Our American nightmare: Detroit


I didn’t want to pick the book up, but after I did I couldn’t put it down. Written by Charlie LeDuff, it is called Detroit: An American Autopsy. Detroit, in my youth the fourth largest city in the U.S., currently is on life support, casualty of a cancer in the American Dream.

Charlie LeDuff and I grew up on the west side just a few blocks from the street, Joy Road, that marks one of the city limits of Detroit. He grew up on the wrong, Detroit, side of Joy. I grew up on the suburban, Dearborn, side. In Dearborn we had a saying: “Help Keep Dearborn Clean,” and our police officers did their best to keep people from the other side of Joy from crossing certain lines.

I left Dearborn in my twenties. That was in the early 1960’s, when I was too clueless to realize Detroit would never leave me.

I remember the city’s elegance––the skyscrapers downtown, the vibrancy at the intersection of Michigan and Woodward avenues, the view of Windsor across the Detroit River, the J.L. Hudson (later Dayton-Hudson) store where we shopped as a family, the cold-hot ice cream waffle sandwiches we waited in line for at the Kresge five and dime across from Hudson’s, the used bookstores I haunted at night after school, the old Briggs Stadium where the Tigers played, the green and expansive Rouge and Palmer Parks, the old Corktown slum where I routinely window-shopped for great deals, the elegant mansions on Cass and Grand Boulevard, the concerts played by Paul Paray’s Detroit Symphony Orchestra on Thursday evenings at the band shell on Belle Isle, free to anyone who wanted to listen, even from the river in a canoe. Detroit was vibrant and safe enough to wander freely in. It was a feast for a kid who was told to “Help Keep Dearborn Clean.”

In August, 1967, I was a student in Paris, wide-eyed as I read the headlines: “Detroit En Feu.” Detroit is on fire.

I returned a couple weeks later, arriving on the East Side bus terminal from New York City at 4 a.m. The bus ride from the terminal to my Dearborn home was like a trip through Dante’s circles of hell. The circles were the streets I knew––houses, mansions, storefronts, whole neighborhoods burned down, boarded up, abandoned, ghostly, scary, ruined.

“And it is awful here,” writes Charlie LeDuff, “there is no other way to say it….Once the nation’s richest big city, Detroit is now its poorest. It is the country’s illiteracy and dropout capital, where children must leave their books at school and bring toilet paper from home…there are firemen with no boots, cops with no cars, teachers with no pencils, city council members with telephones tapped by the FBI, and too many grandmothers with no tears left to give.”

And “Detroit” as a metaphor for unemployment, dysfunction, crime, corruption and hopelessness extends into parts of Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, Baltimore and other American urban centers. Is “Detroit,” like the blowback that keeps coming from Baghdad and Kabul, the future of America?

Charlie LeDuff is a gutsy and streetwise journalist who knows his Detroit. He takes us to the arson sites, the broken and barren neighborhoods where hoods and the homeless squat in abandoned homes. He takes us to the victims of violence––mainly young black boys––and their broken-hearted mothers. He lets us eavesdrop on the deal-making that goes on in speakeasy joints, talk that ends up as corruption in City Hall. From up close he describes the individual losses, the fear, the grief, despair and hopelessness. He names names.

He describes the city I avoid after I left it decades ago. When I return to visit family and friends I don’t return to the old haunts. Detroit is America’s murder capital.

How do we account for the problems in Detroit, and who is to be held accountable? Who do we blame if the place is so dysfunctional that Britta McLean must leave her son piled up with other corpses in the morgue because she can’t possibly find the money to bury her murdered teenaged son? “It would be easy,” writes Charlie LeDuff, “to lay the blame on McNeal for the circumstances in which she raised her sons. But is she responsible for police officers with broken computers in their squad cars, firefighters with holes in their boots, ambulances that arrive late, a city that can’t keep its lights on and leaves its vacant buildings to the arsonist’s match, a state government that allows corpses to stack up in the morgue, multinational corporations that move away and leave poisoned fields behind, judges who let violent criminals walk the streets, school stewards who steal the children’s milk money, elected officials who loot the city, automobile executives who couldn’t manage a grocery store, or Wall Street grifters who destroyed the economy and left the nation’s children with a burden of debt while they partied it up in Southampton?

Can she be blamed for that?”

Can she be blamed for being so black and blue? While all the reasons LeDuff outlines as causes of Detroit’s dysfunction are on the mark, there is one so obvious it’s become hard to talk about: Race, especially now when so much progress on the issue is being made, especially among the young. Racism destroyed Detroit, and racism prevents its rebirth.

