Is Charlie LeDuff’s Book the Final Word on Detroit and its Social Pathologies?

Abandoned Apartment Building in Detroit, MI
Abandoned apartment building in Detroit.

I’ve blogged before about the city of Detroit, surely our country’s “Exhibit A” when it comes to chronicling urban decline.

The saga of Detroit’s recent history is pretty widely known, thanks to a bevy of articles in news magazines, lurid photo essays by prominent “ruin porn” photographers like Camilo José Vergara, and books by author Ze’ev Chafets and others.

Detroit: An American Autopsy, a book by Charlie LeDuffBut the most recent volume, Detroit: An American Autopsy, authored by journalist and reporter Charlie LeDuff and released earlier this year, is perhaps the most impactful of these — which makes it required reading.

That’s because not only is this book the most contemporary one on the subject – with up-to-the-minute references to the city’s most recent governmental follies – but also because the author happens to be a Detroit native.

In my view, Charlie LeDuff is one of the most fascinating reporters in the news industry today, with a background that is hardly common for journalists.

Prior to joining the staff at the Detroit News in 2008, LeDuff’s reporting career included more than a decade at the New York Times, along with a stint as a writer for an Alaskan trade publication. His reporting has taken him all over the country and the world, including the war theater in Iraq.

So LeDuff approaches his topic with all the insights of a seasoned reporter – yet he is not the dispassionate observer. After all, Detroit is his hometown. And throughout the pages of the book, you can distinctly feel the anger, the despair, and the grief the author feels about his city.

Indeed, the saga of Detroit “hits home” in many personal ways for Charlie LeDuff. Consider these points:

  • Witnessing the 1967 race rioting mere blocks from their family home in West Detroit, LeDuff’s parents, like so many other middle-class residents, choose safety for their children, moving out of the city in a matter of days following.
  • LeDuff’s mother’s florist shop, located on Jefferson Boulevard on the east side of town, is broken into multiple times – with a final act of vandalism forcing her to move to a suburban location. (The site of her former shop is now a pile of rubble.)
  • Battling chemical dependency, LeDuff’s only sister is sucked into a life on the streets, becoming a prostitute and dying one evening while leaving a dive bar on the city’s far west side.
  • LeDuff’s three brothers become casualties of Michigan’s worsening business climate, bouncing from one dead-end job to the next – each one a step lower on the economic ladder as meaningful employment for high school-educated workers dries up.
  • LeDuff’s niece, barely 20 years old, dies from a heroin overdose.

The author may have been drawn back to Detroit because of the pull of family. But what he discovers is an urban environment that has a corrosive effect on all who come into contact with it. Although he moves his wife and young daughter to a suburban enclave just outside the city limits, LeDuff finds that no one is immune to its negative effects.

In the pages of his book, LeDuff reports on the unscrupulousness and/or incompetence of entire classes of Detroiters: politicians, government bureaucrats, street hustlers, business leaders (the car company executives come in for particular opprobrium) – and even the artist community.

But the author is also quick to point out that most Detroiters are simply attempting to survive in an urban environment that is so dysfunctional, so stress-inducing, that civil behavior is nearly impossible to practice.

During his time at the Detroit News, Charlie LeDuff would pen many columns exposing the squalor and corruption he witnessed in his city. For that, he received many an irate phone message or e-mail missive lobbed his way, criticizing him for failing to spotlight the “good” attributes of Detroit.

In his book LeDuff has this to say to those people:

“[They] complained that I was focusing on the negative in a city with so much good. What about all the galleries and museums and music …? What about the good things?

It was a fair point. There are plenty of good people in Detroit. Tens of thousands of them … There are lawyers and doctors and auto executives with nice homes and good jobs and community elders trying to make things better, teachers who spend their own money on the classroom, people who mow lawns out of respect for the dead neighbor, parents who raise their children, ministers who help with funeral expenses.

But these things are not supposed to be news. These things are supposed to be normal. And when normal things become the news, the abnormal becomes the norm. And when that happens, you might as well put a fork in it.”

Charlie LeDuff is now a reporter for WJBK, the Fox affiliate TV station in Detroit. He took over for Brad Edwards, another newsman whose hard-hitting-yet-poignant stories of a city on the edge of the abyss have moved many and made both reporters so respected – even loved — by the public.

It’s a journalist’s duty to report the news, of course. But sometimes he or she can attempt to do more. I have no doubt that Charlie LeDuff felt a certain sense of “mission” when he returned to his hometown.

But traces of any significant progress are hard to find, five years on. After a string of corrupt mayors, Detroit elected the affable but ultimately unsuccessful ex-NBA player and businessman Dave Bing to the office.

