Motor City madman

Charlie LeDuff dissects his Detroit hometown

In recent years, a journalistic cottage industry has emerged around the collapse of once-vibrant Detroit, the implosion of the domestic automotive industry, and the stark racial divide that looms over everything in the city. National news outlets are continually fascinated by the city and its renaissance efforts. Documentary filmmakers and urban explorers find Detroit’s crumbling infrastructure and architecture irresistible—giving rise to the term “ruin porn.” And a seemingly endless succession of books promise to analyze and examine the city and its problems.

But few of the new Detroit books are likely to chronicle the author’s own arrest and brief jailing, a robbery attempt that forced him to pull a gun and piss himself out of fear, domestic problems with his wife, his beloved streetwalker sister’s death (followed by her daughter’s fatal drug overdose), and an addled female city councilwoman squeezing his testicles in a bar, all interspersed with tales of corrupt politicians, arson, murder, and the front-line public safety workers and everyday citizens who won’t or can’t leave the city.

If I hadn’t met Pulitzer-winning reporter Charlie LeDuff, it would be easy to dismiss some of Detroit: An American Autopsy as Bukowskian exaggeration or outright fantasy. But I do know LeDuff, I know Detroit, and I know the people and incidents that populate his new book. He’s blunt and honest in Detroit, which is a memoir of a native son come home to a place that was falling apart, but also a civic history, a war story, a lament, and a multi-count indictment of the political, economic, and social systems that allowed Detroit to fail its people—and itself.

The book is better if the reader is at least a little familiar with LeDuff, a former New York Times staff writer who left to freelance before joining his hometown Detroit News in 2008. (The content is largely reworked from his News output.) He’s gonzo. He says what he thinks, between drags on a cigarette. He hits the streets in his uniform: A work shirt with rolled-up sleeves, a vest and necktie, blue jeans, and cowboy boots painted in American flag livery. In covering Detroit media for six years, I can tell you no one has been as remotely polarizing within the local journalism ranks as Charlie LeDuff.

(Disclosure: LeDuff and I have crossed paths occasionally on stories around town, and we once spent a vodka-infused night with Weekly Standard writer Matt Labash at a sidewalk bar on legendary Woodward Avenue.)

One reason why LeDuff alienates some journalists is that he gets involved with his stories, like a pissed-off George Plimpton reporting from hell. From the opening pages, it’s clear Detroit will be no different. It opens with a story about LeDuff being robbed at a downtown gas station. He ends up pulling a gun: “I bent into the car, reaching for the glove box latch. There was a 9mm inside. Not mine. It belonged to a reporter who had forgotten to store it in his desk on his way to a press conference. He had asked me in the parking lot to hold on to it and I laughed about a journalist carrying a concealed weapon. Correspondents don’t do that even in war zones, I told him.”

“Well, how many of those war reporters do you know who’ve been to Detroit?” the unnamed journalist retorts.

The opening anecdote is a thematic preview of the book to come: highly personal, dramatic, and emotionally charged. Rather than offering a linear narrative tracing the decline of American’s mightiest industrial city, Detroit presents several ongoing storylines at once, ranging from LeDuff’s personal anecdotes to the shocking fall of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who was brought down by a blend of arrogance and greed that exploded when a barrage of gratuitous sexual text messages to his girlfriend/chief of staff were made public. He lied about it, and ended up in jail.

Although Wall Street bankers, home mortgage lenders, and automotive industry executives get their share of angry rhetoric, Kilpatrick is the book’s chief villain and the object of LeDuff’s most toxic venom; he refers to Kilpatrick in one chapter as a “pussy” and a “big bitch.” Detroit’s problems are systemic and have been metastasizing for generations, but Kilpatrick’s explosive and very public fall from grace during the timeframe of Detroit is the most convenient (and obvious) target for LeDuff’s generalized rage toward politicians and authority figures.

While LeDuff can write about politicians and policies, he’s more concerned with the people who don’t normally attract journalistic attention. That’s been his career: covering the oddballs, the victims, the helpless, and the hopeless, often with his trademark outrage and frustration. Several chapters are devoted to Aiyana Mo’nay Stanley-Jones, the seven-year-old girl killed by a police bullet during a midnight raid in search of a murder suspect. A camera crew from the A&E cable show The First 48 filmed the raid, and LeDuff speculates that the need to impress the cameras led to overly aggressive police action—a story he wrote for the November/December 2010 edition of Mother Jones that’s repackaged in the book.

