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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Reverend Franklin made his bones as a Detroiter and died as many do. In 1979, he was shot during a home break-in. He suffered a painful death. He was placed on a respirator but did not succumb to his wounds until six years later.

That church too felt drab and sick, the sidewalk littered with garbage, the building sandwiched between vacant lots, a gas station and a liquor store.

Before it was New Bethel, the church had been the Oriole Theater, once the headquarters of the Church of Universal Triumph, the Dominion of God Inc. That congregation was led by a man known as Prophet Jones.

During the 1940s and ’50s, Jones was one of the most successful showman-evangelists in the country, one of the few black preachers who broke the color barrier and was broadcast nationally by the white-controlled media. The
Saturday Evening Post
dubbed him the “Messiah in Mink.”

Bejeweled and flamboyant, Jones was something of a Little Richard of the cloth. He was said to have four hundred suits, four thousand bottles of cologne and four Cadillac cars, with a separate chauffeur for each. His congregants, both black and white and mostly Southerners alienated by Detroit’s culture of concrete and steel, were happy to keep the Prophet in riches. He preached from a golden throne and was said to be able to hear God in his right ear, on which he wore a diamond earring to better help the reception.

Prophet Jones’s main theological precept was that come the year 2000, all living humans would become immortal. In order to reach the millennium, Jones decreed that “Women should wear girdles, long enough to keep the stomach and buttocks from protruding.” He also stipulated that they should wear red nail polish in the evenings and take laxatives once or twice a week.

The fall came quickly for the Prophet, who in 1956 was charged with making homosexual overtures to an undercover police officer. He beat the rap, but his reputation never recovered. Jones did not come to realize his own prophecies. He died in 1973, the year Coleman Young was elected mayor.

As the sun set, I arrived at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, a jazz club on Livernois near the Detroit side of Eight Mile Road, the place my wife’s parents used to frequent in the eighties.

The bar was full, despite the fact that the joint stank like a sewer pipe. Conyers was seated in the back, near the stage.

It was early summer, and she sported a brassy, low-cut cream-colored top with a tight skirt, exotic stockings and high heels. The way she was stuffed together, it looked like she was wearing a girdle. She was definitely wearing red nail polish.

I ordered bourbon and soda. She ordered tea and lemon and a Caesar salad and a cup of soup. She said she was fasting, trying to clean her intestines out and lose weight.

We made small talk.

“You know what I’d like to do after politics?” she asked.

“What’s that?”

“I’d like to design brassieres for plus-size women,” she said.

“I’m sure there’s a big future in that,” I said, amused.

She batted her eyelashes coquettishly and crossed her legs with a grand gesture, leaning one side of her hindquarters sweetly toward me.

“The congressman and I don’t spend much time together anymore, but that’s our marriage and it works for us,” she cooed.

I ordered another.

That’s when Monica got to the point. She complained that I had set her up. I assured her it was not a setup, that Keiara Bell had her own mind and that it was doing Conyers little good to be complaining in the press that a thirteen-year-old was disrespectful of her rank.

“Okay, can we speak as adults?” I asked.

“Go ’head then,” she answered with a barracuda smile.

“What the fuck is the matter with you?” I asked. “You’re fighting with a kid.”

The smile vanished. Her teeth appeared. I was ready for the nails and a drink in my face.

“She was a plant,” Conyers hissed.

“She was not a plant, she was right,” I said. “Look. If I were you, I would go on camera and say the girl reminds you of yourself, that growing up in this town, you have to develop a thick skin. You say that she has taught you something about civility and that you are proud of her.”

It was good, free advice. Conyers should have taken it.

Instead, she smiled coyly again. She straightened her shoulders, leaned over the table and patted my chest. Her hand wandered down my torso and lingered on my testicles. She gave a gentle little squeeze.

“Are you wearing a wire?” she asked.

“No,” I said, momentarily stunned. “That’s a roll of quarters. But I’m flattered. I really am.”

This couldn’t be happening, I thought. Girdles and red nail polish and intestinal cleansing and bar fights and sewer pipes and wiretaps and eternal life and decay all around. It was insanity. It was outrageous. It was a reporter’s wet dream. Where the hell was I?

I paid the bill and left.

The sign outside said


of the universe in New York are the moneymen of Wall Street, then in Detroit they are the automobile executives. We did not question the decisions they made concerning business. The union man might have pushed him for an extra buck, but the car executive knew what was what.

Until we found out he didn’t.

