Detroit: An American Autopsy Discussion Questions


Detroit: An American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff

“Go ahead and laugh at Detroit because you are laughing at yourself.”

-Charlie LeDuff, Author of Detroit: An American Autopsy

Discussion questions:

1) The Strong Towns blog author, Charles Marohn, states: “For me, Detroit is both a fascinating and scary place. Fascinating because it is a glimpse into America’s future and scary because the future is grim. I’ve long held that Detroit is not some one off place that we can discount but that it actually represents the logical outcome of the Suburban Experiment.”

LeDuff opens his book with the same basic argument. We can pretend that Detroit is a case of corruption or incompetence or racial issues or globalization—and there are certainly many nuances and complexities—but at the end of the day, what has happened and is happening in Detroit has a lot of commonality with nearly every other city in this country.

Is Detroit an anomaly, or the canary in the coal mine regarding the future of many American Cities? See also Stockton Bankruptcy Decision Only The Beginning,

2) Today’s Detroit mirrors the conditions of an undeveloped nation. Call the police, they don’t show up. If they do, it takes thirty minutes or more. Same with the fire department. People who can hire their own security. The rest carry weapons and travel in groups. Money is allocated for fixing things like the cracked floor at the fire hall, but nobody knows where it went.

Should the rest of the nation contribute to prevent this pocket of extreme poverty from erupting in our midst? What are the limits of our federalist system? What about the state of Michigan?

3) What did you think of LeDuff’s writing style? The journalism as pose-poetry style? The use of expletives? LeDuff’s sometimes harsh descriptions of people.

4) LeDuff asks the big questions up front. How did a city which was once America’s richest become it’s poorest? How did a city which once housed above one million souls shrink down to 700,000? There is another cottage industry which seeks to analyze this decline, and various suspects include the mayoral tenures of Coleman Young, race riots, institutional racism, free-trade agreements, outsourcing, oil prices, corporate mismanagement. LeDuff focuses on two of the more primal instincts: flight and greed.

Do you think the book was informative in addressing how Detroit ended up in the present situation? Was the book informative in general?

5). What role in the story does Detroit’s unique history and “traditions” hold in its demise? For instance, there is Devil’s Night; the fact the army has occupied the city three times, the 1967 race riot, and its history of corruption.

6). Detroit’s recent history is one of flights. There was white flight, (and the richer blacks fled too), then industrial flight, and also brain drain (Graduates from Ann Arbor’s University of Michigan are not likely to live in their home state again). Now there is ‘dead flight’, where those who can afford it exhume their relatives and move them to safer eternal resting grounds in the suburbs, so they will not have to endure the long trek out to the decayed inner center. There are three kinds of people left: those who cannot leave, out of duty or loyalty (the firemen and police), those who cannot leave because they are too poor to do so, and the thieves.

What do you do with a city with a population too small to support its infrastructure and overhead? Is it permissible for a city to die?

7). The book relates the tale of the importance of beavers to the city’s early growth. All beavers on the Detroit River disappeared in the early part of the 20th Century, only to be recently spotted on the river for the first time in eighty years. Is this a positive development? Are there any positive aspects to Detroit’s current situation?

8). What policy recommendations would you offer if made Mayor of Detroit?



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