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Books and Culture

J. Eric Wise
Is Detroit Dead?
Charlie LeDuff says yes.
9 August 2013

Detroit: An American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff (Penguin, 304 pp., $27.95)

“It’s awful here, there is no other way to say it,” Charlie LeDuff writes in Detroit: An American Autopsy. Now that Detroit has filed for municipal bankruptcy, just how awful is a focus of national attention. But not only is Detroit dead, according to LeDuff’s title; the city was “never really that good.” From the moment when Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac—whom LeDuff derides as a “hustler” and “Detroit’s first dope dealer”—established the settlement to the city’s 1863 race riots to the depredations of the modern-day Motor City, LeDuff’s Detroit has been defined by racism, corruption, and greed.

As LeDuff sees it, “Michigan may be geographically one of America’s most northern states, but spiritually, it is one of its most southern”—by which he suggests that it has a long history of racism similar to that of many Southern states. To fit his narrative, LeDuff emphasizes certain episodes in Detroit’s history while wholly overlooking others. For example, discussing the 1943 riots, LeDuff declines to mention that they took place after the federal government designated new public housing, called the Sojourner Truth project, as white public housing (the Federal Housing Administration segregated federal public-housing projects as well as mandating “redlining” lending practices). Mayor Edward Jeffries, a liberal Republican, successfully lobbied Washington to change the project’s racial designation and used a force of 1,100 police officers and 1,600 National Guardsmen to make the project safe for black occupancy. White migrant laborers, many from isolated rural areas, found themselves competing not only for jobs, but also for housing. Resentful of competition, disaffected whites initiated unrest, and the city exploded.

After the riots, Detroit’s politics became more racially polarized, and the divisions worsened through the 1950s, with “white flight” and “blockbusting.” Political realignment, centralized urban planning, the destructive effects of Great Society social programs, and increasing radicalism culminated in even more violent riots in 1967. Coleman Young, a champion of urban race politics, became mayor in 1974. Young once said that “Racism is like high blood pressure—the person who has it doesn’t know he has it until he drops over with a God damned stroke.” Young sought to form ever larger political majorities based on race, and he succeeded. During his 20-year tenure, marked by high crime, middle-class residents fled the city, and Detroit’s population declined by as much as 500,000.

All of this is one part of the record; LeDuff is not terribly interested in the rest. When Michigan became a United States territory, the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery there. Antebellum Detroit was a Whig city, a stop on the Underground Railroad to Canada, and the home of abolitionist luminary Zachariah Chandler, mayor from 1851 to 1852 and then senator and secretary of the interior. Yes, Detroit erupted in riot in 1863, but LeDuff omits context, such as the draft, Copperhead politics, and concurrent rioting in New York and other northern cities. After the Civil War, Michigan led the country in civil rights. In 1867, the state prohibited segregation in education; in 1869, it banned discrimination in life insurance; in 1883, it removed interracial marriage barriers; in 1885, it prohibited discrimination in public accommodations; and in 1890, more than half a century before Brown v. Board of Education, the Michigan Supreme Court rejected the “separate but equal” doctrine. That’s a lot of history to overlook.

LeDuff is dismissive of the city’s civic fathers as well. Of Henry Ford, LeDuff says only that he was “a notorious miser and social ascetic” who despised credit. While not without profound flaws, Ford was also a philanthropist and a pioneer of equal opportunity. Ford’s “welfare industrialism” elevated millions of unskilled laborers from subsistence to abundance, and he didn’t discriminate in hiring and promotion. Herbert Northrup, a Wharton School labor specialist, once observed that at the Ford Motor Company in the twenties and thirties, blacks and whites came “closer to job equality” than at any other large firm in the country.

Fully versed in his city’s horrors, LeDuff has little to say about its past glories. By 1950, 1.85 million people called themselves Detroiters, making their city the fifth-largest in America. They sat on the throne of industrial and consumer innovation, and they enjoyed the highest incomes and home-ownership rates in the nation.

Today, of course, it’s a different story. Ruinous political leadership, demographic change, and economic dislocation have bled Detroit of much of its vitality. The city today has just under 700,000 residents. But even now, the population of the Detroit metropolitan area (as opposed to the city proper) is holding steady at 95 percent of its 1970 peak. The Detroit region (again, as opposed to the city) has a median household income of $49,160, ranking 17th in the nation. Media attention often focuses on the decline of automotive manufacturing, but despite the disappearance of high-paying, unskilled jobs, skilled positions remain available. The drumbeat about Detroit’s economic decline can thus be misleading; while the city itself is moribund, the region is not. The “awful” conditions stop abruptly at the city’s political boundaries. Detroit’s problems are as much political as financial.

LeDuff wonders where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness got lost in Detroit. He is right to wonder, but American Autopsy would be a better book if it did not bury a once-great city.

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