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Friday, January 28, 2022

Detroit: An American Autopsy – Book Excerpt Part One


Charlie LeDuff is awesome. He’s the ultimate local news man. You may remember his name from a post I did on a hilarious but pointed broadcast on police response time

A couple of months ago he released Detroit: An American Autopsy – it looks amazing and couldn’t have been better timed. I’ve just started reading it and highly recommend that you do as well. You’ll notice in the excerpt below he even has an Alaska connection. 

Look for part two tomorrow, and my review of the book in a couple of weeks. (I’m not that slow of a reader… just not a lot of time to read) But for now… enjoy. 


DETROIT: An American Autopsy

by Charlie LeDuff


I REACHED DOWN the pant cuff with the eraser end of my pencil and poked it. Frozen solid. But definitely human.


I took a deep breath through my cigarette. I didn’t want to use my nose. It was late January, the air scorching cold. The snow was falling sideways as it usually did in Detroit this time of year. The dead man was encased in at least four feet of ice at the bottom of a defunct elevator shaft in an abandoned building. But still, there was no telling what the stink might be like.

I couldn’t make out his face. The only things protruding above the ice were the feet, dressed in some white sweat socks and a pair of black gym shoes. I could see the hem of his jacket below the surface. The rest of him tapered off into the void.

In most cities, a death scene like this would be considered remarkable, mind-blowing, horrifying. But not here. Something had happened in Detroit while I was away.

I had left the city two decades earlier to try to make a life for myself that didn’t involve a slow death working in a chemical factory or a liquor store. Any place but those places.

But where? I wandered for years, working my way across Asia, Europe, the Arctic edge working as a cannery hand, a carpenter, a drifter. And then I settled into the most natural thing for a man with no real talents.


It required no expertise, no family connections and no social graces. Furthermore, it seemed to be the only job that paid you to travel, excluding a door-to-door Bible salesman. Nearly thirty years old, I went back to school to study the inverted pyramid of writing. I landed my first newspaper job with the Alaska Fisherman’s Journal, where I wrote dispatches in longhand on legal pads and mailed them back to headquarters in Seattle.

So I went out into the Last Frontier with my notepad and a tent and wrote what I saw: stuff about struggling fishermen, a mountain woman who drank too much and dried her panties on a line stretched across the bow of her boat, Mexican laborers forced to live in the swamps, a prince who lived under a bridge, a gay piano man on a fancy cruise liner. People managing somehow. My kind of people. The job suited me.

Working off that, I tried to land a real job but couldn’t find one. The Detroit Free Press didn’t want me. Not the San Francisco Chronicle. Not the Oakland Tribune. I was thinking about returning to the Alaskan fishing boats until a little Podunk paper called me with an offer of a summer internship—the New York Times.

Luck counts too.

I ended up working at the Gray Lady for a decade, sketching the lives of hustlers and working stiffs and firemen at Ground Zero. It was a good run. But wanderlust is like a pretty girl—you wake up one morning, find she’s grown old and decide that either you’re going to commit your life or you’re going to walk away. I walked away, and as it happens in life, I circled home, taking a job with the Detroit News. My colleagues in New York laughed. The paper was on death watch. And so was the city.

It is important to note that, growing up in Detroit and its suburbs, I can honestly say it was never that good in the first place. People of older generations like to tell me about the swell old days of soda fountains and shopping stores and lazy Saturday night drives. But the fact is Detroit was dying forty years ago when the Japanese began to figure out how to make a better car. The whole country knew the city and the region was on the skids, and the whole country laughed at us. A bunch of lazy, uneducated blue-collar incompetents. The Rust Belt. The Rust Bowl. Forget about it. Florida was calling.

No one cared much about Detroit until the Dow collapsed in 2008, the economy melted down and the chief executives of the Big Three went to Washington, D.C., to grovel. Suddenly the eyes of the nation turned back upon this postindustrial sarcophagus, where crime and corruption and mismanagement and mayhem played themselves out in the corridors of power and on the powerless streets. Detroit became epic, historic, symbolic, hip even. I began to get calls from reporters around the world wondering what the city was like, what was happening here. They wondered if the Rust Belt cancer had metastasized and was creeping toward Los Angeles and London and Barcelona. Was Detroit an outlier or an epicenter? Was Detroit a symbol of the greater decay? Is the Motor City the future of America? Are we living through a cycle or an epoch? Suddenly they weren’t laughing out there anymore.

We’ll have part two of our excerpt of Detroit: An American Autopsy up tomorrow.



3 Responses to “Detroit: An American Autopsy – Book Excerpt Part One”
  1. Alaska Pi says:

    So Michigan is a Home Rule state and Detroit is a home Rule city.
    This says Michigan’s Home Rule is a hybrid (ours is not)

    So- in all this flap where was the Leg there and what is the law that restricts the powers of cities and
    villages to borrow money and contract debts?

    “The legislature shall provide by general law for the
    incorporation of cities and villages. Such laws shall limit
    their rate of ad valorem property taxation …and restrict
    the powers of cities and villages to borrow money and
    contract debts Each city and village is granted the power to
    levy other taxes for public purposes, subject to the
    limitations and prohibitions provided in this constitution or
    by law. Mich. Art VII Sec. 21”

    Does anyone know?

  2. mike from iowa says:

    RWNJ claim that Liberals and Blacks ruined Detroit. How could they forget the unions at the big three automakers? I’m guessing the problems run much deeper than nutjob minds can fathom. Even with race riots in the 60’s,Detroit managed to crank out some of the best and fastest production made vehicles and Motown recorded tons of timeless classic R&B,soul,doo-wop and rock and roll music. Personally I’m glad that not all cities turn out folks like the Stepford Wives and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Prim,proper,White with 2.3 perfect children,a small mortgage,stay at home Moms and 9-5 Dads is so Leave it to Beaver blase it’s pathetic. Then so are nutters.

  3. Alaska Pi says:

    From the rest of the book preview on Amazon, I like this guy’s irreverence and somewhat obnoxious tone.
    I recognize that lots of folks will be uncomfortable with those qualities but large doses of dark humor often get me through rough patches .
    Looking forward to receiving and reading this book.