NPJ Book Review: Detroit, An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff

Detroit, An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff (2013)

I really didn’t want to read this book when it was first published in 2013. I’ve been putting it off. I was born in the inner city of Detroit. After a brief stint at St. Mary’s Hospital established by the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul on June 9, 1845, the place under another name was demolished in 1990. It was rubble for a while which brings me to LeDuff’s story. It’s gritty, bleak, uneven and a vivid portrayal of a city called Detroit named by French missionaries in the 17th century. It’s a restless city, at times bustling with the automotive industry, other times decaying like a body at the bottom of an elevator shaft in an abandoned automotive plant. If you’re black or poor any one, it tastes like hopelessness.

I grew up in the inner city through my elementary years which makes this scathing, insightful, witty, expressive and heart rendering drama in part, all the more poignant.

Intolerance, graft, human loss, shattered dreams, racism, lack of money, the blasphemy and violence of poverty, the breath of hope, homelessness, and race riots (Detroit is the only city where thousands of federal troops had to be sent in on three separate occasions and occupy the city – 1863, 1943 and 1967). It’s a city known for its sports, bars, cars and more freeways once used as an escape out of the city now slowly a movement toward returning since LeDuff wrote this memoir (his book is part autobiographical).

Still, Detroit in 2018 is a tumultuous place that appears on the edge of hope and hopelessness depending on the cash you have in your pocket. Poverty still remains substantial as it is in other cities as does high unemployment and higher under-employment; buildings torn down are slowly replaced with inner city cropland. Hope comes in the form of people doing the moral and ethical thing – from a fireman, a cop, a judge, a teacher…the list is long. Every one that comes into contact with the city has a stake in its survival even if it’s at a casino.

The author writes like a novelist…and this book has the slight feel of a war novel…. the city has experienced the disease of institutionalized racism, religious intolerance, corporate and political corruption and greed in it’s history…times change…flickers of hope come from the human heart mid the tragedy and comedy of the city, a person and a people find a way of coming together or perish. There are some parts of the city that feel like a refugee encampment and other parts are hollowed out structures that once housed families. The despair is real. The solutions are more provocative.

Yet, there’s a glimmer of light for Detroit but on some days it seems rather distant. It’s being rebuilt. The author’s autopsy of Detroit is also one of possibilities. Detroit is seeking not a reincarnation but an awakening in the present moment.