Adolph Mongo, longtime Detroit wheeler-dealer and insider wise-guy, understands the problem well: “In Detroit we all talk the race game. It’s a way of life….Detroit’s a code word for N……”

I don’t use the N-word, though I was brought up with it where I learned that it was important to “Help Keep Dearborn Clean.” If skin color is visible, the walls that locked blacks out are invisible along certain streets that represent apartheid boundaries and beliefs. The history of this apartheid is well documented and sits on library shelves for anyone who really wants to know. Black workers, many of whom were part of the Great Migration from southern states, were the descendents of liberated slaves stripped of property, education, and dignity. When they arrived alongside poor and resentful southern whites to work in the northern factories, the blacks were routinely locked into enclaves within city limits and into carefully designated suburban areas just outside. Hungarians, Russians, Poles, Italians, Irish, Germans––they also came to Detroit to participate in the feeding frenzy the auto industry offered. They too were poor outsiders, and disadvantaged, but they were “white” and therefore welcomed and not stripped of their dignity. Though I as a swarthy Italian/American never felt “white” enough, my skin color was never black enough for the city inspector to suddenly decide that there was so much fatally wrong with our house we’d have to live in Detroit instead. In Dearborn our family benefited from very good public services, and I attended excellent public schools where I learned, among other things, that black symbolizes evil and ignorance.

It’s a simple and tragic fact that blacks were not routinely or graciously accepted by the southern white and European ethnic migrants, especially when Detroit was at the height of its prosperity. Real estate agents, politicians, bankers, and employers locked blacks out of the middle class, and white cops enforced unwritten laws. When massive job losses hit the blacks harder than anyone else, they were locked more tightly in. Whites fled the city limits for suburban sprawl, and left old problems behind. Detroit became one vast inner city walled in, and out, by a hard-core mindset and public policy best summarized by ex-Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat who served as urban affairs advisor with the Nixon White House staff: Moynihan recommended “benign neglect.” While Moynihan believed that ignoring race would benefit blacks, “benign” national policy solutions to racial inequality and inner city problems were largely neglected.

So how did Detroit go so wrong so fast? Why did entire neighborhoods collapse? Why did people trash and burn their own groceries, houses and neighborhoods? Why would a city commit suicide?

Hate––call it relentless rejection––has a way of getting under the skin. There it festers and eats away at itself, and there it turns its most powerful weapon, rage, against itself. “Benign neglect” makes no distinction between race as an explanation and excuse for failure. Our Detroits are dying because loose talk and sullen silences about race––skin pigmentation––mask thoughtful consideration of how collective responses to the issues of education, economic development, unemployment, and social engineering of human decency create prosperity, safety and well-being. Loose racist talk in and around Detroit instead has given old prejudices new life. Sullen silences have given vague resentments depth.

What we talk about, the manners that come with our talk, and the stories we tell matter a lot. I’ll risk being denounced as anti-American here by suggesting that the American Dream has a tragic flaw that has made a nightmare of Detroit. Central to this American Dream narrative we are routinely fed at school, at work, and through the media is that America is the land of boundless opportunity. We keep repeating the myth that everyone can succeed here if they work hard enough. That they can do it on their own. That losers are losers because they’re little engines that didn’t try hard enough.

Tell that silly tale to a single mother with three kids and no money to pay the rent or heat. Tell it to an unemployed father whose unemployed son wanders the streets, angry and depressed. Tell it to the teenaged girls who refuse to go to school because they’re afraid of what might happen there. Tell it to the thousands of Detroiters who don’t go to doctors because they have no health insurance, and often no doctor willing to spend ten minutes with them.

Tell them with a straight face that they’ll succeed if they try harder, without asking for help. Convince them they won’t be shamed by asking for help.

That we all should be hard-working little engines is a nice idea, necessary for teachers and parents to repeat as they try to inspire individuals to live up to their potential, and also useful to successful types who feel a need to congratulate themselves. But it is not a credible groundwork for public discourse or public policy. At the core of the American Dream narrative is its tragic flaw, a cancerous radical individualism that expresses itself politically on both the right and left, especially among libertarians. The cancer lurks in one of our favorite words––“freedom”––repeated like a meaningless mantra, drearily by preachers and politicians. The American Dream fiction claims that an individual alone is responsible for his or her fate, and that the individual is “free to choose” this fate. An individual’s failure, a whole city’s failure, is not to be explained in terms of a failing economy, or Wall Street greed, or mismanagement of its major industries, or corrupt politicians, or drug users outside Detroit’s city limits who enable those trapped inside to participate in the city’s alternative and illegal economy. And certainly nobody wants to hear anyone explain Detroit’s problems in terms of race. If black Detroiters fail, it’s all their own fault, and they’re just playing out their victim roles when they ask for help. If they can’t succeed at the American Dream, they’re not good enough. Why don’t they leave us alone? Why don’t they just go away?

The American Dream fiction, like the steady diet of melodramas we’re routinely fed by Hollywood, has good guys and bad. The moral of this simplistic story is that those who make it are good, and those who don’t are bad and deserve to lose. What’s wrong with them?

It’s this flawed narrative, widespread and profound in the many who live outside our Detroits, and invoked by those who do great damage from outside, that makes victims of so many Detroiters. What we as outsiders don’t see is that we’re victims too of the American Dream story we routinely tell ourselves. We have plenty of technical expertise, a lot of knowledge of systems, hoards of wealth, and, I think, a profound need for the gratification that comes from collective response tied to worthwhile purposes. Detroit, its many versions throughout the U.S., will require us to pay and pay and pay for our collective failure to respond.