Today, not only have city operations been turned over to a state-appointed administrator, Mayor Bing announced this past week that he will not be running for reelection. And so it goes …

LeDuff evokes this sense of “no hope left, writ small” as he describes the family scene at the burial of his 20-year-old niece:

“[I] looked up at the old people around the grave and considered the great turmoil of human history that they represented. My mother, her ties to the Native people of the Great Lakes and the drifting whiskered French settlers. My stepfather, whose people emigrated from the port of Danzig, the long-disputed city claimed by both the Germans the Poles, which ignited World War II. My niece’s other grandparents, hill folk who hailed from Appalachia and traced their heritage back to the Lowlands of Scotland and the warrior William Wallace.

People from all corners of the earth who came to Detroit to work in its factories and make it one of the most significant cities of history.

I looked up over the grave and surveyed the heaving sobs of my nieces and the strained faces of my brothers. Jimmy looking for work. Frankie on the verge of losing his house. Billy in the screw factory. Somehow, the city of promise had become a scrap yard of dreams.”

Yet then … LeDuff adds this glimmer of light:

“But fighters do what they do best when they’ve been staggered. They get off their knees and they fight some more.”

The question is, how much longer can Detroit go on fighting?

It’s Official: Older Cities Take a Beating in the Latest U.S. Census

Abandoned housing stock in Flint, MI
2009 street scene in Flint, Michigan.

While there’s been evidence of significant shifts in U.S. population growth over the past decade, the decennial census performed earlier this year gives us an opportunity to learn precisely what’s been happening and end some of the “speculation.”

And now, with the U.S. Census Bureau releasing its preliminary population reports, we’re seeing how this has played out in cities across the country. While it’s true that the American population has grown pretty steadily at about 2.5 million people per year, some areas have grown much faster than others as a result of being better positioned through the education of their workforce and/or their business- and technology-friendly environments.

Alas, other areas haven’t merely stagnated, but actually lost residents because of failing industries and unattractive business climates, sparking net out-migration of their residents.

Interestingly, many of the cities in the “industrial heartland” of America have managed to stay on the positive side of population growth – even if just barely. But some cities have experienced such hardship that their populations have dropped dramatically in the past decade.

New Orleans tops the list … and who’s surprised about that? After all, Hurricane Katrina effectively robbed the city of one-third of its residents – with most of them electing not to return after establishing new livelihoods in Houston, Shreveport, and other localities further yon.

But New Orleans surely represents a “special case” if ever there was one. Other cities have suffered greatly due to their dependence on industries that took a beating over the past decade. And really, any city with a major focus on traditional manufacturing saw thousands of jobs disappear.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Census report on the nation’s largest cities — ones with 100,000+ population — the seven experiencing the biggest percentage declines in population over the past decade are:

1. New Orleans, LA – Dropped by ~129,000 to ~355,000 (-27%)
2. Flint, MI – Declined by ~13,000 to ~112,000 (-11%)
3. Cleveland, OH – Fell by ~45,000 to ~431,000 (-10%)
4. Buffalo, NY – Dropped by ~22,000 to ~270,000 (-8%)
5. Dayton, OH – Declined by ~12,000 to ~154,000 (-7%)
6. Pittsburgh, PA – Dropped by ~22,000 to ~312,000 (-7%)
7. Rochester, NY – Declined by ~12,000 to ~207,000 (-6%)

[I was a bit surprised to see Detroit missing from this list. After all, it’s the poster child for urban decay and depopulation. But Detroit’s population percentage decline was actually smaller than the cities above, and it remains the nation’s 11th largest city. However, the 2010 census will likely show that its population has fallen below 800,000 for the first time in nearly a century – and the figure is even more startling when you realize the city’s population was nearly 2 million as late as the 1950 census.]

Unfortunately, the negative implication of population declines in these proud American cities go far beyond the loss of social prestige and political clout.

Once decline sets in, it can go on for years. The loss of residents contributes to a drop in tax receipts and the subsequent curtailing of social services ranging from police and sanitation to schools and recreation. Home vacancy rates say volumes about the precarious position in which the cities above find themselves – they’re above 15% in every single case (and sometimes dramatically higher).

Confronted with such a reality, too often the result is more people fleeing the urban core, creating a continuing downward spiral that seemingly has no bottom. Representative examples of where this sorry state of affairs can end up can be found in two smaller but particularly grim urban communities: Camden, NJ and Chester, PA.

From the outside looking in, it’s difficult to accept these population reports … and it seems like people should step in and do something – anything – to arrest the decline.

And in the abstract, it’s only natural to feel that this is what should happen. But in the “real world,” who are going to be the ones to step up to the plate and expose themselves (and their families) to the harsh reality of urban pioneering?

Would I do it? Would you?

For most of us, the answer to that question falls into the “life’s too short” category.