Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Death in the ruins

This is Detroit.

Charlie LeDuff is on the story for Mother Jones magazine. One place this story of Detroit took him was the morgue.

It's a busy place. It's a crowded one, too.

Life is extraordinarily cheap in America today. Funerals, however, are not:

Dr. Carl Schmidt is the chief medical examiner there. There are at least 50 corpses on hold in his morgue cooler, some unidentified, others whose next of kin are too poor to bury them. So Dr. Schmidt keeps them on layaway, zipped up in body bags as family members wait for a ship to come in that never seems to arrive.

The day I visited, a Hollywood starlet was tailing the doctor, studying for her role as the medical examiner in ABC's new Detroit-based murder drama Detroit 1-8-7. The title is derived from the California penal code for murder: 187. In Michigan, the designation for homicide is actually 750.316, but that's just a mouthful of detail.

"You might say that the homicide of Aiyana is the natural conclusion to the disease from which she suffered," Schmidt told me.

"What disease was that?" I asked.

"The psychopathology of growing up in Detroit," he said. "Some people are doomed from birth because their environment is so toxic."

"BUT IT'S DETROIT!" you may be tempted to scoff. Detroit, though, wasn't always an epithet. Something had to make Detroit into Detroit.

It might be a stretch to see anything more than Detroit's problems in Detroit's problems. Still, as the American middle class collapses, it's worth perhaps remembering that the East Side of Detroit—the place where Aiyana, Je'Rean, and Officer Huff all died—was once its industrial cradle.

Henry Ford built his first automobile assembly-line plant in Highland Park in 1908 on the east side of Woodward Avenue, the thoroughfare that divides the east of Detroit from the west. Over the next 50 years, Detroit's East Side would become the world's machine shop, its factory floor. The city grew to 1.3 million people from 300,000 after Ford opened his Model T factory. Other auto plants sprang up on the East Side: Packard, Studebaker, Chrysler's Dodge Main. Soon, the Motor City's population surpassed that of Boston and Baltimore, old East Coast port cities founded on maritime shipping when the world moved by boat.

European intellectuals wondered at the whirl of building and spending in the new America. At the center of this economic dynamo was Detroit. "It is the home of mass-production, of very high wages and colossal profits, of lavish spending and reckless installment-buying, of intense work and a large and shifting labour-surplus," British historian and MP Ramsay Muir wrote in 1927. "It regards itself as the temple of a new gospel of progress, to which I shall venture to give the name of 'Detroitism'."

"It is the home of mass-production, of very high wages and colossal profits, of lavish spending and reckless instalment-buying, of intense work and a large and shifting labour-surplus," British historian and MP Ramsay Muir wrote in 1927. "It regards itself as the temple of a new gospel of progress, to which I shall venture to give the name of 'Detroitism'."

Skyscrapers sprang up virtually overnight. The city filled with people from all over the world: Arabs, Appalachians, Poles, African Americans, all in their separate neighborhoods surrounding the factories. Forbidden by restrictive real estate covenants and racist custom, the blacks were mostly restricted to Paradise Valley, which ran the length of Woodward Avenue. As the black population grew, so did black frustration over poor housing and rock-fisted police.

Soon, the air was the color of a filthy dishrag. The water in the Detroit River was so bad, it was said you could bottle it and sell it as poison. The beavers disappeared from the river around 1930.

But pollution didn't kill Detroit. What did?

No one can answer that fully. You can blame it on the John Deere mechanical cotton-picker of 1950, which uprooted the sharecropper and sent him north looking for a living—where he found he was locked out of the factories by the unions. You might blame it on the urban renewal and interstate highway projects that rammed a freeway down the middle of Paradise Valley, displacing thousands of blacks and packing the Negro tenements tighter still. (Thomas Sugrue, in his seminal book The Origins of the Urban Crisis, writes that residents in Detroit's predominantly black lower East Side reported 206 rat bites in 1951 and 1952.)

You might blame postwar industrial policies that sent the factories to the suburbs, the rural South, and the western deserts. You might blame the 1967 race riot and the white flight that followed. You might blame Coleman Young—the city's first black mayor—and his culture of cronyism. You could blame it on the gas shocks of the '70s that opened the door to foreign car competition. You might point to the trade agreements of the Clinton years, which allowed American manufacturers to leave the country by the back door. You might blame the UAW, which demanded things like full pay for idle workers, or myopic Big Three management who, instead of saying no, simply tacked the cost onto the price of a car.

Then there is the thought that Detroit is simply a boom town that went bust the minute Henry Ford began to build it. The car made Detroit, and the car unmade Detroit. The auto industry allowed for sprawl. It also allowed a man to escape the smoldering city.

AND THOSE THINGS that made Detroit into a slur -- into a basket case . . . into a place where some humans have gone feral and nature has started to reclaim its turf from the ruins -- also are turning parts of where you live into little Detroits.

Somewhere near you, hope is dead and humanity itself ain't feeling so good.

Somewhere, some fool on cable television, or on talk radio, is telling you the biggest problem the country has right now is big government and high taxes. That what ails Detroit -- and what ails all the little Detroits just down the road, in all the neighborhoods you dare not enter after dark . . . or ever -- will be fixed by private charity and good morals.

Some say condoms are the answer. Others, Jesus.

A half-century into the collapse, however, neither the Trojan man nor the Savior of the World has made much of a dent. Not only that, charitable contributions these days are as down as the leading economic indicators.

Public policy in these anxious times seems to consist of hoping for a miracle in a world that doesn't believe in prayer. And while it's true that Jesus has no hands and no feet apart from our own, it also is true that Jesus' hands have taken to wringing and His feet have taken a hike.

In an emerging banana republic run by the rich men of Wall Street, it really sucks to be Lazarus. Detroit knows this today.

You will discover it tomorrow.

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