An American Autopsy
By Charlie LeDuff
The Penguin Press, 286 pages, $30
DETROIT was, for some years after its founding, a successful, prosperous and growing city. By the time the author of this urban memoir returned to his hometown after an absence of two decades, it was suffering drastic decline.
Charlie Le Duff discovered his city had deteriorated to the point where the only crime that rivals murder is arson, highlighted by "pre-Halloween orgies of arson and destruction known as Devil's Night."
More and more people set fires to the growing number of broken down buildings. Stealing from damaged buildings was too common to cause shame.
Firefighters resorted to rationing to buy their own toilet paper. The city even removed the firehouse's brass poles and sold them to the highest bidder. Unemployment was rampant, and even people with a chance at a job were likely to lack the work ethic to take advantage.
People who laboured for the auto companies hated their jobs and resented the exploitative behaviour of the bosses, who had cultivated their appeals for big money from Washington.
When the economy is down and money is scarce, people are forced to make choices, sometimes difficult ones. This fact was brought home to LeDuff when he set out to investigate a murder. On his visit to the morgue he learned of a cadaver of an elderly man who had been there for two years. In other words, many people could not afford to bury their loved ones.
Tension in Detroit's urban area is reflected in the racial division. Blacks occupy the old city area, whites have migrated to the suburbs or neighbouring towns. Interaction of the racial groups is rare, except for conflict from time to time. And in the event of conflict, people don't call the police. The police reciprocate by not responding anyway.
Education is another serious problem area. Failure rates are high. Teachers are forced to buy their own supplies. Not even pencils are generally available.
Le Duff encounters much evidence of political corruption. It seems to occur at all levels, as does incompetence.
Le Duff seems determined to uncover the negative sides of Detroit (including foul language, in which he himself indulges). He is difficult to pin down, although he identifies himself as a journalist.
He was reportedly once charged with plagiarism, but he claims to have answered that accusation.
On the other hand, he displays fondness for the people of Detroit. As he reflects about people he knows and the hardships that plague so many, he reasons, "If there is any hope for Detroit it is the thousands of good people .... afraid but not wanting to be afraid anymore."
The population of Detroit has diminished drastically in a couple of generations, falling from some two million to around 700,000, about the size of Winnipeg.
Winnipeg, too, has dealt with a long decline. Racial difficulties abound here, too, and our crime rates are high by Canadian standards. But they pale in comparison to those in Detroit.
Ron Kirbyson is a Winnipeg writer and educator.