The different Detroits.

Much talk, hereabouts, about this story from the Weekly Standard, by Matt Labash. The cover features a photo of the Michigan Central Depot, the most infamous abandoned building in Detroit. Guess what the story’s about? If you answered, “the decline and fall of what was once North America’s great industrial city,” pat yourself on the back. You’re on your way to earning a full scholarship to journalism school.

It’s long, and if you don’t want to read it, here are the Cliff’s Notes: Labash sets off to spend a week in our fair city. Packing for the trip, he meets unnamed people who give him him pithy quotes:

Before I’d left, I’d asked an acquaintance if he was from Detroit. “Indeed I am,” he said, “Give me all your f–ing money.”

Ha ha. He arrives and hooks up with Charlie LeDuff, a Detroit News reporter with a rather maniacally cultivated image as an eccentric renegade. (Of which I will speak no more, as conflicts of interest exist in the household.) The first part of the article is a full-on kneepads job on LeDuff, who muses that he was put in his current position by God. Then Charlie tells him to grab his coat, and they’re off to cover Charlie’s beat, which he describes as “the hole” — “forgotten people in forgotten places.” Labash recounts some of Charlie’s greatest reporting hits — the Dr. Kevorkian profile, the repo-man profile, the exhuming-the-dead piece — before sliding into the stock parachuted-in, out-of-town-journalist’s tour of the usual suspects and venues. Adolph Mongo, L. Brooks Patterson, Martha Reeves. They meet the latter at the Hitsville USA Motown museum; now there’s a place you don’t read about very often, eh? And they drop in on a firehouse that recently lost a beloved brother to a collapsing roof while fighting an arsonist’s fire in an abandoned house, surely the worst possible circumstances for such a death to occur. The Detroit fire department’s problems are a true shame upon the city, and Labash doesn’t fail to fully note it.

It’s a good piece, well-written and very readable, but it’s only a better version of dozens that came before it, and the fact it appeared in a conservative policy review, at this particular point in time, suggests a strategy underneath it all. Rod Dreher, faithful doggy that he is, catches the scent immediately:

I wondered over the holiday why it is that it’s correct to believe that New Orleans should be saved, even though it has many of the same endemic and seemingly unsolvable problems as Detroit, and faces one Detroit doesn’t: the likelihood (say some scientists) that it will all sink between now and 2100. Anyway, why is it correct to believe that it’s our moral duty as Americans to “save” New Orleans, whatever that means, but Detroit — well, it can keep going to hell, because what can anybody do with a city so far gone?

In the comments he answers his own question:

People who wish to save New Orleans generally argue that N.O. is so important culturally and otherwise to America that we can’t let it waste away. More pragmatic voices argue … that the city is in a nearly impossible position geographically, and that had Katrina not happened, it was still an economic sinkhole, with high rates of crime, illiteracy, welfare dependency, corruption and all the same demons that haunt Detroit. But there’s nothing romantic at all about Detroit.

In other words: Because I like New Orleans, and I don’t like Detroit. Do I need to mention where Dreher hails from? Yes, Louisiana. But of course that has nothing to do with why New Orleans should be helped, and Detroit written off. It’s all about culture and romance.

But you see what he’s done? He’s conflated Detroit, the city that’s been in a death spiral since the late ’60s, with Detroit, shorthand for the domestic automotive industry. When any fool could tell him they are two very different things. Unfortunately, any fool doesn’t write for the Weekly Standard, or any of the other publications who have sent less talented writers to essentially draw the same wrong conclusion. For those of you who may be newcomers here: The problems of Detroit-the-city are related to the auto industry, but not in the obvious way. The city is full of monuments to automotive wealth and largesse and history, but the truth is, outside of the GM corporate offices downtown, most of what we think of as Detroit-the-car-business is located outside of Detroit-the-city. Maybe all of it, at least in terms of major plants and production facilities. The GM Tech Center is in Warren. Chrysler’s in Auburn Hills, Ford in Dearborn. The plants are all over the place (and around the country). There are abandoned factories in the city, but they’ve been so for decades. If you want to cover what’s happening to southeast Michigan as a result of the auto industry’s problems, you need to go to the suburbs — Wayne, Wixom, Dearborn, Auburn Hills, Grosse Pointe, Livonia…all of them, really.

