The city of Detroit, writes hardboiled native Charlie LeDuff, “would never have been if not for the beaver.” The 17th-century European fad for beaver-pelt hats led to the origins of the city as a fort to protect France’s fur trade. The commander, Antoine Laumet, called himself the “sieur de Cadillac.”
By 1934, LeDuff writes in his morbidly funny take on how this “most iconic of American cities . . . became a cadaver,” the city was “choking on industry,” with air “the color of a filthy dishrag” and a river so poisoned “it was said you could bottle it and sell it as paint thinner.” Until very recently, the last beaver was reportedly spotted in the river that year.
The colossal struggles of Detroit, once one of the nation’s wealthiest industrial cities and now one of its poorest and most socially troubled, have been widely chronicled: race riots in 1967; the decades-long slide in manufacturing due to globalization; and, most recently, the Big Three automobile industry bailouts of the Obama administration’s first term. Yet those struggles have not been traced with half the aptly abrasive flair of LeDuff, who left an enviable gig at The New York Times to work for the down-at-the-heels Detroit News starting in 2008. (He is now a Detroit television personality.)
Like listening to him hold court in a corner bar, the book scuttles from one grueling episode to the next, both personal and professional. In an unsettling series of vignettes from stories he covered for the paper during the recent financial crisis — from the corruption of city officials, to the criminally under-equipped firefighters whose main responsibility is to put out insurance-scam blazes in abandoned buildings, to the homeless man notoriously found encased in four feet of ice, his legs sticking out “like Popsicle sticks” — LeDuff flaunts his self-made, tough-guy image while laying bare a surprisingly plus-size heart for his hometown.
Why return to a city on the verge of bankruptcy, where the population has dropped to a 100-year low, and the people who remain are desperate and dying? “Mile after mile of rotten buildings, murder, leftover people,” LeDuff writes. “One unbelievable story after another.” For a gritty reporter, it is, he suggests, “Candy Land.”
When the newspaper’s readers complain that he’s not highlighting the good things happening in the city — the art and music and teachers and parents — his rejoinder is typically blunt: “[T]hese things are not supposed to be news. These things are supposed to be normal. And when normal things become the news, the abnormal becomes the norm. And when that happens, you might as well put a fork in it.”
For all his bluster LeDuff comes across as genuinely brokenhearted by the state of his city. Part of the tale he tells involves his own family, which, he comes to find out, descends from a free black man who passed as white. One of his ancestors, he claims, was a material witness to the city’s first recorded murder. Both his sister and her daughter died tragically, too young, and one of his brothers, who sold subprime mortgages, now toils for $8.50 an hour in a screw shop.
After just two years, the corruption and despair become too much, even for our incorrigible tour guide. “Detroit was doing something to me that a story’s never done to me before,” he writes. “It was hurting.”
If you’re looking for the definitive history of a city that showed the world how to make cars and soul music, this isn’t the place. But if you’re looking for slices of life with a whiff of rancid meat, LeDuff is your man. Detroit is suffering terribly, and the author feels compelled to tell it like it is.
The city is so desolate, there are areas that have been overrun by deer, coyotes, and wild dogs. “And if you needed a metaphor for how retrograde things were becoming,” LeDuff writes, for the first time in 75 years, a beaver was sighted in the Detroit River.
James Sullivan is the author of four books, including “Island Cup: Two Teams, Twelve Miles of Ocean, and Fifty Years of Football Rivalry.” He can be reached at email@example.com.