The realization came on September 15, 2008, as gasoline was selling at $4.24 a gallon and the Dow Jones Industrial Average tumbled 504 points. That’s when Lehman Brothers—the august Wall Street investment bank—announced it was bankrupt.

The bankruptcy set off a chain of events that showed the country was not in the midst of a business cycle. It was an epoch. Americans were living on a bubble of credit and stock market gambling, and when the marker came due, they could not pay.

International currency markets panicked, access to credit dried up, Wall Street teetered and the Big Three—unable to sell their gas-guzzling hounds—were on the verge of ruination.

By October, with the bankers lined up in Washington with their hats in hand, the national debt clock in Times Square froze at $9,999,999,999,999.99

It had run out of numbers.

The Wall Street collapse was fueled by the trading of exotic bits of financial paper. But Detroit was different. We made cars—not paper and false promises. What happened? How did Detroit—the most iconic of American cites—become a cadaver?

Detroit’s slide was long and inexorable. You might blame it on white racism and legal mortgage covenants that barred blacks from living anywhere but the most squalid ghettos.

You might blame postwar industrial policies that sent the factories to the suburbs, the rural South, and the western deserts.

You might blame the city’s collapse on the 1967 riot and the white flight that followed. You might blame it on Coleman Young—the city’s first black mayor—and his culture of corruption and cronyism.

You could blame it on the gas shocks of the seventies, which opened the door to foreign car competition.

You might point to the trade agreements of the Clinton years that allowed American manufacturers to leave the country by the back door.

You might blame the UAW, which demanded things like near-full pay for idle workers, or the myopic management, who instead of saying no took their piece and simply tacked the cost onto the price of the car.

Then there is the thought that Detroit was simply a boomtown that went bust, a city that began to fall apart the minute Henry Ford began to build it. The car made Detroit and the car unmade Detroit. Detroit was built in some ways to be disposable. The auto industry allowed for sprawl. It allowed a man to escape the smoldering city with its grubby factory and steaming smokestacks.

Detroit actually began its decline in population during the 1950s, precisely the time that Detroit—and the United States—was at its peak. And while Detroit led the nation in per capita income and home ownership, automation and the beginnings of foreign competition were forcing automobile companies like Packard to shutter their doors. That factory closed in 1956 and was left to rot, pulling down the east side, which pulled down the city.

By 1958, 20 percent of the Detroit workforce was jobless. Not to worry, the city, rich with manufacturing revenue, had its own welfare system—a decade before Johnson’s Great Society. The city provided health care, fuel, and rent and gave $10 every week to adults for food; $5 to children. Word of the free milk and honey made its way down South and the poor “Negros” and “Hillbillies” flooded in by train. If it wasn’t for them, the city’s population would have sunk further than it did.

Even the downtown train station—the Michigan Central Rail Depot—was ill fated from birth. Three weeks after it opened in 1913, Henry Ford announced the $5 workday, causing the ascension of Detroit and the inevitable bust of the train in America.

People came from Poland, from Ireland and from the sharecroppers’ shacks of Mississippi. The American middle class was born here.

And the Michigan Central Rail Depot has been set upon by vandals. The mahogany banisters have been looted, as have the copper wiring, the marble walls. In a city full of ghost skyscrapers, the depot is Detroit’s
Flying Dutchman
, its gravestone, a mocking symbol of its lost greatness. On a clear day, you can see straight over the river to Canada, right through the windowless building.

* * *

But whatever the reason for the nation’s collapse, you couldn’t blame a Detroiter for thinking it all revolved around him.

And so on November 19, 2008, the Big Three executives—Rick Wagoner of General Motors, Alan Mulally of Ford and Robert Nardelli of Chrysler, along with Ron Gettelfinger, president of the United Auto Workers—arrived in Washington to beg for a handout. Bailout backlash had not yet erupted. But when the executives from the Big Three took their seats before Congress, people caught on to the concept. Cars. Everybody understood cars. Greedy Executives and Lazy Unions. Who didn’t understand that?

Sitting before the Senate Banking Committee and receiving a withering grilling, the auto chiefs showed just how incompetent they were.

When Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, known as “Senator Nissan” because of the large Japanese auto plant in his state, asked the executives what they planned to do with the $25 billion they were asking for, the executives didn’t have an answer.

“I just want the numbers,” Corker said.

After some mush-mouthed ramblings, Wagoner lamely explained that they really didn’t have a plan and that they were basically going to divide the money up according to the market share of each company.

