Detroit: An American Autopsy
By Charlie LeDuff
Penguin, 304 pages
Detroit: An American Autopsy is a powerful but incomplete dirge for a city that in the 1950s led the country in per-capita income and home ownership but now sets the pace for murder and corruption—a city so dysfunctional that “school kids must leave their books in the classroom and bring [their own] toilet paper to school,” and a city so decadent that arson has become entertainment.
Though its author, Charlie LeDuff, won a Pulitzer reporting for the New York Times, the book has the energy and impact of high-end tabloid journalism. The hard-nosed LeDuff is at his best when he introduces us to the necropolis’s colorful cast of characters. There’s the thirtysomething councilwoman Monica Conyers, who is married to the “barnacled” chair of the House Judiciary Committee, 83-year-old John Conyers—who has spent the last 47 years in Congress living well in Washington as his Detroit district literally crumbled beneath its remaining residents. A founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, Conyers is currently devoting his political and ideological energies to fighting the dangers of Islamophobia.
Monica first became notorious when she took lavish trips on the bankrupt city’s credit card. At the time, she warned her critics that if they didn’t pipe down, “I’ll have my brothers f—k you up.” Could you ignore threats from a woman whose father and brother had done time for breaking and entering?
LeDuff writes that Mrs. Conyers “was the perfect political caricature wrapped up in a real human being.” She engaged in a verbally violent YouTube moment when, schoolyard-style, she shrieked menacingly for being gaveled out of order in the council chambers. Then, after stiffly insisting on being addressed as City Council President Pro Tem by a group of schoolchildren whom LeDuff brought to the council chambers to question her about the incident, Mrs. Conyers shouted down a 13-year-old who asked her why she hadn’t set an example by showing grown-up restraint. This, too, went viral.
Rattled by LeDuff’s muckraking, the City Council President Pro Tem met with LeDuff in a bar to discuss the incident. She was convinced that the schoolgirl had been a “plant.” Playing the vamp, Conyers batted “her eyelashes coquettishly” and, crossing “her legs with a grand gesture, leaning her hindquarters sweetly toward” him, “smiled coyly,” LeDuff writes. “[She] patted my chest….Her hand wandered down my torso and lingered on my testicles. She gave a gentle little squeeze. ‘Are you wearing a wire?’ she asked.” In Monica Conyers’s Detroit, there are no honest souls, just hustlers and marks.
Then there is the candid political operative Adolph Mongo, who helped guide the career of Kwame Kilpatrick, the city’s self-described “hip-hop mayor” elected at the age of 31 in 2000. Mongo had a low opinion of Kilpatrick, the son of a congresswoman. “He’s ignorant,” Mongo said of his client, who spoke at both the 2000 and 2004 Democratic conventions. “He don’t read. You know he doesn’t have a…f—king book in his office.” When Kilpatrick was up for re-election in 2005, he found himself challenged both by press reports about wild parties and by pillage and plunder at City Hall. To save him, Mongo crafted a highly effective ad comparing the press coverage of Kilpatrick to a lynching. Kilpatrick was reelected by the thinnest of margins over a credible black candidate. “The black machine got the city,” Mongo told LeDuff; now “it’s at war with itself.” A few years later, thanks in part to a tempestuous affair he was carrying on with an aide, Kilpatrick was brought down by federal prosecutors on matters relating to the controversies that nearly sank his reelection.
By no means are Detroit’s ills confined to its African-American politicians. Some of the most poignant sections of the book deal with the moral breakdown of LeDuff’s own white Catholic family. (It turned out it isn’t as white as he had thought; LeDuff discovers that one of his grandfathers was a mulatto who identified as white.) His beloved “hellcat” sister-turned-hooker was murdered. Her daughter overdosed. One of his brothers lingered in a crack den. LeDuff, a practicing Roman Catholic himself, spends a night in jail for smacking his wife.
Like the city, the LeDuffs never recovered from the aftermath of the 1960s. In the 1970s, the challenge of Japanese competition demanded extra effort, but the scourge of Aquarian prosperity produced divorce, drugs, and school dropouts. “What our generation failed to learn,” writes LeDuff, “was the nobility of work.” He continues: “For us the factory would never do…turning away from our birthright—our grandfather in the white socks—is the thing that ruined us.” It was not just factories that closed, but stoners who were closed off to work, and that sent the city on a downward spiral.
Detroit: An American Autopsy is a book divided against itself. The entertaining elements of the tabloid style can undercut its efforts to enlighten. LeDuff never mounts a sustained account of why sections of Detroit have returned to prairie. Instead he repeatedly circles around an argument about the effects of the devastating 1967 riot and the disastrous black-nationalist regime of Coleman Young, the five-term mayor from 1974 to 1994 who made it clear that if they knew what was good for them, the city’s remaining whites (like the LeDuffs) would head for the suburbs.
Two essential names never appear. They are Jerome Cavanaugh, Detroit’s mayor from 1962 to 1970, and Dennis Archer, mayor from 1994 to 2001. Cavanaugh was elected in 1961 by dint of black support in what was still a white-majority city. Strongly backed by Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, Cavanaugh launched a local war on poverty even before Lyndon Johnson made it a national program. Cavanaugh used an early version of affirmative action to bring African Americans into prominent positions. As a result, after the 1965 Los Angeles race riot in Watts, it was presumed that prosperous Detroit was the least likely locale for another conflagration, because it probably had more going for it than any other major city in the North. That presumption proved tragically wrong.
In the wake of Detroit’s intense 1967 rioting, the city, state, and federal governments poured massive sums into the city’s rebuilding, to no effect. From 1968 to 1980, twice as many buildings a year were lost to arson as during the five days of 1967’s deadly riot that had to be put down by federal troops. The meltdown of Detroit had a devastating impact on the assumptions underlying Great Society liberalism.
Dennis Archer became mayor in the wake of the desolation left behind by the self-consciously “bad-ass” Coleman Young. Archer, a prudent African-American lawyer of distinction, tried to reconnect the city to the rest of Michigan and re-professionalize city government. His efforts have been all but forgotten in the Boschian political tragedy that Detroit has become.
Having left both Cavanaugh and Archer out of his account, and having paid scant attention to the effect of bad ideas on Detroit’s decline, LeDuff is left only with ruminations about the parlous costs of “vanity.” His book is a hell of a read, but it could have been much more.