A review of Detroit: An American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff

When people ask me why I moved from liberal to conservative, I have a one-word answer: Detroit. I grew up there, on a middle-class grid street in northwest Detroit and a curving street in affluent suburban Birmingham, and I got a job as an intern in the office of the mayor in the summer of 1967 when Detroit rioted. I was at the side of Mayor Jerome Cavanagh and occasionally Governor George Romney during the six days and nights in which 43 people, mostly innocent bystanders, died. I listened to the radio in the police commissioner's office as commanders announced, shortly after sundown, that they were abandoning one square mile after another. The riot ended only after federal troops were called in and restored order.

Cavanagh was bright, young, liberal, and charming. He had been elected in 1961 at age 33 with virtually unanimous support from blacks and with substantial support from white homeowners—then the majority of Detroit voters—and he was reelected by a wide margin in 1965. He and Martin Luther King, Jr., led a civil rights march of 100,000 down Woodward Avenue in June 1963. He was one of the first mayors to set up an antipoverty program and believed that city governments could do more than provide routine services; they could lift people, especially black people, out of poverty and into productive lives. Liberal policies promised to produce something like heaven. Instead they produced something more closely resembling hell. You can get an idea of what happened to Detroit by looking at some numbers. The Census counted 1,849,568 people in Detroit in 1950, including me. It counted 713,777 in 2010.

To get a feel for what this particular hell is like, you should read Charlie LeDuff's Detroit: An American Autopsy. LeDuff is a reporter who left the New York Times for the Detroit News and left the News when an editor took all the good stuff out of a story on a local judge. He's now a reporter for Fox 2 and you can get an idea of his personal style by watching his clips on YouTube. Detroit is a personal story for him: he grew up in the not-affluent suburb of Westland (named after a shopping center, as he notes) with a divorced mother who ran a florist shop on the east side of Detroit but who couldn't keep her children from dire fates. A daughter who became a streetwalker and died violently left behind her own daughter who would overdose on heroin. Three of LeDuff's brothers are working at just-above-minimum-wage jobs or not working at all (one pulled out a tooth with pliers). Charlie was lucky. He went into "the most natural thing for a man with no real talent. Journalism."

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His book opens as he notices in the ice at the bottom of an elevator shaft in one of Detroit's many, many abandoned buildings the feet of a corpse. We see him having a drink with Council President Pro Tem Monica Conyers, the congressman's wife who later went to jail for bribery—and stopping off before to see the 13-year-old girl who, while attending a council session, criticized Conyers for calling the council president "Shrek." He makes the mistake of stopping for gas on the east side ("semi-lawless and crazy") and escapes being robbed by two goons when he pulls a gun from his glove compartment. He hangs out with honest guys whose job is to cope with the city's violent murders and arson-set fires—"murder dick" Mike Carlisle; firefighters Mike Nevin, who is unjustly sacked, and Walt Harris, who says grace at firehouse meals and dies in a fire set by an arsonist for $20. Detroit is no longer the nation's murder capital—though, LeDuff notes, police officials systematically undercount homicides—and Halloween is no longer Devil's Night (with 810 arsons in 1984). But the good guys are fighting uphill. City and county buildings are dilapidated; firemen have to bring their own toilet paper to work and don't have water pressure to put out a fire set in their own firehouse; the morgue doesn't have room for all the bodies.

Dan Austin's Lost Detroit (2010), a book highlighting a dozen of the city's abandoned architectural landmarks, shows photos of the old Packard plant, closed since 1956, where young men drive cars to the top and then pitch them to the ground, trees growing inside what were once downtown office buildings, and a grand 1920s downtown theater whose interior is now used as a parking lot (without many cars). LeDuff helps you see the rot. As he goes about his rounds he shows you "neck-high grass that went ignored and the garbage heaps that went uncollected," "sewers backed up into houses," and the disgusting disrepair of public buildings.