But here’s something else: No one in Detroit-the-city is asking for over-and-above salvation from the likes of Dreher. Like every other city in the country, it angles for handouts from Uncle Sam, but the idea that there’s a push on for the city to be “saved” is absurd. Its problems are many and complicated, not all self-inflicted but certainly self-propagating. However, it has been so for 40 years and will likely be so for another 40. After four years of living just outside its eastern border, I can tell you I don’t really understand the place and probably never will, but I have come to like it very much and even love it, as ugly and blighted as it is. It is a city with a heart that continues to beat in a terribly diseased body, and you have to respect any place that just flat refuses to die.

Dreher claims to have read and enjoyed all of Labash’s piece, but he doesn’t mention this part, which quotes Adolph Mongo, generally described as a “political consultant,” but as with many Detroiters, that’s not all of the story. He doesn’t pussyfoot around:

When white politicians want to get elected around here, explains Mongo, “They don’t say ‘n—-r’ anymore, they say ‘Detroit.'” And so, while the Big Three have been running away from Detroit for years, they “got a rude awakening when they went to D.C.” Mongo holds that when congressmen associate automakers with Detroit, what they’re intending to associate them with are all the inept black people who come from there. Or as he puts it, when they say “ ’Detroit,’ they really said, ‘they the new n—–s.’ Welcome to the club.”


Finally, because Dreher identifies himself as a Christian and writes for a religious blog, I’d ask him this: Since when did romance and culture become the criteria for determining who should be helped? Both Detroit and New Orleans are full of people, or as Dreher’s religion would describe them, souls. Are Louisiana souls more worthy of help than Michigan’s? I guess so. And finally finally, if he’s going to put NOLA culture up against Detroit’s, I hope he brought his lunch, because Detroit is going to eat it. I suspect he’s one of those guys who puts on his Meters CDs a few times a year and says all that bon temps roulez shit to his kids, while up here in Gritty City we’re incubating the next Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Eminem, White Stripes, Don Was or the-list-goes-on. Here’s a video taste of one show last summer. (Admittedly, an extraordinary one. Don Was is like a magnet of cool. I still can’t believe I missed it.)

So. Rant over. But it put me in such a mood! So let’s close out with a brief bit of bloggage, once again from Roger Ebert — a collection of his best zingers through the years, nearly all of them from pans:

I had a colonoscopy once, and they let me watch it on TV. It was more entertaining than The Brown Bunny. — Response to Vincent Gallo’s hex to give me colon cancer

This film obtained a PG-13 rating, depressing evidence of how comfortable with vulgarity American teenagers are presumed to be. Apparently you can drink shit just as long as you don’t say it. — “Austin Powers II”

At first I thought it was presumptuous to select your own best lines — isn’t that the reader’s job? — but I soon found myself laughing so hard I couldn’t read them aloud to Alan. So I guess I trust his judgment.

Oops, one more: The best single story about Caroline Kennedy’s ambitions, and oh my, it’s satire:

Caroline Kennedy would like to be considered Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2009 and has let the magazine’s editor know of her interest in the honor, aides to Ms. Kennedy confirmed today.

Off to shop for my holiday dinner. Among about a million other chores. Huzzah.

Posted at 7:43 am in Current events, Detroit life, Media |

26 responses to “The different Detroits.”

  1. Kevin said on December 23, 2008 at 8:50 am

    Hi from New Orleans.

    Again with the comparisons (him, not you, Nancy). Again with the musings, which always somehow come back to the term “correct” (which is shorthand for “politically correct,” which is shorthand for a number of other things).

    But don’t fool yourself — Dreher isn’t arguing for saving Louisiana (by which he means New Orleans) any more than he’s arguing for saving Detroit (by which, as you point out, he seems to mistake three large industries for one city). He might prefer the music and the food, but those are just trappings.

    New Orleans doesn’t want to be “saved,” nor does it need it. Its problems are legion and many self-made (crime, corrupt politics, failing schools), but its immediate problem isn’t any of those things, or subsidence; it’s the failure of the federal levees. The house where I live was just fine during the hurricane; it was only 24 hours later, when the shoddy construction by the Army Corps of Engineers failed and it filled with eight feet of water.

    But playing people in trouble off against each other is a fool’s game, and an old one, and it still works. (Did you know them dadgum auto workers all made $70 an hour? That’s why the auto industry failed!) As you point out, we’re called to help one another, and seeing who we help, and with how much alacrity, is instructive to see who we are as a people.

    Helping a financial institution or a brain-dead woman can keep Congress working all weekend. Coming up with a solution to keep auto workers doing their jobs, or rebuilding public safety structures like levees — those take time, and care. Much easier to attempt to pit them against each other.

    Bonus question: In the wake of the Iowa floods of last year, can you find a single Dreher type who mused over the wisdom or the propriety of “rebuilding Iowa”? And if not, why not?

