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.