With $12 billion, Wagoner said, “We think we have a good shot to make it through next year.”

They were laughed out of the conference room.

They were sent away empty-handed and told to come back in two weeks with a plan. They had come to Washington in private jets. The fact that they had better come back by automobile was an unspoken commandment. The Dow plummeted 445 points.

Watching the spectacle inside the
Detroit News
, the editors and reporters who had built the paper’s credibility on automobile coverage were stunned. Had Detroit’s industrial prestige slipped this far? I wasn’t surprised. Of course it had. And so too had the respect for the working-class life. I learned that lesson when I was a cub reporter at the
New York Times
. There was a strike in the mid-nineties at an auto-parts plant in Flint, Michigan. There was a story in the paper that day about bum union guys spending their strike time shopping and touring around the lakes in their power boats, like it was a sin to have a power boat.

“Since when is it bad to have a boat and make good money?” I asked a
editor with a weak chin and a big brain. He put his palm to his nose and said: “Those people had about this much foresight. They should have seen the writing on the wall and gone to college.”

“If we were all poets,” I said to him, “we’d starve on words.”

Adolph Mongo knew it too. I got a call from him just as Rep. Barney Frank was lecturing the Car Guys on how to run a business.

“Shiiiiit,” Mongo cackled. “They went up to Washington thinking they were the executives of the Big Three. Turns out they were nothing but Detroit. They don’t realize that Detroit is a code word for nigger and they ain’t nothing but niggers anymore. Incompetence ain’t exclusive to the black folks in this country.”

Mongo was right. Incompetence wasn’t a black Detroit invention: Wall Street had taken the world’s financial structure to the edge. The White House had us involved in two wars of incompetence paid for with a credit card. The Big Three couldn’t keep their books straight. California was drowning in $150 billion of debt. Timothy Geithner, soon to be the new treasury secretary, didn’t pay his taxes. There was not one Detroit Democrat involved in any of that.

* * *

The Big Three executives, who had been so unceremoniously booted out of Washington in November, returned to the capital in December with a more specific plan, which had now jumped from $25 billion to $34 billion. And they didn’t fly the corporate jets this time.

Ford and General Motors executives made a big deal of the occasion by driving to Washington in their hybrid vehicles. Mulally of Ford came in an Escape SUV hybrid. Wagoner of General Motors was chauffeured in a Chevy Malibu hybrid.

Poor Bob Nardelli of Chrysler. The pickings were slim. Chrysler, known more for the styling of its bodies than for its technological savvy, sent Nardelli to Washington in an Aspen Hybrid SUV, about the only “green” thing Chrysler had to offer. Problem is, it was a terrible vehicle and unreliable.

Despite being partially powered by a battery, the Aspen ran on a V-8 Hemi and got less than twenty miles to the gallon. The charging system was flawed and difficult to service.

His driver was Mike Carlisle, the homicide detective who had retired in disgust from the Detroit Police Department just a month earlier.

The media was invited to snap bon voyage photographs in Detroit, which they dutifully filed. What they did not see—and what Carlisle later told me—was that there were two engineers tailing Nardelli at a discreet three-mile buffer, carrying laptops and a trunk full of tools in case the Aspen broke down. Even Chrysler didn’t trust their products.

For a second time things didn’t go well in the capital for Detroit’s Car Guys—who mercifully arrived without incident. Sen. Richard Shelby, from Alabama—whose state is host to the Korean Hyundai, Japanese Honda and German Mercedes-Benz assembly plants—grilled the executives with joyous hostility as they sat before the Senate Banking Committee.

“Did you drive or did you have a driver?” he asked. “Did you drive a little and ride a little? And secondly, I guess you are going to drive back?”

For the second trip in a row, the executives got nothing and were sent back to Detroit. The Dow plummeted 444 points that day.

Leaving the Capitol building, Nardelli climbed back into his unreliable $50,000 SUV for the ten-hour return drive home. But they had not even cleared the Lincoln Memorial when Nardelli, according to Carlisle, instructed him to drive to the airport, where the corporate jet was waiting.

Carlisle drove the Aspen back home to Detroit.

On December 15, President Bush, not wanting the collapse of the auto industry as another black mark on his legacy, extended a $17 billion bailout to GM and Chrysler.

The Dow closed down 26 points that day, and Chrysler announced that the Aspen Hybrid SUV would no longer be built.

BOOK: Detroit: An American Autopsy
4.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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