In “Detroit: An American Autopsy”(Penguin Press, 2013), Charlie LeDuff tells us that over the entrance to the Detroit News building is inscribed:
Troubler of the Public Conscience
After reading this book, one feels that journalist LeDuff was about the last “troubler” left in that city. A Detroiter from childhood, LeDuff had been an award-winning reporter for the New York Times when he decided to return to his humble (to put it mildly) neighborhood on Joy Road in Detroit. The book is a conglomeration of past history and present despair of the Motor City. In the book, LeDuff tells of his investigative reporting of the corruption, incompetence, decay and crime, including the devastation of his own family and friends. He befriends witnesses, firemen, victims and families, to get his stories, embarrass public officials, and obtain some measure of justice (or at least closure). LeDuff often uses decaying landmarks as jumping off points to recount important episodes in the history of the city, many of which involve race relations and/or his own family. This is a gritty book, shocking initially, numbing. Daily murders, continual fires, arson as cheap entertainment, abandoned homes, failure of public services, politicians plundering revenues and serving up the last assets of the city to their jackals…there is little hope in this portrayal, other than the gradual return to nature of abandoned parts of the city. Whose fault was it? LeDuff doesn’t concern himself with that question, to any great degree; he seems to divide the blame between the automobile manufacturers and the unions. OTL,S! can assure the reader that this is true. Both parties negotiated outlandish contracts under siege conditions, and both were parties to the production of terribly designed and badly assembled automobiles. The factories were virtual war zones, populated by angry and sometimes intoxicated workers under awful working conditions, and managers who had no investment in quality. General Motors made it easy for buyers to go into debt by inventing the installment plan. Even in the 50’s, reasonable people knew it couldn’t last forever. Even before gasoline prices spiked, the handwriting was on the wall, and it was in Japanese.
LeDuff’s career has been somewhat checkered, but bravo to him for his courage; his book is a must-read for anyone who has been touched by the city, the state, the industry or the culture of the automobile, which is just about all of us.
Update 6/24/2013: OTL,S! notes a piece in Rolling Stone regarding the financial mess in Detroit and other Michigan cities. It seems that the predatory lending extended to the public sector as well as to homeowners. Several municipalities (mostly African American majority) are hard hit, with no solution in sight.