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Detroit: An American Autopsy

2013 nonfiction book by Charlie LeDuff

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Down and dirty account of the decline and fall of the Motor City.

  • Feb 4, 2013
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"Studying the city through the windshield now, it wasn't frightening anymore. It was empty and forlorn and pathetic. On some block not a single home was occupied, the structures having fallen victim to desertion and the arsonist's match. I drove blocks without seeing a living soul." -- p. 71

It was not quite the homecoming that Charlie LeDuff had hoped for. LeDuff had won a Pulitzer Prize during an 11year stint as a staff reporter for the New York Times. In 2007 he abruptly quit his gig as a member of the Times Los Angeles bureau after he decided that he was tired of L.A. and that his wife and three year old daughter really needed to be around family. Charlie LeDuff's clan resided in and around the city of Detroit. Much to his surprise when he contacted the lowly, virtually bankrupt Detroit News about a position he found that one was available. The die was now cast. His bosses at The News had already figured out the best way to utilize their talented new reporter. They told him to "chronicle the decline of the Great Industrial American City." This was going to be right up his alley. Charlie LeDuff liked to get his fingernails dirty. He knew things were pretty bad in his hometown but until he actually arrived there he had no idea just how ugly it had gotten. "Detroit: An American Autopsy" is the rough and tumble story of a city in total free fall. Perhaps what is most frightening about what you will read in this book is that what has happened in Detroit could well be repeated in a number of other major urban areas around this nation.

So just who is to blame for the demise of this once great American city? Depending on your politics just about everyone has a theory. Liberals point their finger at the greedy executives of the auto industry and Wall Street who shifted hundreds of thousands of jobs away from the Motor City to places like Mexico. Conservatives on the other hand would tend to blame ill-advised trade legislation like NAFTA and the corrupt Democratic political machine that has run this city for decades for many of the problems. But when Charlie LeDuff started to crunch some numbers what he found was simply astounding. To fully understand just how far Detroit has fallen you need to know that in its heyday in the 1960's the city boasted a total population of 1.9 million. By the early 1990's that number had fallen to 1.2 million. Now in 2013 the population of Detroit has dwindled to fewer than 700,000 people! Meanwhile, there are in the neighborhood of 62,000 vacant houses in Detroit. It seems all that left is a destitute underclass and an extremely corrupt bureaucracy. City services such as police and fire and public works are a joke. The equipment these public servants are forced to use is antiquated and extremely unreliable. Staffing has been cut to the bone. Another barometer of just how bad things have gotten in Detroit is the number of dead bodies piling up at the morgue. LeDuff reports that on any given day there are around 250 unclaimed bodies. One has sat there for more than two years!

Throughout the pages of "Detroit: An American Autopsy" Charlie LeDuff shines the spotlight on all of ills of this once proud metropolis including unemployment, illiteracy, foreclosure, arson, murder and widespread bureaucratic corruption. It is all too much for those who remain. This is a dangerous place to be. Along the way LeDuff investigates the corrupt city administration, looks into the death of a beloved veteran firefighter killed during an arson and chronicles the most bizarre real life murder story you will likely ever hear. And yet, despite it all the author points out that there are still many good people here who are doing their best to stop the bleeding. You will meet a number of them in this book who despite the odds consistently go above and beyond the call of duty in a largely vain attempt to save the city they love.

"Detroit: An American Autopsy" is a riveting expose of the decline and fall of a once great American city. Recently, Forbes magazine pointed to Detroit as "the most miserable city in America". After reading this book it is easy to see why! I had heard stories but had no idea that things were this bad. Some would argue that it is probably too late to save Detroit but Charlie LeDuff would beg to differ. In spite of all the problems he encountered during the two years of reporting it took to cobble together this book he still sees a glimmer of hope out there. This really is a story that needed to be told. Other American cities would do well to learn from the myriad mistakes made here lest they suffer the same fate. "Detroit: An American Autopsy" would be a great choice for anyone interested in the future of major American cities and for general readers as well. The language gets a bit colorful from time to time but as I pointed out earlier Charlie LeDuff likes to get his fingernails dirty.     Highly recommended!

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Paul Tognetti ()
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I guess I would qualify as a frustrated writer. My work requires very little writing and so since 1999 I have been writing reviews on non-fiction books and anthology CD's on amazon.com. I never could … more
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About this book


Back in his broken hometown, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Charlie LeDuff searches through the ruins for clues to its fate, his family’s, and his own. Detroit is where his mother’s flower shop was firebombed in the pre-Halloween orgy of arson known as Devil’s Night; where his sister lost herself to the west side streets; where his brother, who once sold subprime mortgages with skill and silk, now works in a factory cleaning Chinese-manufactured screws so they can be repackaged as “May Be Made in United States.”

Having led us on the way up, Detroit now seems to be leading us on the way down. Once the richest city in America, Detroit is now the nation’s poorest. Once the vanguard of America’s machine age—mass production, blue-collar jobs, and automobiles—Detroit is now America’s capital for unemployment, illiteracy, dropouts, and foreclosures. It is an eerie and angry place of deserted factories and abandoned homes and forgotten people. Trees and switchgrass and wild animals have come back to reclaim their right¬ful places. Coyotes are here. The pigeons have left. A city the size of San Francisco and Manhattan could neatly fit into Detroit’s vacant lots. After revealing that the city’s murder rate is higher than the official police number—making it the highest in the country—a weary old detective tells LeDuff, “In this city two plus two equals three.”

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Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The
Date Published: February 7, 2013

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