Detroit's not feeling so alone anymore

Luke Bergmann

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

KAI RYSSDAL: General Motors delivered some not entirely unexpected news this morning -- that it lost almost $10 billion last quarter, $31 billion for all of 2008.

Here's another way to think about that if you like: Each and every one of the 8.3 million cars GM sold last year worldwide wound up costing the company more than $3,700 to get rid of.

The car industry has become pretty much synonymous with Detroit, or maybe it's the other way around. But in his new book about the city called "Getting Ghost," Luke Bergmann reminds us that that's not true at all.

Luke, welcome to the program.

BERGMANN: Thank you so much for having me.

RYSSDAL: Tell me, first of all, about the title of this book. What does "Getting Ghost" actually mean?

BERGMANN: Getting ghost is a phrase that's often used on the street in Detroit -- and elsewhere, to some extent, as well. On the most mundane level, it just means splitting. It just means taking off from one place to another. But the young, Black drug dealers with whom I was spending so much time when I was researching this book, use the phrase with, I think, a real sense for its poetry. And, you know, for that fact that it sort of connotes a sense of mortality. And also, that it has a kind of special meaning in a city like Detroit, that so many people think of as a kind of ghost town.

RYSSDAL: You take us through your version of the story of the city, with two young guys that, as a matter of fact, you met in a juvenile detention facility. Tell us about them and then what they told you about Detroit.

BERGMANN: Yeah, I met them both while I was an intern, a sort of funky PhD intern at the juvenile detention facility in Detroit. And one of them I called Dude in the book, and the other I call Rodney. And what they both did, very independently, was invite me after I'd met them at the juvenile detention facility, out into their neighborhoods and into their worlds. And, most importantly, into their lives as street drug dealers in Detroit.

For Dude, just sort of with respect to the nature of housing in a city like Detroit, it was so important for him to make clear to me that, though he was working in these ramshackle houses in those kinds of neighborhoods, the houses were not just spots, they were homes. And I think for people like Dude it's really significant that they are both of those things. It allows people who are so alienated from the formal economy, and who live in a city where they were African Americans -- have been so disenfranchised from residential space and from participation in the retail community -- to sort of participate in both at once.

RYSSDAL: Things don't end well in this book for either of these two young kids. But I'm curious as to your thoughts about what it might take to turn this situation around. I mean, there's stimulus-plan money going to states and cities. There's talk of rescuing Detroit. Obviously they mean the car companies when they say that. But, what would you do. I mean, how would you fix this?

BERGMANN: I am, in a way, more optimistic now than I have been in many, many years. And, I think a lot of people would find that kind of ironic. But I think that there are very good reasons for me to be optimistic now.

One is that, you know, Detroit has been in the situation that it's in now for many, many years. It has had incredibly high unemployment. It has suffered with thousands and thousands of abandoned buildings. It has also felt, as a bastion of Black political power and culture, alienated from the rest of the country. But right now it feels like we, as a city government, are finally kind of breathing the same air as the rest of the country. It feels like, you know what, our interests really are the country's interests. And in particular, you know, that folks in the Detroit-metro suburbs are now, you know, in as much a panic about the economy as folks living within the city limits of Detroit.

RYSSDAL: Luke Bergmann is director of research at the Detroit Department of Health. He's also the author of a new book about the city he lives in, called "Getting Ghost." Luke, thanks a lot.

BERGMANN: Thank you so much, Kai.

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