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Who is responsible for all this? LeDuff sometimes seems ready to blame just about everybody in authority-crooked politicians, political fixers, lazy judges, General Motors executives, union leaders, Wall Street. Looming over his narrative is the giant—literally giant; he is hugely tall and fat—figure of Kwame Kilpatrick, son of a (now former) congresswoman. He was elected mayor of Detroit in 2001 and 2005, and convicted of bribery in a trial replete with evidence of phone-sex texting with one of his top staffers. And there's no doubt Kilpatrick fostered a political culture that was rotten to the core.

But Kilpatrick didn't start it. I blame the ambitious liberalism of the Cavanagh years, which I believed in at the time, and the 20-year rule of Coleman Young, mayor from 1973 to 1993. Young was smart, funny, and politically ruthless, with a background in left-wing unionism. The story I heard was that he supported the reelection of pro-Communist R.J. Thomas as president of the United Auto Workers (UAW) in 1947 against the anti-Communist Walter Reuther; after Reuther won, Young lost his job as a pork chopper (the local word for union staffer) and was sent back to the assembly line. As mayor he disbanded the police department's stop-and-frisk unit. Crime soared and Devil's Night became a Detroit institution. Young occasionally denounced black criminals. But much more often he denounced white suburbanites and in his autobiography, published after he left office, savaged white homeowners who left the city. His economic strategy was to ally with the big auto companies and the UAW, just as their business model was undermined by foreign-based competitors. He got the Big Three automakers to finance the 70-story Renaissance Center, physically disconnected from the rest of downtown, and tore down a viable white neighborhood to make room for General Motors's Poletown plant. The great northward migration of Southern blacks quadrupled Detroit's black population from 149,000 in 1940 to 660,000 in 1970. The high crime rates of the Young years reduced its non-black population from 853,000 in 1970 to 250,000 in 1990; it was down to 125,000 in 2010.

Liberal city government is expensive—Cavanagh instituted a city income tax raised later to 2.5%—and increasingly ineffective. The Detroit News reported that 47% of property owners didn't pay their 2011 property tax. The public employee unions, just starting up in the Cavanagh years, have long been pushing for salaries, benefits, and pensions that are increasingly unaffordable. So the city has let its physical facilities go to ruin, as LeDuff notes again and again. Dave Bing, the former basketball player and auto parts business owner who was elected mayor in 2009, threatened to close 77 of the city's parks. Detroit under its 1922 charter is a civil service city, with nonpartisan elections and nine council members elected at large. So, as LeDuff notes, council members and judges are often elected because they have familiar names. They don't have neighborhood responsibilities like Chicago's 50 aldermen and 50 Democratic ward committeemen. When I worked for Mayor Cavanagh, I was impressed by the competence and civic responsibility of Detroit's top civil servants. But since then the culture of civil servants and political appointees seems to have become one of entitlement and, as LeDuff observes, iron indifference to the plight of city residents.

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Young complained about white flight, but that's not much of a problem any more. Hardy urbanites are trying to reclaim neighborhoods around downtown and Wayne State University for their hip form of civilization and may succeed. Now blacks are fleeing. Detroit's black population peaked at 777,000 in 1990; it leveled off to 775,000 in 2000 and plunged to 590,000 in 2010. Blacks with decent jobs and steady habits have been moving to the suburbs or back to their grandparents' South, and those who remain tend to be the people with no good alternative and no hope. Those who have visited both Detroit and Hiroshima will have trouble guessing which country won that war. You can see the devastation in the photos at the end of Detroit, in Austin's Lost Detroit or Julia Reyes Taubman's Detroit: 138 Square Miles (2011), and on the websites specializing in Detroit's ruins (I'm tempted to call them Detroit porn). But Charlie LeDuff seems determined to keep on fighting. He ends his book with two scenes. One is the sentencing of the arsonist who gave a bum $20 to torch the house where Walt Harris died. The judge gave him 42 years. The second is what he finds in the mosquito-infested neck-high grass of the field where his sister met a violent death. A fawn.