Thursday, March 2, 2017

Detroit: An American Autopsy

Charlie LeDuff's Detroit:  An American Autopsy is a book I've had on my list to read for a while, I think since I finished grad school.  As is typical for me, I bought the book on Kindle and then promptly forgot about it.  I finally read it while I was on a work trip.  I never got over my jet lag, so I stayed up late several nights in a row with Charlie LeDuff.

Detroit:  An American Autopsy is a pretty good title for what this book is about.  LeDuff is a reporter who moves back to his hometown of Detroit in the early 2000s to write for the local paper.  In his reporting and in this book, he writes about how Detroit went from being one of the biggest cities in the United States, with a population of almost 2 million people, to one of the most hollowed-out; today, it is home to less than 700,000 people.  It is one of the most rapid declines in population of a city ever.  A lot of this is due to the rise and fall of the American auto industry, but a lot of it is due to other factors as well.

If you've followed this blog for some time, or at least since the last presidential election, you know that I've been reading several books in an attempt to better understand the current state of our country and world.  I did not read Detroit for this reason specifically, but on reflection, I think it does an excellent job of explaining why someone might vote for Donald Trump.  Michigan is one of those states that used to be strongly Democratic and then swung right for Trump in this past election.  LeDuff's book gives a very compelling case as to why that might be, even though it was written in 2013.  To LeDuff, as Detroit goes, so goes America.  Detroit paralleled the country's rise and fall more than any other city, tied so closely to the auto industry.  As America rose in prominence and people bought more cars, the city went sky high, with beautiful (seriously stunning) architecture, world class museums and strong worker's rights.  Then came the 1960s and white flight.  And then came the 1980s and all the decades that followed - foreign competition in the auto industry, corruption and incompetence in government and industry, and a rapid decline in the power and influence of labor unions.  Jobs moved elsewhere.  But, as one person in the book put it, "I guess when you get down to it, it's simple... The man took his factory away, but he didn't take the people with him."

LeDuff's book is excellently written in a Sam Spade, hard-boiled detective fiction fashion.  He writes in exactly the way you would expect someone from Detroit to talk - frank, no sugarcoating.  His deep love for the city and its people is obvious, but so, too, is his anger and frustration with the way its leaders keep taking and don't give anything back.  Detroit is a city that has been decimated and abandoned by those who claim to work to improve it, and LeDuff is sick of it.

While reading this book, I often wondered to myself whether LeDuff voted for Clinton or Trump in this past election.  He spends a lot of time with police and firemen and union workers who are fed up with what their jobs and lives have become.  The firemen in particular are angry because arson happens regularly in Detroit; they risk their lives for other people to get the benefit of fraudulent insurance claims.  And their anger seems very well-justified, they don't get much support from the city at all, as the city has no money.  Similarly, both of LeDuff's brothers work blue-collar jobs that pay hardly anything at all.  They struggle to support their families.  You can see very well how people in situations such as this one would be excited by a promise to Make America Great Again.  (Especially if you are able to push aside/ignore all the horrible things Trump said about anyone who is not white/male/straight, etc.)  In fact, I would say that this book made me understand a person's decision to vote for Trump and his message more than any other book I have read on the topic (or around the topic).  The desperation and frustration and anger that people feel, their depression that they'll never get out of a cycle, that no one sees or cares about their problems - it's all palpable.   "Desperation," he quotes someone saying, "feels like someone's reaching down your throat and ripping out your guts."

LeDuff has a lot of scorn and derision for the American auto industry and many people in Detroit's government (all of whom deserve derision and scorn).  And he comes across as quite cynical and jaded and rightfully angry.  For example:
When I had arrived back home the previous winter, Local 235 here was on strike.  It was a cold, bitter dispute, complete with old-school fires in the oil drums.  The unionized workers, numbering nearly two thousand at the time, lost  They gave in to deep wage cuts, in some cases from $28 an hour to $14, in exchange for keeping their jobs.  Apparently it was not enough.
In contrast, Dick Dauch, the CEO and chairman of American Axle, was given an $8.5 million bonus by his board of directors after the strike and gave assurances to the workers and the city of Hamtramck that he would keep production there.  It was lip service.
And this is where many Americans are frustrated, including the "liberal elites."  No one thinks that math is okay, but no one seems willing to actually do anything about it.

LeDuff also has a great capacity for kindness and compassion and empathy that comes through just as clearly.  He writes beautiful stories about people, he cares so much for his city, he wants so badly for the world (particularly America, and especially Detroit) to be a fairer place.

I really loved reading this book and recommend it very highly.  It focuses on Detroit, but I think it would appeal to anyone who lives in America's Rust Belt or anywhere now where people are desperate for jobs and money to come into the region.  I'll leave you with this (long-ish) quote that had me close to tears, and that I suspect will have the same effect on you:
It would be easy to lay the blame on McNeal for the circumstances in which she raised her sons.  But is she responsible for police officers with broken computers in their squad cars, firefighters with holes in their boots, ambulances that arrive late, a city that can't keep its lights on and leaves its vacant buildings to the arsonist's match, a state government that allows corpses to stack up in the morgue, multinational corporations that move away and leave poisoned fields behind, judges who let violent criminals walk the streets, school stewards who steal the children's milk money, elected officials who loot the city, automobile executives who couldn't manage a grocery store, or Wall Street gifters who destroyed the economy and left the nation's children with a burden of debt while they partied it up in Southampton?
Can she be blamed for that?
"I know society looks at a person like me and wants me to go away," she said.  "'Go ahead, walk in the Detroit River and disappear.'  But I can't.  I'm alive.  I need help.  But when you call for help, it seems like no one's there.  It feels like there ain't no love any more."

Are you interested in learning more about this subject?:
I put up loads of links at the end of my reviews on Strangers in their Own Land and The Unwinding.

It is tangentially related, but this Freakonomics podcast episode "No Hollywood Ending for the Visual-Effects Industry" is excellent to get an understanding of how cities/states/countries fight each other through tax breaks for companies, which usually ends up with shareholders winning and taxpayers (and anything funded by taxpayers) losing.

Planet Money's podcast episode "Mexico's Front Seat in the Global Auto Industry" is also worth a listen.

Michael Moore's movie Roger and Me is about his hometown of Flint, MI (currently home to a massive lead-in-the-water crisis that the local government lied about and the state government has basically washed its hands of).  Here's the trailer, you can also watch the full movie online if you do a search:


  1. That's such a powerful quote. Isn't it interesting how we stumble into these books, that we felt we needed desperately in some earlier moment, and find new layers of meaning in them because of the present-day political situation? I'm thankful for libraries - personal and otherwise - these days, and for the sense that one can still keep learning and growing and changing, even when some days it feels like it's more about what we can't change.

    1. That is so beautifully put, and I agree 100%. It's true - I keep thinking that I am open to make changes and be convinced one way or another but that people on the other side are not. But obviously, they feel the same way about me :-) I do feel like this book made me understand a little better... though it's still hard to stomach that people heard everything else he said and ignored it, mostly because it did not directly affect them. That's the part that I don't think I can really get past.

  2. This book sounds so good and so relevant. I can definitely see what you mean about understanding why someone voted for Trump. I just read an article in my O magazine where Oprah talks with women who voted for both nominees and afterward I could definitely see why they voted for each one. People seem to forget about how badly people in our country are doing and that hearing the words "Make America Great Again" sounds like music to their ears. I'm jotting this title down - thank you!!


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