Monday, 5 August 2013

A profoundly disturbing look at a disintegrating American city in Detroit

From The Week of July 29th, 2013

Urban decay is a scourge on the modern world. The natural outgrowth of economic systems that discourage centralized planning, they are unsightly and unsafe. But for as much as abandoned blocks and decrepit buildings may offend our sense of aesthetics, the extent to which they degrade the spirits of those exposed to them, draining them of hope and passion, is their truest and profoundest sin. For this cancer, once rooted in the hearts and minds of people who feel as abandoned by society as their neighborhoods are of people, cannot easily be taken out. It must be bulldozed and paved over, in the hope that the new will make everyone forget the old. And yet, that damage is generational, ensuring that it will linger as long as there's anyone around to remember. This is a lesson taught with chilling effect by this mesmerizing volume from Charlie LeDuff.

Once a thriving hub of industry and wealth, Detroit, Michigan has reached rock bottom. Forty years of White Flight, corrupt politicians and automotive decline have reduced its population by half, made a sham of its city government and exposed its remaining citizens, 82 percent of whom are African American, to the kind of impoverished, urban decay more in line with the Third World than the First. This rot is most consequentially reflected in the city's emergency services which are slow, inadequate and profoundly underfunded, resulting in obscene waiting times for 911 calls that would trigger hearings in other cities. But it's most obviously represented in the city's vacancy rate which experts peg at somewhere between 25 and 40 percent, meaning that, at best, an entire quarter of Detroit has been completely abandoned by citizens looking for hope under other lights.

Charlie LeDuff knows this all too well. Having grown up in the midst of this long, devastating collapse, he moved away to pursue a career in journalism before Detroit's siren song called him home to a position at the Detroit News where he began to document the city's decomposition. From this post, he spent several years wading through government corruption and civic crime, all while ruminating on the ways in which Detroit devoured him and his family, claiming the life of his sister, the joy of his mother and the self-respect of his brother. These observations, alongside his own failings, leave little doubt of just how monumental Detroit's fall from grace has been.

Detroit is a shattering piece of gonzo journalism. Comprised of Mr. LeDuff's experiences while working at the Detroit News, its narrative is explosively propelled by the author's disgust with his and the city's failings which are entwined to wonderful and shocking effect. The reader is exposed to abandoned neighborhoods and decaying courthouses, beleaguered firemen and crooked judges, their collective stories weaving a tapestry of life in the heartland of American decline. One would naturally expect this to be a difficult and challenging experience, but such is Mr. LeDuff's skill, and such is the overpowering nature of his subject, that the reader is often left gobsmacked by the depths to which this poor place has sunk.

Though the personal nature of this account is its greatest virtue, compelling the rubbernecking reader to look past the atavistic excitement of a train wreck and to the real damage that's eventuated as a result of unchecked corruption and decay, its most memorable punches are saved for some of the local customs. Mr. LeDuff contends that Detroiters will buy cans of gasoline which they use to set vacant houses on fire, entertainment for the whole family for less than the cost of a movie ticket. Such anecdotes, which one expects to only find in dystopian novels, do more in one sentence than thousand-page reports to convey the unfathomable degree to which Detroiters have been altered by their environment. Gentrification and urban planning need no other advertisement than this.

Detroit is not without flaws. One senses that Mr. LeDuff enjoys a good story. And given the appalling disposition of his subject, it's easy to imagine that some of the details here have been exaggerated. For instance, every poignant episode seems to conveniently include an appropriately profound quote from one bystander or another. Perhaps the author is merely lucky to be have been in the right place at the right time, but the frequency of these lucky moments seems a bit too high for comfort. That said, this is also part of gonzo journalism's appeal, an intense subjectivity that draws us into the world at the expense of objective truth. So it's not as though exaggerations aren't expected.

A profound experience. It would be a hard heart that remained unmoved for the having of it. One of my best reads this year... (4/5 Stars)

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