Great Recent Books about Detroit, My Home Town

Detroit Hustle cover

“[T]here are deep problems here that people have been suffering through for decades,” says Amy Haimerl in Detroit Hustle: A Memoir of Life, Love, and Home, “I can only hope that enough of us force ourselves to see and face them together. I hope that the bankcruptcy will leave us closer to whole and make it possible for all Detroiters to have a chance at a normal, functioning city.” Haimerl’s memoir is one of a run of great new books about the rise and fall and rebirth of the Motor City, Motown, the Arsenal of Democracy, and the place I called home from 1970 to 1988.

I grew up on a farm about thirty miles north of Detroit. When as a child I misbehaved, my mother, who had lived and worked in the Detroit enclave of Hamtramck, threatened to move us to the city, a prospect that scared me into shape. I went to college at Oakland University, a few miles from our home in Romeo, and by the time I graduated, I was eager to move to Detroit so I could be part of the revival that I was certain must be at hand. Haimerl experiences a similar reverse logic, a generation later. I fought the crowds fleeing to the suburbs; she fought the dismay of many who wondered why a young couple on the rise in New York would cash it all in for an abandoned house in Murder City.

By 1976, after the Michigan Theater in downtown Detroit was turned into a parking garage, I thought things had reached bottom and could surely get nothing but better. Man, was I wrong. They not only didn’t get better, they got much worse, while I and like-minded preservationists and Detroit boosters looked on helplessly. Instead of money being pumped into the neighborhoods and job creation, money was pumped into the fortress-like Renaissance Center and the expressways leading to the sprawling suburbs that would eventually reach almost to the little farm where I grew up.

In her book, Haimerl achieves a passionate distance from her subject, Detroit. The distance comes from her training as a journalist; the passion, however, comes from a personal place that she regularly enters in order to write about the frustration and exasperation that come with buying a ruin and trying to turn it into a home. There is an energy and determination in her writing that moves the story along faster than a test car on the Ford Proving Ground. This is a memoir written by an outsider who is not afraid to lay blame where blame belongs, especially at her own feet.

Published in 2014, Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charles LeDuff is a much different book but equally effective in analyzing the responsibility for the decline of this great American city. And there is plenty of blame to go around. Nobody gets off the hook. The tone of the book is set early when LeDuff comments on the financial meltdown of 2008, when “chief executives of the Big Three went to Washington, D.C., to grovel” and “suddenly the eyes of the nation turned back upon this postindustrail sarcophagus, where crime and corruption and mismanagement and mayhem played themselves out in the corridors of power and on the powerless streets.”

LeDuff’s “autopsy” digs deep for Detroit’s cause of death, and the complications that led to it. Its “slide was long and inexorable,” beginning in the 1950s. Few people realize that by 1958, 20% of the Detroit workforce was jobless. “Then there is the thought,” LeDuff posits, “that Detroit was simply a boomtown that went bust, a city that began to fall apart the minute Henry Ford began to build it.”

While LeDuff dissects the white racism and legal mortage covenants that destroyed Detroit housing, he also cites myopic union management and political corruption and trade agreements and oil deals that allowed American manufacturers “to leave the country by the back door.” He is hardest of all, however, on the executives of the Big Three auto companies. In 2008, when they asked for a $25 billon bail-out, “the auto chiefs showed just how incompetent they were,” having come to Washington in private jets with no plan for what they would do with the money.

Another great read is Scott Martelle’s Detroit: A Biography. Martelle “takes a long unflinching look at the evolution of one of America’s great cities, and one of the nation’s greatest urban failures.” There are historical reasons for why things are the way they are, and Martelle explores them all.

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