Detroit: An American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff

Detroit: An American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff

Writer and reporter Charlie LeDuff moved his family from Los Angeles back to his native Detroit, where he went to work exposing corruption, violence, and incompetence for the Detroit News. 

And wow, was he busy.

Detroit: An American Autopsy,” published in 2013, chronicles one of the more corrupt periods in Detroit history, during the reign of mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who resigned in disgrace in 2008 before being found guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice. 

Charlie is a talented writer who elicits powerful emotions in his readers: anger, disgust, and even despondency. 

But he’s prone to some hyperbole, and seems resigned to declare the city dead—an understandable position, given what he witnessed and wrote about every day. 

Thankfully, the intervening years have proven LeDuff’s proclamation false.

Detroit isn’t dead. 

Yes, it has a long way to go, but justice did prevail in rooting out the corruption of the Kilpatrick regime, and the city continues to make strides. 

LeDuff lays out a compelling case that Detroit’s troubles began in the 1950s:

Detroit actually began its decline in population during the 1950s, precisely the time that Detroit—and the United States—was at its peak. And while Detroit led the nation in per capita income and home ownership, automation and the beginnings of foreign competition were forcing automobile companies like Packard to shutter their doors. That factory closed in 1956 and was left to rot, pulling down the east side, which pulled down the city.

During and after the Great Recession, Detroit was a city dominated by fear, violence, graft, and incompetence. And this is no more evident than in the struggles of the city’s firefighters, up against impossible odds: 

”Arson,” he said. “In this town, arson is off the hook. Thousands of them a year, bro. In Detroit, it’s so ******* poor that fire is cheaper than a movie. A can of gas is three-fifty and a movie is eight bucks, and there aren’t any movie theaters left in Detroit, so fuck it. They burn the empty house next door and they sit on the ******* porch with a forty, and they’re barbecuing and laughing ’cause it’s ******* entertainment. It’s unbelievable. And the old lady living next door, she don’t have insurance, and her house goes up in flames and she’s homeless and another *******block dies.”


The city, what’s left of it, burns night after night. Nature—in the form of pheasants, hawks, foxes, coyotes and wild dogs—had stepped in to fill the vacuum, reclaiming a little more of the landscape each day.

As arson engulfed the city, Detroit firefighters dealt with substandard equipment, leading to unnecessary danger and death:

As the firemen were snuffing out remnant embers in the attic, someone heard timber snap. And then the roof collapsed. “He was right behind me,” said Hamm, pointing to the spot. “He was right next to me. I don’t know why I’m here.” It took a few minutes to find Harris because his homing alarm failed to sound. It failed because it was defective. Because that passes for normal here. Defective equipment for emergency responders. Harris died not because he was burned or because the timber broke his bones. He died of suffocation, unable to breathe from the weight of the roof. If the alarm had only worked.

City firefighters were the victims of inadequate funding as elected leaders and bureaucrats skimmed dollars off the budget for themselves.

But even by Detroit standards of corruption, Monica Conyers, city council member and wife of late congressman John Conyers, stood out:

The madam city council president found herself denying to me and the rest of the press that her ex-con brother had gotten a no-show city job at her request. She denied, in fact, that he was her brother at all before turning around and admitting that he was in fact her brother.


Sensing she was near the end of her freedom and her threadbare sanity, I called Conyers on her cell phone to get an interview. No answer. I hung up. My phone rang a few moments later, a return call from the same number. “Monica?” “Who’s this?” the voice answered. “Charlie LeDuff.” A long pregnant pause. “Uhmmmmm . . . my name is Teresa,” the voice stammered. “Monica doesn’t have this number anymore.” “Jesus, you’ve got to be kidding me,” I said with a laugh. “Monica, I know it’s you. It’s your voice.” “No, this is Teresa. Sorry.” And then Monica hung up.


After months of denials, she finally admitted to shaking tens of thousands of dollars and jewelry from people with business before the city council and the pension board on which she served. The feds had it all—Conyers taking envelopes stuffed with cash, Conyers taking money from a businessman’s coat pocket, Conyers walking out on her meals without paying. Among the highlights of the wiretapped conversations played in court: “You’d better get my loot, that’s all I know,” Conyers told her aide-de-camp Sam Riddle at one point.

There are horrific and senseless tales of the worst aspects of humanity in this book. As LeDuff chronicles Detroit’s struggles, he weaves in tales of personal tragedy from his own past in the city.

The book is grim.

And yet even amongst the despair, there are moments of hope and inspiration.

LeDuff shares stories of people doing the best they can in absurdly difficult situations. The firefighters. The police. And citizens of the city, just trying to move forward:

But what you gonna do? You ain’t gonna be reincarnated, so you got to do the best you can with the moment you got. Do the best you can and try to be good. You dig?”

Time has put some distance between the events of the book and the current day, leaving enough space to see that hope remains for Detroit—precisely because of the people trying to do the best they could, and trying to be good.