his wife – not particularly violently, but not defensibly either).
Michael Barone reviewed this book at Claremont. His review is passable, but he leaves out the most interesting bits. LeDuff is interested in race (in the same way that, for example, Steve Sailer is interested in race).
To tell this story, you’d have to be intested in race. As LeDuff says, “But this is metropolitan Detroit. Race is a way of life.”
If you’re paying attention, there are some funny little commentaries on race. For example:
A Latino came and cleaned up my mess.
She [Monica Conyers] asked the federal judge to let her serve the remainder of her sentence at home on Seven Mile Road with her son, who never bothered to mow the lawn.
Trust me, if you live around a decent concentration of black people, that’s funny.
LeDuff describes “Reverends” like characters out of Bonfire of the Vanities. He even provides some commentary on the Irish-ness of the (well-integrated) Fire Department and the old Polishness of certain old neighborhoods.
Perhaps the inherent racial aspects of the story are the reason why it’s so aggressively underreported. After every story LeDuff publishes, it seems he gets calls from some people accusing him of favoring blacks and others accusing him of being racist for mentioning these problems. Apparently, ignoring the death, chaos, destruction and tragedy of Detroit is the politically correct thing to do. In that – if no where else – our society appears to be doing very well.