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ESSAY

Detroit: An American Autopsy

By Charlie LeDuff

The Penguin Press | February 2013 | 286 pages

An essay by Fred Beauford

author charlie leduff

The New World

I have only been to Detroit twice. The first time I had a grand time with two of my daughters, both preteens. It was in 1991 and I was the Editorial Director of the Crisis magazine, the official publication of the NAACP.

Detroit was our kind of town at the NAACP. Coleman Young was the longtime first black mayor, and welcomed us with opened arms; the new Renaissance Center was booming. The hotel we stayed in on the famed Waterfront, with a view of Canada, right across the river, was first rate, and rivaled any of the many big, medium and small cities hotels we had stayed at, as we held our convention each year.

And the plus was that Detroit had one of the largest urban memberships of the NAACP then anywhere in the United States; and the local chapter’s annual Freedom Fund Dinner, was the social event of the year for blacks that matter in Detroit, and brought us much needed income.

Most importantly, for me at least, everyone at the convention had read or heard of the Crisis.

To be sure, there was much seriousness of purpose at this convention, especially given all the many deadly serious problems blacks faced in America, and especially in Detroit.  Still, there was also plenty of time for back slapping, loud laughter, dancing all night, and general carrying on, and enjoying each other’s company.

My two girls were all excited, and loved what they were experiencing; especially now knowing that their friendly, modest dad was such a bigwig showoff.

These annual conventions were something I always look forward to, and this year in the famed city of Detroit, it didn’t disappoint. Even Jack Kemp, then in charge of HUD under Bush the First, showed up.

***

Years later, in 2005, Rob Morton, CEO  of Morton Books, Inc., sent me back to Detroit, this time to help organized a book party for a new author, and carry the Morton Books, Inc.’ flag.

And this is where I encountered the Detroit Charlie LeDuff writes so well about in his grim theater of the absurd. Detroit: An American Autopsy

I was driven down desolated street after street, as Morton Books’ author, a retired African American school teacher, gave me warning after warning about these deadly streets.

This was a far cry from the fancy Renaissance Center, and the rest of the riverfront, with its statue of the famous Joe Louis, who once lived in Detroit, guarding the entry way.

And where were those well-dressed blacks, and that small spattering of liberal whites I had so much fun with at the NAACP annual convention?

They were nowhere to be seen on these empty, gloomy, ghostlike streets I was staring out on in disbelief. I had never seen anything like this before. .

LeDuff , a former New York Times and Detroit News feature writer, is a native son of Detroit, and driven by family demons, he could not help but return to his hometown, even as it was on the brink of total chaos.

. He is the descendants’ of French Cajuns from Louisiana, Native Americans, hillbillies, and as he discovered only a few years ago, by chance, that the first LeDuff’s to reach Detroit from Louisiana were classified by the census as M for mixed race. That M was quickly replaced as W as soon as they landed in Detroit.

These were the people, along with huge numbers of real blacks, part of the largest internal immigration in American history, escaping finally, from their imprisonment in the South-- that flocked to Detroit; all hearing the beckoning call of hard work and high wages.

***

Henry Ford is not my favorite American Capitalist because of his vast improvement of the use of the assemble line in large scale manufacturing as many would have guessed, but because he was the first of the Robber Barons that had that eureka idea: If I pay my workers a decent wage, then they can buy my product.

Hummm.

As LeDuff points out, the good times started rolling after Ford’s brilliant, but obvious, insight, and Detroit became the richest city in America.

“Detroit” he writes, “in the nineteenth century was the center of the nation’s carriage and wheel and stove industries because of its lumber and the rich ore in the upper reaches of Michigan. This set the stage for tinkerers like Ransom Olds, who was among the nation’s largest carriage manufacturers before he turned to cars. Henry Ford, a farmer, built his first automobile in Highland Park in 1899. Detroit would rapidly become the world’s machine shop, its factory, growing in population from 300,000 to 1.3 million in the twenty-five years following Ford’s grand opening.”

Here, LeDuff quotes the British politician and author Ramsay Muir, who in 1925 sniffed, “It is the home of mass production, very high wages and colossal profits, of reckless installment buying and shifting labour surplus. It regards itself as the temple of a new gospel of progress to which I will give the name Detroitism.”

To be sure.

Workers didn’t need much education and ingenious ideas like easy credit and the layaway plan was offered to them by the car makers.

***

I read page after page of LeDuff’s riveting, heated prose, part auto-biography, most his often hollowing experiences as a reporter for the Detroit News. It was stylistically a cross between Jimmy Breslin and Ernest Hemingway, of murder, political and business malfeasance and cluelessness, race baiting and just sheer hopelessness and despair.

I kept thinking of, as I turned page after page, of all things, San Francisco.

This line of thought started after I read this from our author of how his friends and family regarded life as the big change was about to descend on them, as the Japanese had learned to make better cars, cheaper than Detroit, and everyone in the world would soon know it..

“Nobody bothered to get educated,” he writes.” My sister and brothers and Carrie and Doc and too many others dropped out of high school, yet nobody went to work in the automobile plants. You suspected the work was too hard and the union made the work too hard to get.”

San Francisco, and the entire Bay Area, was also undergoing a transition from its blue collar roots around the same time, as thousands of well-paid dock workers, who did the back-breaking work of loading and unloading giant ships, had been forever displaced by the rise of the container ship.

Yet, San Francisco, and the Bay Area, had something else in its collective DNA: Long Beach, which nurtured the Beats; writers, thinkers and visionaries lurked in seedy dives and garages, bolstered by the very real, quiet  presences of two world class universities, UC Berkeley and Stanford.

When the time came for San Franciscans and Bay Area folks to readapt, to change from brawn to brains, they more than rose to the occasion and create Apple, Silicon Valley and the modern gee wiz electronic world we live in today.

Today, that great two bedroom apartment in the Upper Mission overlooking the East Bay, I had for a song when I was a Visiting Professor at UCBerkeley  in the 80s, would today cost me $4,500, if I was lucky.

Detroit was not so lucky, as LeDuff’s book testifies to. Today, in Detroit, you can’t even give apartments like that away.


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