Thursday, February 4, 2021

Book 270: Detroit


"The city, what's left of it, burns night after night. Nature—in the form of pheasants, hawks, foxes, coyotes and wild dogs—had stepped in to fill the vacuum, reclaiming a little more of the landscape each day. The streets were empty and cratered. The skyscrapers were holograms. I stood and admired a cottonwood sapling growing out of the roof of the Lafayette Building. This was like living in Pompeii, except the people weren't covered in ash. We were alive."

Dates read: October 21-25, 2018

Rating: 6/10

I was born in Detroit. Not "Detroit", the way some people use it, to mean Royal Oak or Birmingham. But actual City of Detroit, in Harper Woods. My mom had lived there for her whole life, from the fifties when she was born until the late eighties when we left. When I was about three, we moved out to what had been her parents' summer lake house, about an hour away, and that's where I was raised. Though I barely lived there, and it was three decades ago now, I'll never stop rooting for my native city.

The City of Detroit's motto is "Speramus meliora; resurgent cineribus", which translates to "We hope for better things, it will rise from the ashes". Which sounds really on the nose for Detroit now, but actually dates back to 1805 and the aftermath of an actual fire. So how did a city once known for its prosperity and loveliness (called the "Paris of the West"!), turn into...well, Detroit as we know it? When reporter Charlie LeDuff returned to his hometown after spending more than a decade working at The New York Times, he started up at The Detroit News, and his attempts to answer that very question went into his book, Detroit: An American Autopsy.

Detroit is a mix of a little bit of several things: part history, part investigation of public corruption, part memoir. The issues of the city aren't just abstract facts to LeDuff...he grew up there, watched his mother struggle to maintain her business and raise her family as the crime rate spiked, and his own sister became addicted to drugs and died young, leaving behind a daughter who's on the same path. He traces the city's boom, and then the white flight that began when the Great Migration brought Southern black people to the industrial north, and then the increasingly shady operations of the City Council. LeDuff began his tenure at the News as Kwame Kilpatrick's reign as Mayor was in its death throes, his misconduct and that of other City electeds like Monica Conyers finally becoming so blatant it could no longer be swept under the rug.

In the strongest portions of the book, LeDuff takes one aspect of the very real consequences of municipal mismanagement, the woeful underfunding of the Fire Department, and uses it as a microcosm of the larger problem. He introduces the firefighters, constantly called out into a sprawling, arson-happy city with trucks and equipment well past expiration dates. But they keep on going anyways, out of love for each other and a sense of duty to the residents, even though the conditions they're put in mean they're at much higher risk of death and injury.

These firehouse sections are so strong, in fact, I found myself wishing they had been the whole book. LeDuff's an undeniably talented writer, but his lack of focus made it less compelling than it could have been. I found the memoir-esque portions least interesting, and while his look at the malfeasance at City Council did grab my attention, it wasn't nearly fleshed out enough to paint a full picture. LeDuff's connection with the firefighters and sympathy for their Sisyphean task is obvious, and the work just comes alive when he's spending time with them. As it is, the book tries to do a little too much, and sacrificing its ability to do any of it to a level of true excellence. It's good, and if you're into reading about Detroit, it's well-worth your time, but if you don't have an underlying interest in the city, it might not be for you.

One year ago, I was reading: Whores of the Devil

Two years ago, I was reading: The Mind's Eye

Three years ago, I was reading: Thank You For Smoking

Four years ago, I was reading: Orange Is the New Black

Five years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

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