We hear all the time about “failed states.” Usually located in somewhere in the developing world, these national basket cases tend to share a common set of attributes: endemic corruption, political instability, widespread poverty, high unemployment, gun violence, population outflow and economic dependence on one particular manufactured product, cash crop or extractive industry (crude oil, copper, rare earth minerals, etc.). But are there also cities that possess these same unenviable qualities? After reading Charlie LeDuff’s 2013 book Detroit: An America Autopsy I can tell you without any doubt that yes, there are. Sadly, the city LeDuff writes about it is not in Somalia, Haiti or Afghanistan. It’s Detroit, located right here in the good old USA.
LeDuff’s book had been on my radar since the end of last year, after several book bloggers mentioned it during the Nonfiction November Project. When I saw a copy on display at my public library I grabbed it, hoping it would live up to my expectations. Holy cow, it sure did – and then some. Detroit: An American Autopsy is an extremely gritty, uncompromising and unforgiving look at America’s biggest failed city. It’s a city where mayors wind up in prison, arson is a spectator sport, police doctor crime stats to hide the true murder rate, 1 in 30 residents are homeless, 40 per cent of the city is vacant and 911 response times can run two hours. For over a century Detroit depended on the American auto industry, but thanks to executive mismanagement, inflexible unions and foreign competition the city’s vibrant economic engine is a shadow of its former self. Instead the new growth industries are drug dealing, graft, public assistance, arson and illegally harvesting scrap metal.
LeDuff, a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter, is no stranger to the mean streets of Detroit. Not only did he grow up there, but his sister, also a Detroit resident, was heavily involved in drugs and died a violent death. His brother, another city resident, lost his job and then later his home due to foreclosure (sadly fitting because Detroit is also America’s foreclosure capital). Detroit is LeDuff’s city, he knows it well and as a result he throws himself head-first into his book. His mission to show the world the true face of Detroit is passionate, reckless and tenacious. (Kim, from Sophisticated Dorkiness, in her brief but excellent review mentioned LeDuff’s utilizing the “gonzo” style of journalism in writing his book. Considering Detroit is such a train wreck, I’m guessing LeDuff knew what he was doing.)
This is one of the best pieces of nonfiction I’ve read this year. Don’t be surprised if it makes my Best Nonfiction List for 2014. Highly recommended.