Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff

In brief: Charlie returns home to report on life in Detroit as Motor City is unravelling in many ways.

The good: It’s fascinating and scary, yet does offer some hope.

The not-so-good: I just wanted to read more and more.

Why I chose it: Known a little bit about Detroit but then the GFC and the media…

Year: 2014 (revised edition)

Pages: 287

Publisher: Penguin Books USA

Setting: Detroit and surrounds, Michigan, USA

I can’t remember when I first became interested in Detroit, but it was probably something to do with listening to my father talk about the origins of the Ford Motor Company and Henry Ford. Deerborn, Michigan became a somewhat familiar place and then the GFC hit. Suddenly, a different Detroit was in the news, a city in a financial spiral. Some time later I saw a TV programme about UrbEx (urban exploration) and was intrigued about how many grand buildings in what was once The City in America could be in disrepair. Given that my part of Australia was riding a huge mining boom at the time, it all seemed so foreign. Now that we’re on the downturn, I can only hope that things never get as bad as what has happened in Detroit. The city has fallen victim to a number of awful things and in Detroit: An American Autopsy Charlie LeDuff tells the stories in detail.

What I found astonishing was that Detroit has been shrinking for decades as foreign built car sales increased and people moved out of the city. The big car companies were literally running on the smell of an oily rag. Funds for public services, like fire departments, police and ambulances shrunk beyond the bare bones. Firemen were forced to repair their own fire houses and bring their own toilet paper. An emergency situation may wait 20 minutes or more for services to arrive. Meanwhile, people in power were lining their pockets and those of their friends. So many things went wrong and Detroit went from being Motor City to a place many would be scared to be.

Charlie LeDuff is from Detroit and most of his family still live there, each with a tale to tell about life in Detroit. His brother cleans and packs screws, but used to be involved in selling subprime mortgages. Everyone is doing it tough. I think Charlie’s local knowledge made this book more of a personal read. It had something extra than the news stories, the ability to put a human face on the suffering. The grandmother who can’t afford to bury her granddaughter, killed by mistake. The fireman killed while fighting a deliberately lit fire to claim insurance money. The man frozen in an abandoned lift shaft. Charlie puts a face to the issue and the power of the book is much greater as a result.

He starts by talking about Detroit and the corruption, before spending time with the fire department. Later the story talks more about his family and their history, which for me was probably the weakest point. After so many incredible stories about modern Detroit, shrinking the focus to one family from a once great city took away some of the power. Charlie is a brilliant writer, possibly one of the best at non-fiction that I’ve read and he’s got the power to pull in the reader. At times, I found myself pausing and looking up some of the places he spoke about just so I could get more of a visual idea of the abandoned houses, malls and factories.

After finishing, I looked on the internet to see if I could find out more about how the city was going. It appears some things are happening, like restoration of the Packard Plant. But whether that’s just good spin or the truth, I hope things improve for the people of Detroit. The book portrays residents as having a deep love for their city, through the good and the bad.

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