Labash writes, “I come to think of Wilcox as the curator of a museum that’s been overturned and looted.” And Labash’s own impression of Detroit, a crushing place that still manages to contain “pockets of grace,” complements Wilcox’s:

In my line of work, I’ve seen plenty of inner cities, but I’ve never seen anything in a non-Third World country like the east side of Detroit. Maybe the 9th Ward of New Orleans after Katrina. But New Orleans had the storm as an excuse. Here, the storm has been raging for 50 years, starting with the closing of the hulking Albert Kahn-designed Packard Plant in 1956, which a half century later, still stands like a disgraced monument to lost grandeur.

Here is Wilcox’s photo of that plant now:


For a comparison, take a look at a Library of Congress photo of that same building in the early years of the Twentieth Century, which we found in the Library of Congress catalogue (Labash’s piece is the kind that inspires you to troll the library’s superb American Memory collection):


(Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection)

We are, unfortunately, used to seeing images of our cities in ruins, but such a contrast should shock us. How has it come to this? Not just the state of Detroit, that is, but our complacency about it?

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The best way to start thinking about these questions is to start looking at the facts on the ground. So back to Labash’s Detroit.

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.

Elinore Longobardi is a Fellow and staff writer of The Audit, the business-press section of Columbia Journalism Review.