Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff, The Penguin Press, 286 pages. Hardcover, $27.95.Detroit: A Biography by Scott Martelle, Chicago Review Press, 2012, 304 pages. Hardcover, $24.95.
Forgotten Landmarks of Detroit by Dan Austin, Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2012, 263 pages. Paperback, $22.99.Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City's Majestic Ruins by Dan Austin, Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2010, 176 pages. Paperback, $24.99.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Once the icon of American economic development and prosperity, Detroit became a tragic tale of poverty, unemployment and violence.
Good jobs disappeared. People moved away. Once-magnificent buildings began to crumble or were torn down.
"Once America's richest city, Detroit is now its poorest," Charlie LeDuff writes in his new book, "Detroit: An American Autopsy." "What happened? How did Detroit -- the most iconic of American cities -- become a cadaver?"
Born in Detroit, LeDuff returned after 20 years to be a reporter for The Detroit News after working at The New York Times. Today he reports for Fox News on television.
Scott Martelle, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times and The Detroit News, provides compelling, troubling statistics throughout another new book, "Detroit: A Biography."
In 2010, just 138,000 of 468,000 Detroit adults between 16 and 65 held jobs -- less than 30 percent. Nationally, about 60 percent of adult Americans were employed.
Things could get worse. Today, three of every four Detroiters over 25 have graduated from high school. But three of every four city residents between 16 and 24 have either flunked or dropped out of high school.
LeDuff tells disturbing, revealing and often humorous stories, while Martelle offers a more complete, compelling account of Detroit's history and possible future.
Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness, praised LeDuff, stating, "Detroit is full of righteous anger and heartbreaking details. It's also funny as hell. Hunter S. Thompson would've loved every page of this book."
Martelle recounts the engaging history of Detroit, a city founded in July 1701. He also presents a more positive view of the role political, union and community leaders could play in building a brighter future.
The city's expansion began when Henry Ford, the nation's first major car producer, increased annual car production from 18,644 cars in 1909-1910 to 533,755 cars in 1918-1919. Martelle notes that newspapers routinely ignored the difficult conditions faced by workers in Ford's factories.
During the 1950s, 1.9 million people lived in Detroit; 83 percent were white. Today, less than 700,000 people live in the Motor City; 83 percent are African-American. And for the first time, more cars were being sold in China than in the United States.
"People from all corners of the earth came to Detroit to work in its factories and make it one of the most significant cities of history," LeDuff writes. They included European immigrants and "hill folk who hailed from Appalachia. ... "
"People came from Poland, from Ireland and from the sharecroppers' shacks of Mississippi. The American middle class was born here."
For decades, LeDuff and Martelle both emphasize, black residents got treated unfairly. Detroit has a history of police brutality and discriminatory hiring that typically relegated blacks to the lowest-paying, most difficult jobs.
As economic troubles grew, Detroit's finances became increasingly disorganized. Sorting through financial records, LeDuff could not even track what happened to some major city funds.
Guys from the fire department told LeDuff things were difficult. "But what I was seeing was worse than the Baghdad fire department, which actually got more than $150 million from the United States government, while Detroit got zero."
One neighborhood, LeDuff writes, "looked like a photo from postwar Dresden."
A couple of recent photography books fill out the tale. In "Forgotten Landmarks of Detroit," Dan Austin writes, "Few cities in the United States have been as quick as Detroit to destroy their historic architecture." Austin also published "Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City's Majestic Ruins" in 2010.