Detroit gets intensely personal at times. LeDuff discusses in detail his sister Nicole’s life as a prostitute, and her death after leaping out of a speeding van and into a tree. A younger brother, Billy, gets a chapter about his fall from being a home mortgage loan officer making a good salary for Detroit’s Quicken Loans to an $8.50-an-hour floor worker in a gritty screw factory. Billy wrote his own mortgage, only to lose his house when the flimsy market he helped create collapsed. Now, he’s scraping by to support his family.

LeDuff visits his brother in the screw factory and offers a long lament about the worst of the home loan practices and the new reality for suburbanites forced into low-wage jobs with few or no benefits:

There was no health care offered here. What constituted a dental plan came from a toolbox. That is, my brother attempted to take out an abscessed molar with a pair of pliers. The molar snapped below the gum line.

The undertone is not quite rage, and not quite ennui, but something in between, a mixture of the anger, frustration, and exhaustion that Detroit residents feel every day. The personal anecdotes work much better than any statistics-driven account to illustrate how easy it is to become a “loser” in modern Detroit. The data are brought to life as real people, and LeDuff writes in a way that makes you want to keep reading.

If LeDuff is guilty of anything, it’s an almost childlike innocence in his admiration for the workingman, particularly Detroit’s firefighters and cops. They get a classic Hollywood treatment as hard-bitten, salty characters that could have stepped out of a Raymond Chandler potboiler. That’s not to say LeDuff is inaccurate in his portrayals. He’s not. The men and women who patrol Detroit’s streets and operate its fire trucks and ems rigs are a colorful breed. Their speech is peppered with profanity and laced with frustration over the endless murders and fires, the systemic corruption, and the crumbling equipment that the city is too poor or inept to replace.

He spends quite a bit of time with the men of Engine Company 23 and their shopworn East Side firehouse. Naturally, in this dystopia, the station’s alarm bell is broken. The firefighters gin up a solution worthy of Rube Goldberg, LeDuff writes: “When a call comes to the station, a fax paper rolls out of the printer containing the directions to the fire. So someone had it rigged where the fax paper pushed over a door hinge with a screw mounted on it. The screw touched an electrified metal plate that was wired to the alarm, which completed an electrical circuit. The bell rang. Then the box bleated.”

Also, the city sold the firehouse’s brass poles for cash, he notes.

LeDuff is as much a character as anyone in his copy. Near the book’s end, he recounts how he quit The Detroit News, over what he says were changes made to a story about a “lazy judge” who freed a career criminal. The guy later killed a cop. The situation triggers an indictment of the newspaper business:

I called my buddy the janitor and had him bring a trash can on wheels up to the newsroom. When he did, I swept the entire contents of my desktop into the garbage can and walked out.” He writes that “American newspapers were yellow and stale before they came off the press. Dog-beaten by a dwindling readership, financial losses and partisan attacks, editors had stripped them of their personality in an attempt to offend no one. And so there was no more reason to read them. Safety before Truth. Grammar over Guts. Winners before Losers.

It’s a vivid story, and I’m sure it’s true, but I know LeDuff was also interested in television as a medium for his journalism. His frustration over the judge story was the last straw for a reporter looking to talk to a bigger audience. And it’s no secret that The Detroit News is the No. 2 newspaper in the city; hundreds of thousands of subscribers have abandoned it, and budget cuts have made the newsroom a ghost town. The stories he once told on paper are now told on Fox 2, which has featured him more and more as a brand and star in the past couple of years.

As for Detroit, it works. No one book can tell the entire story of the city, and there’s no right way to do it. This is one way to tell that story, and it could be done only by someone consciously embedded not only in the city, but in their own family and their own life. LeDuff is unafraid to mine his personal history for broadly identifiable examples of Detroit’s larger plight. Who in Detroit hasn’t had a relative that lost a good career and ended up in a dead-end job? Or hasn’t been touched in some way by the booze and drugs that some people use to escape the grim realities of the Motor City? There may be other reporters here who have such stories, and have worked all the beats and can write better prose, but only LeDuff, flaws and all, has had the balls to write Detroit.

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Bill Shea has covered local media, among other beats, for Crain’s Detroit Business since 2006. He's currently writing a book about his stint as a third-string minor-league football quarterback.