    1847 chars

  2. coozledad said on December 23, 2008 at 9:17 am

    Kevin: The Right is looking at a rapidly shrinking universe of middle class white folks it can empathize with, let alone everybody else. They helped vote the Republicans out, and by God, with the last ounce of power the ones remaining in office can muster, they’ll grab their detractor’s wallets and kick them downstairs. It’s dirty work, but it’s God’s work.
    After 2000, Bush and Cheney greenlighted Ken Lay’s pillage of California’s energy markets. The right then sent its footsoldiers out to bray about libruls and environmentalists being the cause of the problem. There are still idiots who are contentedly swilling this shit, while ‘dead’ Ken Lay and his wife are in Dubai screwing pubescent Arab boys.
    Cognitive dissonance doesn’t even begin to describe it. I hear they had goobers “hunting” blacks for sport in the suburbs of New Orleans after Katrina, and the exorcist governor is giving them safe harbor. Is this true, or merely believable?

    954 chars

  3. nancy said on December 23, 2008 at 9:31 am

    “Dead” Ken Lay in Dubai? I hadn’t heard that one. Funny.

    Kevin’s right, of course. I only wish more conservatives could see through the propaganda. When the Weekly Standard sends in its very own Hunter S. Thompson, reach for your revolver.

    242 chars

  4. Gasman said on December 23, 2008 at 9:58 am

    “Conservatives see through the propaganda?” Now that’s funny. If you take away the propaganda from conservatism, all you have is a soulless empty shell. As for Detroit incubating nascent musical talent, please, please, PLEASE spare us the next Ted Nugent; one is enough.

    288 chars

  5. nancy said on December 23, 2008 at 10:02 am

    We blame Texas for Ted these days. In fact, I think it’s time to start calling him the Crawford Crazy and let Motor City Madman go into the vault for another hundred years or so.

    178 chars

  6. Gasman said on December 23, 2008 at 10:08 am

    As one who did time in Texas, I will heartily endorse blaming almost anything on that state. They certainly did us all a huge favor by loaning us their official state Shithead for eight years. When W was trotted out as the spokesturd for the Texas Rangers back in the early 90’s, I predicted that they were grooming him for Prez. I sure wish that I’d been wrong.

    373 chars

  7. brian stouder said on December 23, 2008 at 10:12 am

    Aretha Franklin will represent Detroit quite well at the inauguration, and (I predict) will quickly produce smiles on the faces of those who frown upon the invocation of the Broke-Back Mountain preacher (or whoever he is)

    Not for nothing, but the attenuation of Detroit’s own legitimate print media cannot help but leave holes in the ramparts, for barbarians like these righty-ideologues to exploit. (I get spam from Human Events all the damned time, and their tone is essentially Funny Farm material. I take consolation from the belief that only willfully close-minded people actually read that crap, so as to bolster their invincible ignorance…and presumeably Weekly Standard is along those same lines)

    712 chars

  8. Jolene said on December 23, 2008 at 11:44 am

    Some days, I can hardly bear to hear about these problems. They are so complex, with so many interrelated variables, that it’s hard to imagine how they can be addressed, let alone resolved. Even if we had the best will in the world and all the needed resources and talents, and we don’t.

    289 chars

  9. moe99 said on December 23, 2008 at 11:45 am

    I was up til 3 wrapping and dog walking, so I got nutthin’ today. Good piece Nancy. Can I share it (the Detroit part) with friends?

    133 chars

  10. alex said on December 23, 2008 at 11:46 am

    Imagine. We could be thisclose to blaming Illinois for Ted.

    That’s right. The Illinois GOP thought it needed a “rock star” to run against Obama for the Senate and tried unsuccessfully to woo the Nuge.

    He wasn’t nuts enough to take them up on it. So they got Alan Keyes instead.

    283 chars

  11. LA Mary said on December 23, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    Dog Grooming.

    140 chars

  12. brian stouder said on December 23, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    I think the train trip into DC is superb, and the Lincoln bible (graciously made available by the Library of Congress) is sublime

    163 chars

  13. Danny said on December 23, 2008 at 12:52 pm

    Okay, a little field report for those of you trapped in colder climes.

    This place is paradise. We have not really explored much yet, but the water (77 F!!!) right outside our rental in the picture I posted the other day contains all sorts of wonderful sea life. Here are a few of the locals I met yesterday while snorkeling:

    Threadfin Butterfly

    Pennant Butterfly

    Needle Fish

    I also saw a whole host of very brightly colored sea anenome which had looks that said, “Do NOT touch Me!!!” At one shallow spot, I scared something that spewed ink and it gave me pause thinking of Steve Irwin. I retreated to deeper, less claustrophobia-inducing areas where my chest would not be exposed only one foot from the coral.

