Photography by Danny Wilcox Frazier

In Detroit: An American Autopsy, Pulitzer Prize winner Charlie LeDuff returns to his native city, where his mother’s flower shop is firebombed in the pre-Halloween orgy of arson known as Devil’s Night; where his sister loses herself to the west side streets; where his brother, who once sold subprime mortgages, now works in a factory cleaning Chinese-manufactured screws so they can be repackaged as “May Be Made in United States.”

LeDuff on NPR’s “Fresh Air”: “Look, people go to Rome to stare at the ruin porn. [Detroit] is a very fascinating place to look at. It’s difficult to live in it, and basically you see the pain’s not over. It hurts because that factory is where my dad was working. That’s why it’s hard. … When they say ‘ruin porn’ they’re talking about empty, abandoned structures. My work has to do with living, breathing people and the difficult task of getting through this moment — which we will — and building a future. So no, I don’t look at it as ruin porn at all. This is a document of us getting ourselves back together.”

As you may have heard, Detroit has filed for bankruptcy. If you’re looking for some context and how and why this could have happened, you might want to give Detroit native and journalist Charlie LeDuff's book Detroit: An American Autopsy a read. We had him on the show a few months ago, and one of the things he reflected on was Detroit’s future:

I don’t mean that as an anthem to a dead city, but it’s almost there. Everybody asks me, ‘What’s the future here?’ and I say, ‘We have auto companies. We have the biggest trade corridor on the continent with Canada. We have all the freshwater in the world. We have great hospitals and the tech center. We are well-positioned, but none of that is going to flower until we weed the garden today of people like [former city councilwoman] Monica Conyers and these sludge contracts, and all the cheating and robbing and killing. Forget the future. Focus on the present. And if we don’t, then, yes, we will completely be dead.

Image via Wired

New York is a glamorous city, constituted mostly of nobodies. They crave the lights, and if they tell you differently, they’re lying. Only dreamers come to New York. As a matter of course, few people have control of their lives. You live at the whim of your boss, your landlord, your grocer, the stranger, the judge, the bus driver, the mayor who won’t let you smoke. On the other hand, you live at the whim of your whims, and that is the most exciting thing there is.
—  Charlie LeDuff

In Detroit: An American Autopsy, Pulitzer Prize winner Charlie LeDuff returns to his native city, where his mother’s flower shop is firebombed in the pre-Halloween orgy of arson known as Devil’s Night; where his sister loses herself to the west side streets; where his brother, who once sold subprime mortgages, now works in a factory cleaning Chinese-manufactured screws so they can be repackaged as “May Be Made in United States.” (Newsweek says: “Others have written well about the city, but none with the visceral anger, the hair-tearing frustration, and the hungry humanity of LeDuff.”)

Photograph by Danny Wilcox Frazier

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 Pressdidn’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.

Journalists parachuted into town. The subjects in my Detroit News stories started appearing in Rolling Stone and the Wall Street Journal, on NPR and PBS and CNN, but under someone else’s byline. The reporters rarely, if ever, offered nuanced appraisals of the city and its place in the American landscape. They simply took a tour of the ruins, ripped off the local headlines, pronounced it awful here and left.

And it is awful here, there is no other way to say it. But I believe that Detroit is America’s city. It was the vanguard of our way up, just as it is the vanguard of our way down. And one hopes the vanguard of our way up again. Detroit is Pax Americana. The birthplace of mass production, the automobile, the cement road, the refrigerator, frozen peas, high-paid blue-collar jobs, home ownership and credit on a mass scale. America’s way of life was built here.

It’s where installment purchasing on a large scale was invented in 1919 by General Motors to sell their cars. It was called the Arsenal of Democracy in the 1940s, the place where the war machines were made to stop the march of fascism.

So important was the Detroit way of doing things that its automobile executives in the fifties and sixties went to Washington and imprinted the military with their management style and structure. Robert McNamara was the father of the Ford Falcon and the architect of the Vietnam War. Charlie Wilson was the president of General Motors and Eisenhower’s man at the Pentagon, who famously said he thought that “what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.”

If what Wilson said is true, then so too must be its opposite.

You can read the rest of this excerpt in Jalopnik.

Today on the show we’re talking to Charlie LeDuff about Detroit and the term ‘ruin porn’ comes up in the conversation. So for some background, here’s an excellent essay, “Detroitism: What does ruin porn tell us about the Motor City, ourselves, other American cities” by John Patrick Leary.


That some of the recent focus on Detroit ruins is exploitative in its depiction of Detroit’s impoverishment bears repeating, but more compelling are the reasons for our contemporary fascination with images of first-world urban decline, and not just in the Motor City. Ruin websites, photography collections, and urban exploration blogs chronicle industrial ruins across North America and Europe, from Youngstown, Ohio to Bucharest, Romania. Yet Detroit remains the Mecca of urban ruins.

