Some of Labash’s most interesting anecdotes come from his time spent with a group of local firefighters, who witness the daily struggles of Detroit residents. They respond to calls of domestic disturbances when underfunded police don’t. They fight fire after fire, wearing damaged protective gear. They don’t have a fire pole, because the city sold it. They get their cars stolen—even while attending the funeral of a colleague who died on the job.
But the firefighters admirably live up to what we will blandly call challenges, acting as lynchpins for the community. And their empathy is truly moving:
[Firefighter Mike] Nevin told me they recently fought a fire resulting from a man illegally siphoning gas with a rubber hose. He blew up an entire block. ‘They had kids in the street, glass sticking out of their head,’ he says. But, as horrible as it was, he says, ‘The guy’s got four kids. And there’s no jobs. And you know, he’s got to keep the kids warm. So they come out, and they cut the gas off. Everybody looks to dad. “Hey dad, I’m cold. Hey dad, I’m hungry.” It breaks your f—ing heart, man. You’re dad. You’re superman. So what do you do? “I’ve got to pull something by hook or crook, man.” You know, it’s like everybody is just trying to get by right now.’
These are the people who could use some help. And yet:
‘Hear the sirens?’ Nevin asks. ‘Someone is going to a fire. That’s all day long. This is a city where the sirens never stop.’
This place, he says, ‘It’s like a forgotten secret. It’s like a lost city. And they never really talk about the f—ing truth about what is going on with this town.’
What makes this article so extraordinary is that Labash cares enough to give his subjects a sustained voice.
We suggest you read the rest of the piece, which is both devastating and deeply engrossing. But we do offer one important caveat. Labash confines his analysis of cause and effect to vague statements like, “Precisely what caused all this mess is perhaps best left to historians.” And, even allowing for a certain degree of poetic license, he veers further off course when he ends his piece with the suggestion that only God can save Detroit.
The fact is, while may factors have contributed to Detroit’s decline, it was not divinely inevitable and so anyone waiting around for God to save it should figure on waiting quite a while. For the ways in which government policy, as well as other very human actions, contributed to Detroit’s predicament, take a look at Thomas Sugrue’s excellent The Origins of the Urban Crisis.
Or, for a shorter version, take a look at this Washington Post piece from July 2007, by historian Kevin Boyle.
Furthermore, while Detroit has been particularly hard hit, these problems are by no means limited to that city, or even the Rust Belt more broadly. U.S. cities have long suffered from underfunding, and are forced to go to the federal government hat in hand just to get by. And in recent decades, government policies like deregulation and privatization, fervently although not exclusively embraced by the Right, have served to increase the income inequality that plays such an important role in the dissolution of our social fabric—urban and otherwise.
But we don’t want to turn this post into an analysis of the conservative Weekly Standard’s editorial stances. And in all fairness, Labash is hardly alone in lacking a framework for the story of Detroit. The press of all political persuasions has a hard time with it. And, unlike so much else that we came across on Detroit, what Labash does offer us is well worth the read.
Recent months did give us some, if not many, other examples of good national or international reporting on the city but, interestingly, they are almost all from European or Canadian newspapers. None of them drew us in quite as surely as Labash did. But The Irish Times had a notable piece. As did The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business (which also impressed us recently with reporting on Lehman Brothers). As did The Guardian. Like Labash, these writers see the effects of Detroit’s misfortune more clearly than its causes. But by going to the city, they all come back with some good material.
And what was everyone else doing? By and large, run-of-the-mill stories on “Detroit,” where the real Detroit tended to make only cameo appearances at best. And even on the rare occasions when the city moved to center stage, reporting tends to read more like a postcard—Be glad you aren’t here!, Regards, The National Media—than a serious portrait.