Read Detroit: An American Autopsy Online

Authors: Charlie Leduff

Tags: #Non-Fiction, #History, #Sociology, #Biography, #Politics

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BOOK: Detroit: An American Autopsy
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The place went silent. Except for good ol’ Merle.

“We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street . . .” he sang.


the city crumbling because of sex scandal and political corruption, it was on the verge of bankruptcy. Streetlights were broken or shut off for no apparent reason. Garbage went uncollected. Sewers backed up into houses, drowning an entire block in crud. Ambulances were busted down and sometimes didn’t show up for hours to emergency calls. Police cars were a decade old. Meanwhile Kilpatrick and his wife drove around in an expensive Cadillac Escalade paid for by the taxpayers of the country’s poorest city.

So in an attempt to save money, the mayor was trying to force cutbacks on a besieged and beleaguered fire department. One morning, as I sat in the somnolent newsroom, listening to the silence occasionally interrupted by the occasional
tick tick
of an editor’s key strokes, I read an article in the morning
Free Press
where the mayor insinuated that the city firefighters had a bum’s job that consisted mainly of sleeping and eating steak, with the occasional fire thrown in to pass the time.

From my days covering Ground Zero for the
, I learned who firemen were: the closest thing to cowboys that existed anymore. Imagine a man willing to run into a burning building. They had an insular culture and a way of speech and a thousand stories that few ever bother to document until calamity strikes.

Kilpatrick had made a thousand enemies in boots with his comments in the paper, I knew right then. I put on my coat and went to see the man.

Dan McNamara was the typical big-city union boss who appeared to have graduated from the kiss-my-ass school of negotiation.

“If the mayor thinks it’s so easy working the back of a truck, have him call me,” said McNamara, president of the firefighters’ association. Silver-haired and mustachioed, he sat behind a large desk with his fingertips pressed together, pantomiming the diamond shape of a vagina. “I’ll arrange it so that pussy can do some real work.”

“I’ll do it,” I told him.

“Do what?”

“I’ll tell him he’s a pussy and then
ride on the back of the truck.”

McNamara smiled through his mustache.

* * *

He drove me to the east side where the men assigned to the Squad 3/Engine Co. 23 firehouse work. We pulled up on a block checkerboarded with an inhabited house next to a burnt-out shell, next to an inhabited house, next to a shell and so on, something like a meth addict’s mouth.

In the middle of the street were three rigs and a dozen or so firefighters mopping up a fire in an abandoned house that was next to a tidy little Cape Cod inhabited by an old woman.

The officer in charge that day was Mike Nevin, a balls-out, high-energy guy with a potato nose and an outrageous mullet hairdo—short in the front, party in the back. I imagined that if an ember fell on the long mop hanging over his collar, his head would ignite like a blond Brillo pad.

I could tell right away, Nevin was one of those no-bullshit, take-no-prisoners sort of leaders that men instinctively follow into combat, but by the looks of his troops’ equipment—melted helmets, boots with holes, and coats covered with thick layers of carbon that made them the equivalent of walking matchsticks—these men, it seemed to me, were nothing less than soldiers garrisoned on some godforsaken front. They were fighting an unwinnable war, and it was taking its toll. Detroit was perpetually on fire. The burning couldn’t be stopped.

“You did a good job, boys,” Nevin told the troops. “We saved an old lady’s house. Probably saved her from the homeless shelter. She invited us over for dinner.”

As I was making notes, one of the firemen, a big guy with a shaven soot-stained skull, tapped me on the shoulder.

“Is your name Charlie?”

“Yeah,” I said, surprised someone would recognize me in this obscure corner of the urban desert.

“My name’s Dave. I went to school with your wife’s brother. You remember me?”

I said I did. We got drunk someplace a long time ago. We shook hands.

“Well, welcome home. Such as it is.”

“What the hell happened?”

He gave me an “if I had a nickel” shrug. “I just put ’em out, man. And there’s no lack of work. That’s all I know.”

Nevin walked up. “So you want to be a fireman?”

“No, I just want to watch. See what you see. What happened here?”

He was holding a plastic gas can.