Image of the Detroit Marine Harbor Terminal by JRE313 via Flickr

The other reason Charlie alters the chemistry in the room is because he is a celebrity. A singular kind of celebrity, certainly. But he’s probably the most famous man in Detroit who isn’t (1) Matthew Stafford, (2) Berry Gordy, or (3) in jail for sexting and also pillaging the city coffers (see Kilpatrick, Kwame—the first mayor in modern history to be convicted of a felony while still in office). Besides being the author of a best-selling book about how fucked Detroit is (Detroit: An American Autopsy, published earlier this year), Charlie got famous by basically reinventing local news reporting. Like for instance, in one segment he waits with a woman who has called 911 after her house was apparently broken into. He picks her up some McDonald’s, searches her house for assailants, washes his pants, and takes a bath, all hours before the cops arrive. (Asterisk on this one: probably the only segment in the history of local network news in which producers at the station had to pixelize a reporter’s balls.) A million people watched that on YouTube—not including the people who watched it on TV, or on the station’s website, etc.—which is 40 percent more than the population of Detroit. Or in another segment, Charlie plays a game of golf across an eighteen-mile swath of Detroit in a pair of old sneakers and some shorts to show just how empty the place is. (As he’ll remind me over the course of the days we spend together, you could fit Manhattan and San Francisco into just the abandoned portions of Detroit.) Or earlier this year, in a piece that’s become known as “A Plant, a Perch, and a Prophylactic,” Charlie and a cameraman canoed the length of the infamous River Rouge, which turned into kind of an antic tone poem about desolation and environmental degradation and the modern urban landscape. All of these videos had a life of their own outside the realm of broadcast journalism. All of them became, for lack of less annoying phraseology, viral videos illustrating something about Detroit.

Charlie LeDuff: Madman of the Year (via GQ)

WORD Brooklyn is proud to present the top ten bestselling books for the month of February!

  1. Nigerians in Space by Deji Olukotun
  2. The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
  3. Tenth of December by George Saunders
  4. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  5. The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin
  6. The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos
  7. Detroit by Charlie LeDuff
  8. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
  9. Afghan Post by Adrian Bonenberger
  10. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Charlie LeDuff, author of Detroit: An American Autopsy, tells Dave Davies about returning to his hometown of Detroit and finding it a very different city from the one he had left 20 years earlier:

It was empty. It wasn’t scary. It was sort of like, in many respects, living at Chernobyl in some neighborhoods. … I looked and I thought to myself one day, ‘What happened here? What happened?’ And so this is not a book about ruin porn or empty buildings. This book is dedicated to those of us who live here in the industrial Midwest, specifically Detroit and its inner-ring suburbs. We’re still trying to reconstruct the great thing we once had.

Image of Detroit circa 1917, “Looking Up Woodward Avenue” via Shorpy

WJBK's LeDuff accused in scuffle Detroit's Corktown

http://www.detroitwalkabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/847a9__8558063020_197d684f11.jpg by @jceballosd
Detroit — WJBK-TV reporter Charlie LeDuff has been accused of being involved in a drunken, finger-biting brawl in Corktown, according to a Detroit police report.
Detroit News

Detroit Grease Shop Poem

Four bright steel crosses,
universal joints, plucked
out of the burlap sack —
"the heart of the drive train,"
the book says. Stars
on Lemon’s wooden palm,
stars that must be capped,
rolled, and anointed,
that have their orders
and their commands as he
has his.

Under the blue
hesitant light another day
at Automotive
in the city of dreams.
We’re all here to count
and be counted, Lemon,
Rosie, Eugene, Luis,
and me, too young to know
this is for keeps, pinning
on my apron, rolling up
my sleeves.

The roof leaks
from yesterday’s rain,
the waters gather above us
waiting for one mistake.
When a drop falls on Lemon’s
corded arm, he looks at it
as though it were something
rare or mysterious
like a drop of water or
a single lucid meteor
fallen slowly from
nowhere and burning on
his skin like a tear.

- Philip Levine

*a classic poem about Detroit by Detroit poet and former poet laureate Philip Levine (interview here). On the show today, Charlie LeDuff talks about his book Detroit: An American Autopsy.

"The small, white ‘art community’ in Detroit complained that I was focusing on the negative in a city with so much good. What about all the galleries and museums and music? They complained in a flurry of e-mails and blogs. What about the good things?

"It was a fair point. There are plenty of good people in Detroit. Tens of thousands of them. Hundreds of thousands. There are lawyers and doctors and auto executives with nice homes and and good jobs and community elders trying to make things better, teachers who spend their own money on the classroom, people who mow lawns out of respect for the dead neighbor, parents who raise their children, ministers who help with funeral expenses.

"But these 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."

-Charlie LeDuff, “Detroit: An American Autopsy”

Go ahead and laugh at Detroit

Go ahead and laugh at Detroit. Because you are laughing at yourself.

In cities and towns across the country, whole factories are auctioned off. Men with trucks haul away tool-and-die machines, aluminum siding, hoists, drinking fountains. It is the ripping out of the country’s mechanical heart right before your eyes.

A newly hired autoworker will earn $14 an hour. This, adjusted for inflation, is three cents lessthan what henry Ford was paying in 1914 when he announced the $5 day. And, of course, Ford isn’t hiring.

from Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff