Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Detroit: An American Autopsy

On the day that Detroit declared bankruptcy -- the largest such municipal filing in U.S. history -- I picked up Detroit: An American Autopsy and started to read it. Usually my timing isn't so good.

Detroit belongs alongside Days of Destruction, Days of RevoltLike DDDR, LeDuff's history/memoir charts part of America in decline (or rock bottom) -- in this case, what was once a model city and industry. The auto industry built Detroit, and the city swelled to about 1.2 million people in the 1950s. Today, about 700,000 people live there. This means blocks of buildings are left derelict and uninhabited. The loss of tax base, of course, contributed to Detroit's financial downfall.

But Detroit's undoing has also come at the hands of elected officials, entrenched judges, corruption, mismanagement, and so on. LeDuff in particular discusses two crooked, pitiful, but sometimes colorful fallen elected officials -- both of whom served time in prison: Former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and City Council Member Monica Conyers (wife of U.S. Rep. John Conyers).

Detroit also has plain bad luck and consistently picks losers. For instance, when a tough chief of police was ousted, he was replaced by Ralph Godbee, who "took a kinder, gentler approach to policing." The murder rate subsequently went up, the police renewed fudging crime stats, and part-time preacher Godbee ends up resigning after bedding "a bevy of female officers." Other losers picked by the Detroit: the Key to the City was given to tyrants Saddam Hussein and Robert Mugabe.

LeDuff's book is as much memoir as history or journalism. He charts his own family's history in the Detroit area, including the unnatural deaths of his street-walking sister (drunken accident) and niece (OD). LeDuff's close personal investment in his story provides emotional -- but not sentimental -- weight. At the same time, the title is a little misleading since it primarily offers recent snapshots of Detroit -- not quite a full autopsy. Another book with the same title, for instance, might've proposed more solutions or examined certain public policies (e.g., causes of death) more directly. But no matter, this is a powerful book that shows how far an American city can fall -- and how far it will have to go to recover.

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