    We’re starting to accumulate some personal pics on our memory sticks. I’ll try to post a few with our Cheshire Cat grins for your general bemusement.


    P.S. Names of Places Here: You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a vowel. I think I am staying off of Lower Hock-a-Loogie road or something. Still, somewhere in my subconscious, my brain is busily trying to puzzle out how I might be able to live here indefinitely.

    1470 chars

  14. Catherine said on December 23, 2008 at 7:17 pm

    What Jolene said, and what moe said.

    The poodles are freaking hilarious, but I’m a little afraid for our poodle mix.

    Back to baking spritz cookies. Baking = therapy plus it makes other people happy too.

    213 chars

  15. Danny said on December 23, 2008 at 10:21 pm

    Hey, Nancy, do I have a comment in purgatory for links? It was from this morning.

    Nance here: Yes, and it has been freed. Too many links within, and it went to spam.

    169 chars

  16. del said on December 23, 2008 at 10:40 pm

    Ted Nugent is guilty of crimes against humanity: his music anthology.

    70 chars

  17. Gasman said on December 23, 2008 at 10:49 pm

    The fish pictures are beautiful. I remember from decades ago how fish will come right up to your mask while snorkeling or scuba diving. However, as we freeze our butts off and dig our way out from feet of snow, we are silently cursing you. I think that I dated a Sea Anemone in high school; she kept telling me, “Do NOT touch Me!!!”

    As to the idea of living in paradise, I had the same fantasies 15 years ago about living in Santa Fe, and here we are. Hawaii is pretty appealing and there’s more Spam than you can shake a stick at. What more could you want?

    585 chars

  18. Danny said on December 23, 2008 at 11:57 pm

    Ah, here is some Yuletide spirit Aloha-style with Sandy the Sandman. I think he is Frosty’s cousin. I met him at the beach today.

    Hilarious, Gasman. Yeah, sometimes I wonder if my wife is one of these sea creatures.

    Aloha and Mele Kalikimaka!

    341 chars

  19. nancy said on December 24, 2008 at 12:15 am

    The Secret Service is keeping you far from the Obamas, right?

    61 chars

  20. Dexter said on December 24, 2008 at 12:33 am

    Columbus ain’t Florida (beautiful weather there the next few days) but it’s gotta be better than this icy-snow -rain combo that has people hunkered down in their homes until something melts…I fell on ice in a parking lot a few hours ago but got back up, OK…and just went back to my car and went back home. We’ll be on the road to C’bus in 9 hours…off to bed and up at 7 , chipping ice, and heading for 49 degree ice-free Columbus. Merry Christmas to all.

    463 chars

  21. CrazyCatLady said on December 24, 2008 at 12:41 am

    I was born, raised and have lived within Detroit City Limits my whole life. I was born and raised in Brightmoor area, educated in DPS schools and raised our daughter here. There are several “Detroits”, really. The White Detroit, the Black Detroit and the Motor City Detroit. It’s simply the way things always were. The three parts almost never mix and mingle. It’s segregated not by law but by habit. During Kilpatrick’s lies and cover-ups, his supporters were almost entirely black, and his enemies were, according to Hizzoner, simply racist haters. And once again the race card was played and from the bottom of the deck. I guess at this point I just say “It is what it is” and just go forward.

    696 chars

  22. basset said on December 24, 2008 at 2:22 am

    well, Detroit can’t be all bad, they have this little booger here:

    when you get done looking at him, go to the bottom of the page and check out the “best burgers.” might even be reason enough to leave the airport next time I’m in Detroit.

    297 chars

  23. whitebeard said on December 24, 2008 at 7:40 am

    I have visited Detroit and its suburbs since I was a young whipper-snapper in The Soo and over the years as I wrote about cars in Montreal and Hartford from the 1970s onwards and was very much made aware of the three Detroits.
    At the auto show, I was given a safe and secure route to test drive some new models and promptly became lost because I am directionally and geographically challenged.
    I stopped several times and asked for directions and was treated courteously and with laughter every time as I explained my predicament (being a bearded, long-haired, bear in excess of 250 pounds might have encouraged friendliness in the daytime).
    I peeked in what remained of the windows at Michigan Central Station as a longtime railroad fan, rode the people mover as a transit fan, but stayed at a motel near the tunnel entrance in Windsor that time because it was far cheaper (and I am a Canadian, after all).
    Yes, Detroit has its problems. but what the Weekly Standard chap wrote could describe any older Northern city where factory shells remain if you deliberately look for them, where poverty exists if you hunt for it, where political malfeasence runs rampant.
    But in the end, I wouldn’t turn down an invitation to visit Detroit again.