“Arson,” he said. “In this town, arson is off the hook. Thousands of them a year, bro. In Detroit, it’s so fucking poor that fire is cheaper than a movie. A can of gas is three-fifty and a movie is eight bucks, and there aren’t any movie theaters left in Detroit, so fuck it. They burn the empty house next door and they sit on the fucking porch with a forty, and they’re barbecuing and laughing ’cause it’s fucking entertainment. It’s unbelievable. And the old lady living next door, she don’t have insurance, and her house goes up in flames and she’s homeless and another fucking block dies.”

I wrote it all down. I knew there was a story here.

A few days later, I came back to the firehouse to embed myself, like a correspondent tailing a squad of marines in an Afghanistan backwater. We loaded up on a rig and went for a tour. Also on the truck were Jimmy Montgomery, a short, excitable white man; Montgomery’s best friend, Walt Harris, a burly, soft-spoken black man who moonlighted as a Baptist minister; and Jeff Hamm, who had a second career as a nurse.

It was raining lightly and near dusk. The evening had an oily quality about it. Nevin looked out the window with a vacant ten-mile stare.

“Why did I even come to work?” he said to me from the front passenger’s side as we idled at a stoplight, watching a guy in a parka smoke a joint. “You know what it’s like working this job in this city? It’s like those old black-and-white movie reels of Vietnam. Like those soldiers waving at the camera, like, ‘Hey, Ma, everything’s cool. Everything’s all right.’ You know? And there’s a pile of corpses behind him and he’s smoking a joint and playing cards. ‘Hey, Ma, love ya. See ya in eight months.’ I mean, it’s whacked. Somebody here’s gonna eat it. Somebody in this truck is going to get seriously hurt, sooner rather than later. This city’s burning all day and all night long and we got shit equipment—I mean, look at these boots. And nobody gives a shit.”

He put a finger through a hole in the shank.

“It’s just a matter of time until somebody goes down. You know? Just a matter of time, because it can’t keep up like this.”

At the wheel, Harris, the minister, chuckled, then turned on a side street and was delayed by a drug deal through a car window.

“Look at this shit,” Nevin continued, watching a faded crack head walk away. “Look at that guy. He’s a forgotten person who’s forgotten himself. It’s sad. What else has he got? They talk about New Orleans and Katrina. But there’s no airdrop here. There’s no relocation plan or rebuilding money. They left people like him here to survive and what else has he got?”

Nevin sprang from this neighborhood. His grandfather, a Lithuanian immigrant, slapped bumpers on cars at the Packard plant. His father was born a few blocks from the firehouse and retired after serving nearly thirty years in the department. And now Nevin was working here too, trying like all the brothers in the firehouse to keep the remnants and its people from burning to the ground. “I love this place, this neighborhood, these people,” he said. “I’m angry with the people in power who are supposed to lead and don’t.”

We turned by a Lutheran cemetery on the way back to the firehouse. An earthmover was there, but instead of placing a casket
the ground, it was taking one

“What’s going on there?” I asked.

“They’re removing the dead,” Harris said without irony. “Taking him to the suburbs.”

“No, that can’t be true,” I said. Firemen hazing the gullible reporter?

“Suit yourself,” Harris said.

I wrote a note to myself on the back of the notebook to check it out later. White flight. Black flight. Now dead flight.

Harris himself had moved to the suburbs of Sterling Heights—the city north of Warren and the Eight Mile border—finding it too difficult to raise his children in the city among the people he loved. And the people in his new neighborhood—his white neighborhood—had problems with a black man moving in.

“It is too hard raising kids in the city anymore. And then when I moved up there it was sort of a ‘there goes the neighborhood’ feeling at first,” Harris said of being the only black man on his block. “But it got better once they got to know me.”

Harris turned the rig left onto East Grand Boulevard, past Kirby Street. The firehouse is located on the city’s east side, near the hulking wreck of the Packard automobile plant that closed in 1956 but which nobody ever bothered to tear down. A square mile of industrial decay, scavengers had descended upon it, ushering in a marathon game of cat and mouse. The scavengers, looking for metal to sell at the scrap yard, light a section of the building on fire. After the firemen dutifully extinguish the blaze, the scavengers return to help themselves to the neatly exposed girders and I-beams that form the skeleton of the structure. From the rig, you can see the missing roofs and walls and forty-foot holes in the ground and the trees growing inside, and the whole thing looks like a gigantic, cancerous atrium.

