Monday, May 20, 2013

"Detroit" by Charlie LeDuff (2013)

What killed Detroit? The saying used to be “As goes GM, so goes the nation.” If that expression is true, then we are all in trouble. Journalist Charlie LeDuff, formerly of the New York Times, returns home to the city where he grew up to work for the local newspaper, a far cry from the job he held in New York. He hopes to cover what may be the biggest story in America; the death a of a once great city; a place where Henry Ford began the $5 work day, and ended with the loss of the auto industry to the foreign market, before falling victim to the recession of 2008.

Looking back through some of Detroit’s history paints a picture of the city which became home to hundreds of thousands of workers during the great migration from the south. These people arrived seeking a better life, only to find themselves living in the worst end of town, while relegated to a life of factory work. For several generations that was the expected “norm”, but once the Unions got involved, with their demands for high pay and good benefits; even for the unskilled; the industry fell to the complacency which often accompanies the assumption that things will always remain the same.

Why go to college when you can sweep the factory floor for $18 an hour? Why prepare for any other work when you have a virtual guarantee of lifelong employment, and a retirement which meets all your needs? This is the thinking which allowed the people of Detroit to be taken down by crooked politicians, corrupt labor leaders, and the apathy of the people themselves as they watched their world literally crumble about them.

When the city went broke many of the municipal services we take for granted fell by the wayside. Garbage went uncollected, and fires raged out of control as people; unemployed and without hope; set fire to the vacant houses around them. The firefighters have no equipment which hasn't been damaged, or stolen to be sold as scrap, and even the federal bailout money which was supposed to help save the dying city, was pilfered by a cast of characters who rival those in Jimmy Breslin’s “The Gang Who Couldn't Shoot Straight.” The saying in Detroit is that sometimes when there is a crime, the people call the police. And as if to return the favor, sometimes the Police show up.

The authors brother Billie had a job as a writer of sub-prime mortgages, part of what brought the whole nation to its knees, just as the easy credit extended by GMAC in order to make cars affordable to all, did back in the 1920’s. The car was the precursor to the mindset that begat the housing bubble of the early 2000’s. Billie ends up working at a screw factory for $8 per hour, even as he loses the home he, himself, once wrote the sub-prime mortgage on.

Detroit itself, once home to an ambitious and upwardly mobile workforce has become the emblem of what went wrong with America in the heady years after World War Two had come to a close. Lacking any real competition from abroad, we became fat and lazy, allowing crooked politicians to lead us down the path to our own destruction.

With the bailout of Detroit’s “Big Three” comes a great lesson in greed and corruption. Arriving in Washington aboard their corporate jets to beg for a Federal bailout, they return home empty handed, seemingly at a loss as to what went wrong. They had arrived in style, but with no concrete plan to present to Congress. They were shocked when they were turned down for the bailout money, returning to Detroit to regroup. Only after returning to Washington; in hybrid automobiles; would they receive any attention at all.

Detroit’s “hip-hop” Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, presided over much of the city’s decay. And when he was caught and sentenced to prison, he served 99 days and when released returned to live with his mother, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, a United States Congresswoman and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

As the factories and plants closed, the properties remained vacant, becoming a place for the homeless and drug addicted to seek shelter. The description of men playing ice hockey in the basement of one of these vacant buildings is incredulous, especially when they discover a body at the bottom of an elevator shaft frozen in ice. He was there for months before anyone reported him. His name was Johnnie Lewis Redding, second cousin to the great singer Otis.

And, as the city burns, there is no money left for schools, leaving the children to bring their own toilet paper to class. Books are a rarity, and the ones in use are hopelessly outdated. What kind of future awaits these children, who are daily accosted by drug dealers and cannot even play safely outdoors anymore?

Mr. LeDuff has done an extraordinary job at chronicling the demise of a once great metropolis. The scariest part of the book however, is that this is the blueprint of what is happening to America all over, as we watch our jobs; and futures; being shipped all over the world, leaving nothing behind for the average working class person.

When the authors brother Billie moves to a rented property, after losing his home, he packs his belongings in boxes stamped “Made in China” as he wonders aloud, “Don’t we make anything here anymore?” This is a book which will astonish you as it paints a picture of what our national future may look like under the leadership of the incompetent. The real pity is that we are the ones who choose them.

Not only has the author written a book about the fiscal failure of one of the nation's former leading cities, he has also given us a glimpse of what made Detroit the great metropolis she once was. And along the way, he makes some startling discoveries about his own family. Sometimes, while confronting the communal present, we find a mirror image of our individual pasts. A very revealing, and well written book.

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