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Charlie LeDuff on going home to Detroit, and the problems with ruin porn

A row of abandoned buildings is shown March 23, 2011 in Detroit, Mich.

Image of Detroit: An American Autopsy
Author: Charlie LeDuff
Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The (2013)
Binding: Hardcover, 304 pages

Detroit. The Motor City. Home of the Big Three. The birthplace of America's manufacturing past. And maybe the graveyard of it, too.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charlie LeDuff was raised in Detroit. He left it, wrote for the New York Times, and then he went back home. His new book, "Detroit: An American Autopsy," details what he found there.

"Detroit built the American way of life, it built the middle class," said LeDuff. "Everything came out of coal and steel and rubber and cars -- and it went away. And now we still have coherent car companies, but we don't have the jobs, because those are gone. So what do we do with all the leftover people?"

The book details corruption of city officials and mismanagment of city funds, to the detriment of police officers and fire fighters who are left with little resources to support the population. 

He said the city still has plenty of humanity left, though. LeDuff dismissed the suggestion the book is a form of ruin porn.

"I'm not writing about buildings, that's what people come here and do. They write about buildings and they take pictures of buildings and they seem to miss all the humanity that's here," he said. "We're living, breathing human beings who have dreams and children and wishes and hunger. That's who I'm writing about. I'm writing about how hard it is to get through this, but the fact is, we are. And we're fighters. So it's not ruin porn. It's about holding on."

LeDuff recounts going to the funeral of his niece, who died of a overdose, the day before Mother's Day.

"And I looked around that grave -- I saw my brother unemployed, my brother unemployed, my brother unemployed and my mom unemployed -- I looked at that and I said, 'What happened here?'"

But he countered, "We're still here, though. We're still here. And we're going to keep going."

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
Image of Detroit: An American Autopsy
Author: Charlie LeDuff
Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The (2013)
Binding: Hardcover, 304 pages
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I live right across the Detroit River from Detroit in Windsor, Ontario. I go over at least once a week for the food, the entertainment, the shopping. I'm a big fan of Detroit and can't understand why anyone would allow this City to fail.
Everywhere I go in Detroit I see microbusiness start-ups, Urban Gardens, new bike trails, etc. If you want to visit a dead zone - go to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The world's most visually boring art colony.

Ok to all you posters: I am a Toledoan that commutes to Detroit to practice housecall medicine. I have been seeing patients in Detroit in all neighborhoods for almost three years. I can assure you that the spirit of Detroit is alive and strong. Detroiters are a rescilient bunch; they have been down for thirty years and they still have pride in their city. Things are improving. Just a few blocks from where this picture was taken, houses in this condition are selling IN THIS CONDITION for over $100,000 as young professionals are moving to Midtown and paying $200,000 for one condo unit in one of these old mansions. Things are changing fast in Detroit. I would strongly disagree that Detroit/metro area is dying. Yes, poverty and crime are high, but no worse than Los Angeles, but we don't give LA negative press, do we? Don't worry, Detroit will not only survive, but is already beginning to flourish. It has loyalty that many other cities do not.

I really enjoyed this interview with Charlie LeDuff. Would you all consider bringing him back as an occasional or regular guest on the show? While he might not fit in with the jaunty/friendly style you have cultivated at Market Place, his personality and voice are so compelling. The interaction between him and Kai was beautiful.

As a native of the 'Rust Belt' who, as a young adult, left the region for sunny Southern California in the late 1970s as manufacturing was slowly moving towards its ultimate nadir, I thought the people I grew up and worked with were uneducated idiots and stuck in the past. Now, as an urban planning professor I have come to understand that big idea policies - from NAFTA and the WTO to 'new urbanism' - to a culture where the only 'respectable' job is a white collar job (aka service industries) - have laid waste to much of older American cities and the people who live in them. Unfortunately, our national media doesn't want to genuinely talk about social engineering, so its resorts to insulting phrases like 'ruin porn.' Perhaps if business programs like Marketplace looked at the similarity of the 1970s Midwest and 2013 California - comparing the long-term impact of entrenched systems and its effect on young professional emigration to other states - it could ask the burning question: is this beginning of a new American diaspora? I might add that Charlie LeDuff's straightforward candor was a breath of free air and I concur with other comments that he would make an excellent recurring commentator on the program.

Detroit is merely the bellwether for the rest of the USA. What is happening there today will happen to the rest of this country in the near future.

Living in warm sunny states with right-to-work laws will not protect you.

College education will not protect you. Every year the nation's journalism schools graduate more journalism majors than there are working journalists in this country. Even those with science and engineering degrees are having trouble finding jobs that make use of their education.

Moving to a "Service economy" or an "Information economy" will not protect you. We must manufacture physical goods in the USA or we will lose our standard of living.

No country can maintain a middle class lifestyle when the majority of citizens no longer earn a middle class wage.

Increases in productivity reflect higher profits to the investor class, but gains are not shared with the workers, who are cut loose to form a new disposable underclass. When there are large numbers of people with no legal way to support themselves, there will be either crime, or revolution.

I'm sorry, but I don't feel sad for Detroit. Times change and industry moves on. Sometimes a city has to figure out times have changed and reinvent inself instead of having a "woe is me" attitude. Should Ford or Buick move factories back and lay off people in other areas? What about other towns that are dying from industry moving on, like Rome, NY? Its not like this happened overnight, this took decades.

Kai - So…was Nelly Bly's "Ten Days in a Mad-House" mad-house porn?
Was Lincoln Steffans "The Shame of the City" big city corruption porn?
Was Ralph Nader's "Unsafe at Any Speed" car crash porn?
Was Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" meat-packing porn?

"Ruin porn"? What a glib, cynical, and idiotic expression to use for Charles LeDuff's "Detroit: An American Autopsy".

Great interview!

And I'm going to order the book, though to be frank I'm about halfway through Chris Hedges' and Joe Sacco's "Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt", and am near my depression threshold for the state of American cities.

My heart goes out to Charlie LeDuff. I left family and friends I, too, am a former Detroiter and mixed media artist who's present work has reflections of the Detroit's ruin porn in connection to the ruin porn in my new home in mostly rural SE Arizona.
The title of my newest interaqctive art project in corporates the name of one of the heros who originated in Detroit. http://thelonerangerandtontocowboyandindianartproject.blog.com/
Keep Cowgirl/Cowboy Up!, Detroit folks!!!

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