“It’s like we work for the fucking scrappers,” Nevin said.

A walkway that arches over Grand Boulevard, connecting the south portion of the plant to the north, holds a marquee with missing letters, spelling out an appropriate epitaph:

A block away is the firehouse. Inside is a perpetual pot of coffee, which the men stand around while waiting for the next run, and they don’t get to the bottom of their cups before the next run comes.

The radio box bleated incessantly like a colicky sheep across a city constantly in flames.

“Ladder 16, please respond.”

The response:

“Ladder 16, out of service.”

Jimmy Montgomery laughed. He laughed every time he heard something like that. We went out and stood on the street corner. Everything seemed broken here: the toilet seat in his firehouse, the city government that pays his check. He stared at the house across the street on East Grand Boulevard, the one with a blue tarpaulin for a roof. He looked at the weeds. The abandoned car. The empty little factories and workingman bars and the bakery where he used to get his bread when he started on the job seventeen years ago.

Even the alarm in the firehouse was broken. And since no one from headquarters had bothered to come out to fix it, one of the boys here jerry-rigged it into some Rube Goldberg mousetrap contraption.

When a call comes to the station, a fax paper rolls out of the printer containing the directions to the fire. So someone had it rigged where the fax paper pushed over a door hinge with a screw mounted on it. The screw touched an electrified metal plate that was wired to the alarm, which completed an electrical circuit. The bell rang. Then the box bleated.

In came a call: A man has tapped into the gas main with a garden hose because he is too poor to warm his children. The hose leaks. The block explodes. They arrive at the neighborhood three minutes later. The place looks like a painting from the hand of Hieronymus Bosch, a landscape of fire and human failing. The firefighters pull the children from the flames and peel a guy’s guts from the jagged window frame where he lies like an old cloth doll. One fireman gets in the ambulance with a kid, holding one hand over her eyes, the other over her shattered femur.

There is a crater where the house used to be.

“Is it ever gonna stop?” Nevin asked no one in particular an hour later through his cheap cigar, nonchalantly, as though the carnage were an everyday occurrence. “Children are dying in this city because they’re too fucking poor to keep warm. Put that in your fucking notebook.”

I put it in my fucking notebook.

Eight men returned to the firehouse with faces of mud, dirty and tired, and before they knew it, the box was bleating again. This time, it was a run-of-the-mill house fire in a city with 62,000 vacant homes. They jumped into the rigs and were off in seconds, barreling down Mt. Elliott Avenue. Motorists didn’t even bother to move to the side. The siren had become a nuisance here.

And when the firefighters arrived at the abandoned place, what they saw was a table that had been set for supper, eyeglasses left on top of a book. The cupboard was filled with cans and cereals. It was as though the owner went out for a walk with the dog two decades ago and never came home.

It was then I began to realize who the Detroit firefighter is. He is the man holding Nero’s fiddle.

It seemed to me that by virtue of the job, Nevin and Harris and their firefighting brethren were uniquely situated to witness the backward march of a great city and the fight to keep its living people from the ash bin of history.

* * *

The depth of Detroit’s problems was burned into the national consciousness decades ago in the early eighties when, inexplicably, the city would burst into flames each year in a pre-Halloween Mardi Gras of arson and destruction known as Devil’s Night.

There were 810 arsons reported in 1984, as Detroit became a porch light to every fire bug across the country, a tourist destination for lunatics and thrill seekers. And only now that I was home did I realize my family was a victim of them too.

My mother’s flower shop was located on East Jefferson Avenue, the main thoroughfare that runs eastward from downtown Detroit out to the exclusive Grosse Pointe hamlets.

The shop sat on the lip of a black ghetto that used to be inhabited by working-class whites. The plate-glass windows of the flower shop had bars over them, and the view from the street was blocked by plants so that stickup men might not see that my mother was working alone, which she often was. She’d been held up at gunpoint several times. She stayed in that stinking spot for many years, sticking it out, making it work, struggling to feed five kids between marriages. She was one of those people who were irrationally connected to the city, until one autumn evening just before Halloween, a crazy man lit the place on fire.

BOOK: Detroit: An American Autopsy
9.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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