    1245 chars

  24. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on December 24, 2008 at 8:38 am

    Wow. I’m halfway through what seems like an endless series of pre-Christmas conferences with so-called adults who have to be reminded, convinced, and/or cajoled into recalling that they love their child more than they hate each other (so far, we’re 3 out of 4, but we won’t know if those three stick until after Jan. 5). I feel as cranky as Nancy after reading a hit job on Detroit — there’s no love like convert lovin’ . . . or would this be migrant love?

    As for the Detroit smacky-face, there’s nothing going on in the D that isn’t true from the Soo to Louisville, from even the new and improved Pittsburgh to the flats of Kansas City, KS. Vacant brick buildings from 1906 with a huge addition dated 1922, and three rail spurs spiked with grass and shrub diving into the basement; broken toothed grim smiling streetscapes as you look down close packed neighborhood avenues that saw the Spanish Flu and V-E day celebrations and Christmases when every lot had a house and every home had a tree; sclerotic civic administrations where corruption is a dirty word but graft and done-deals before the bids are opened don’t even warrant a news story that you can’t prove anyhow because no one talks because everyone’s dirty.

    It’s a regional story, but it’s a big region. Detroit may be the capital in some ways, but it’s neither cause nor exemplar except for the lazy, trite writer.

    The double-weird in the Labash piece: first, is this a LeDuff profile masquerading as a Detroit piece? Did his editors send him for the latter and he’s snuck in the former? Been there, done that, sometimes got away with it. But the line “Charlie was as much performer as reporter” just shouldn’t be able to sound like a good thing, should it? If i say of a pastor “she was as much performer as pastor,” or even a lawyer being “as much performer as pastor,” it would clearly be a bad thing. You have to edge over to “John Irving is as much performer as novelist” to sound approving, and not all writers would agree (on performers or Irving).

    LeDuff sounds like a hard man to share an office with, even if the office is an entire floor of a building. That kind of cultivated pinwheeling arrogant self-spectacle persona has a tendency to step on colleagues even when you’re not directly in their way — and there’s already enough cleat-wearers who don’t ease up when they think your backside is on their career path as it is.

    I’m hoping i get my “Peace on earth, good will y’all” mojo back by the 7 pm service, but much depends on the 3 pm family ‘tude. Mine will be cheerily relentless in any case, but i’d like to be unaffectedly cheery when my son does his reading from Isaiah.

    Everybody be good to each other, OK? I need much coffee.

    2742 chars

  25. grapeshot said on December 24, 2008 at 4:23 pm

    I went to college in Michigan’s UP in the late 70’s and early 80’s and had a lot of friends there who came from Detroit. They told stories of life growing up there (drag racing on Gratiot or shopping at the Hudsons downtown), but they all acknowledged that the city was changing for the worse. It wasn’t until years later, when I viewed the images on a website that formerly was called Detroit Mon Amour that I could see the faded beauty of Detroit.

    But the story is hardly any different than that of Buffalo, NY, or Erie, PA, or South Bend, IN, or scores of other smaller cities in the rust belt. I hate seeing them all decay slowly, as much as I hated seeing N.O. wiped out in one fell swoop.

    I once read a quote from Warren Buffet, where he said that there are some in our society that wants us to become a nation of share croppers. I don’t remember the exact quote, but it sure seems to me to be true that this is exactly what is going on.

    1018 chars

  26. Ricardo said on December 26, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    There are some folks that say that General Motors and Ford Motors are misnamed. Engineers know that motors are electric and engines are fossil-fueled. Now is the time for correction! General Transportation, they should be responsible for restoring the mass transportation in the US in exchange for us bailing them out.

    Just take a look on Google Earth and look at Southwest Detroit from the Rouge River to Lincoln Park to Wyandotte and on. You will see a visible line where Electric St and Electric Ave still exist as a right-of-way. They join in Trenton all the way to Toledo. I’m not sure, but I think they joined to MI Central, which I remember in better days. There are similar areas of LA and Orange County (Long Beach comes to mind) where you can find old Red Car right-of-ways.

    The big three owes us to put their engineering to work to restore what they ruined. Mass transportation that serves the entire nation efficiently and timely. Bullet trains for long distance. Town cars, livery, and farm/rural vehicles on a mass scale.

    I’m also still waiting for the flying cars. Can’t wait to have an accident at 1000′.

    1142 chars