Charlie LeDuff on the decline of his hometown of Detroit

A street sign showing Detroit's city limits is shown near where a former Chrysler McGraw glass plant is being torn down along Ford Road in Detroit. (Paul Sancya/Associated Press)

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First aired on Day 6 (02/23/13)

Last week in Michigan, a state review team made official what people living in Detroit have known for a long time: Motor City has serious financial problems. This review brings the city of Detroit one step closer to getting a state-assigned Emergency Financial Manager to help deal with Detroit's estimated $14 billion in long-term liabilities and hundreds of millions in cash shortfalls. Financial problems and corruption scandals are part of Charlie LeDuff's everyday life as a reporter in his hometown of Detroit. The Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist spoke with Brent Bambury on Day 6 recently about his new book about the troubled city, Detroit: An American Autopsy.

After a decade of working for the New York Times as a reporter, LeDuff returned home to Detroit to find a place he has called "empty, forlorn, and pathetic." LeDuff's passion for his hometown is equaled by his tenacity reporting on the city's collapse -- and the impact that has on the people who live there. In his book Detroit, LeDuff rifles through the wrecking of the city as well as his own family, and the result is an intriguing combination of urban history and memoir.

LeDuff's driving question about Detroit is an obvious -- and important -- one: What happened to this place? "Who were our ancestors who built it, and what did we do to it?" he says. "Almost every day I feel a pang of guilt."

The book contains intimate and often painful details of LeDuff's family life in Detroit. He felt the book wouldn't be complete otherwise. "We're part of the city too, from its founding...[and] if I'm going to write about the community, you need to understand how the community affected my family and how we're interwoven in it," he says. "If I don't do that, what good is this book? Who the hell am I, just some guy who flew in here, wrote some stories and left?"

detroit-cover-110.jpgLeDuff's book begins with the image of a dead man encased in ice at the bottom of an elevator shaft in an abandoned building. It's the kind of chilling image that people have been associating with Detroit for years. And with the subtitle "An American Autopsy," does LeDuff think that Detroit is, in fact, dead? "No. It's close, except for the fact that we have several hundred thousand souls living there and three or four million on the outskirts," he says. "We can save ourselves, but we need to look at the gangrenous parts, because that's what's killing the whole thing."

Does Detroit need outside help to be resuscitated? "Sure, wherever we can get it, man," says LeDuff. "Because we can't do it ourselves and we're broke." But so are many other cities in America. Although Detroit is one of the most dramatic examples of a city in extreme decline, LeDuff doesn't see the city as an outlier. "Everybody is now looking at my city saying 'is that what's in store for us," he says.

Despite the bleak portrait, LeDuff doesn't think Detroit is a hopeless case. "From decay comes growth," he says. "I see mothers trying to raise kids, I see people going to work...I see humanity. We're alive. We're not going to walk into the Detroit River and drown."