Part Two – Detroit: An American Autopsy
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 auto- mobile 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. Today, the boomtown is bust. It is an eerie and angry place of deserted factories and homes and forgotten people. Detroit, which once led the nation in home ownership, is now a foreclosure capital. Its downtown is a museum of ghost skyscrapers. Trees and switch- grass and wild animals have come back to reclaim their rightful places. Coyotes are here. The pigeons have left in droves. A city the size of San Francisco and Manhattan could neatly fit into Detroit’s vacant lots, I am told.
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. It is the unemployment capital, where half the adult population does not work at a consistent job. 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.
But Detroit can no longer be ignored, because what happened here is happening out there. Neighborhoods from Phoenix to Los Angeles to Miami are blighted with empty houses and people with idle hands. Americans are swimming in debt, and the prospects of servicing the debt grow slimmer by the day as good-paying jobs continue to evaporate or relocate to foreign lands. Economists talk about the inevitable turnaround. But standing here in Michigan, it seems to me that the fundamentals are no longer there to make the good life.
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 our eyes.
A newly hired autoworker will earn $14 an hour. This, adjusted for inflation, is three cents less than what Henry Ford was paying in 1914 when he announced the $5 day. And, of course, Ford isn’t hiring.
Come to Detroit. Drive the empty, shattered boulevards, and the decrepitude of the place all rolls out in a numb, continuous fact. After enough hours staring into it, it starts to appear normal. Aver- age. Everyday.
And then you come across something like a man frozen in ice and the skeleton of the anatomy of the place reveals itself to you.
The neck bone is connected to the billionaire who owns the crumbling building where the man died. The rib bones are connected to the countless minions shuffling through the frostbitten streets burning fires in empty warehouses to stay warm—and get high. The hip bone is connected to a demoralized police force who couldn’t give a shit about digging a dead mope out of an elevator shaft. The thigh bone is connected to the white suburbanites who turn their heads away from the calamity of Detroit, carrying on as though the human suffering were somebody else’s problem. And the foot bones—well, they’re sticking out of a block of dirty frozen water, belonging to an unknown man nobody seemed to give a rip about.
We are not alone on this account. Across the country, the dead go unclaimed in the municipal morgues because people are too poor to bury their loved ones: Los Angeles, New York, Chicago. It’s the same.
Grandpa is on layaway while his family tries to scratch together a box and a plot.
This is not a book about geopolitics or macroeconomics or global finance. And it is not a feel-good story with a happy ending. It is a book of reportage. A memoir of a reporter returning home— only he cannot find the home he once knew. This is a book about living people getting on with the business of surviving in a place that has little use for anyone anymore except those left here. It is about waking up one morning and being told you are obsolete and not wanting to believe it but knowing it’s true. It is a book about a rough town and a tough people during arguably some of the most historic and cataclysmic years in the American experience. It is a book about family and cops and criminals and factory workers. It is about corrupt politicians and a collapsing newspaper. It is about angry people fighting and crying and snatching hold of one another trying to stay alive.
It is about the future of America and our desperate efforts to save ourselves from it.
At the end of the day, the Detroiter may be the most important American there is because no one knows better than he that we’re all standing at the edge of the shaft.