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Detroit’s Problems, Detroit’s Future

Forbes Magazine calls Detroit “America’s Most Miserable City.” What do you do with a city like that? We’re asking Detroiter Charlie LeDuff.

This Oct. 24, 2012, photo shows an empty field north of Detroit's downtown. (AP)

This Oct. 24, 2012, photo shows an empty field north of Detroit’s downtown. (AP)

News flash from Forbes Magazine. Their big new list is out, and the 2013 title of “Most Miserable City in America” goes to … Detroit.

That is hardly a shocker. America’s Motor City has had a long bust. It’s got three times the poverty rate of the country. A gutted, ghostly skeleton of its once-proud self, where people talk about turning city neighborhoods into pastureland.

Detroiter Charlie LeDuff says don’t laugh. You’re next. We’re all going down. Detroiter, preacher, David Alexander Bullock says Motown is coming back.

This hour, On Point: we’re reading the bones of Detroit.

-Tom Ashbrook


Charlie LeDuff, Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter, author of “Detroit: An American Autopsy.” (@charlieleduff)

David Alexander Bullock, Reverend at the Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church in Detroit, president of the Detroit chapter of the Rainbow-Push Coalition.

From Tom’s Reading List

The New York Times “Detroit is one of those taxing places that require you to have an opinion about them. This opinion expresses no mere preference. It amounts to a stance, from which may be inferred your electoral leanings, your racial politics, your union sympathies and the general sunniness of your disposition. The entire city signifies. It can get tiring.”

The Detroit News “City leaders began a last-ditch attempt Wednesday to stave off an emergency manager for the state’s largest city a day after a review team unanimously found a financial crisis exists and urged Gov. Rick Snyder to intervene.”

Excerpt: “Detroit: An American Autopsy”

Excerpted from DETROIT by Charlie LeDuff.  Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Charlie LeDuff, 2013.

Charle LeDuff Golfs Across Detroit


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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Beyond-The-Spectrum/100002263519054 Beyond The-Spectrum

    I lived in Detroit for 3 years in the late 1990s, and it still had a lot going for it–lots of history, flavor, and pride. But I fear its a harbinger for every city/region that puts all its economic eggs in one basket (e.g., the automobile industry).  What is it that they say about building a strong economic portfolio…? “Diversify, diversify, diversify” (your economic base)!  
    Beyond The Political Spectrum</a

    • Al_Kidder

       Just another mining village, but on a larger scale

  • http://wh.gov/IVp4 Yar

    What would happen if Detroit looked seriously at the second amendment and formed a well regulated militia?  Black folks and white folks standing side by side to rid the town of corrupt politicians, drug dealers, cooper thieves, and banksters.  Makes for a great story even if though the bosses would do everything possible to prevent citizens from taking power.  Try writing fiction as a way to show a path forward.  Charlie LeDuff,, I live in a poor rural area, we have similar issues, spread over a large geographical region.  It all goes back to journalism, lose the paper, lose the accountability, lose the country.  We have to find a funding mechanism to preserve the role print media has provided for the past 200 years.  This is the revolution we face.
    Your statement “It is about corrupt politicians and a collapsing newspaper” illustrates the cause and effect relationships.

  • Fiscally_Responsible

    What happened in Detroit over a period of decades was unfortunate, but predictable.  Auto company management took a very short term, arrogant approach to producing and selling autos when it was on top.  It put out poorly designed, unreliable cars, had dealerships that took advantage of customers due to the lack of information that is now available on the internet, did not take imports as a serious threat, refused to improve the engineering and design of the cars, see the need for smaller more gas efficient cars despite their lower profitability, focused on short term profits instead of the long term industrial health, paid ridiculous bonuses to executives, and didn’t manage their costs.  Unions pushed for unsustainable wages and benefits, ridiculously anti-productive work rules to protect cushy jobs, negotiated getting paid for years for doing nothing when they were laid off despite its high costs, and just basic laziness and bad attitudes.  At this point, Detroit needs to slowly work its way back on its own, without reaching into the American taxpayers’ pockets to further subsidize the results of years of stupidity, laziness, short-sightedness, and indifference.  

    • Steve_the_Repoman

      Can you substitute U.S. for Detroit, revise specifics about the auto industry, and view Detroit as the canary in the coal mine?

      • Fiscally_Responsible

        I would generally agree with that.  The mistakes/short-sightedness that we saw in the auto industry also characterized of an array of manufacturing industries across our country, with the same unfortunate results.  

  • Gregg Smith

    It’s so sad to see the results Democrat policies can have when they get a generational foothold.

    • J__o__h__n

      How many of the bad managers who ran GM into the ground were Democrats?

      • Ray in VT

        I’m sure that they all were.

      • Gregg Smith

        I don’t know but they sure were bad managers. Obama fired the CEO.

        • Ray in VT

          So are you for or against that move?

          Let’s see, GM lost $85 billion under Wagoner’s tenure, he was named one of the worst CEOs of 2008 and things got so bad for the company that it had to turn to the U.S. government to save it from bankruptcy.  So why should he have kept his job?  How have they done since then?  $1.19 billion dollar profit last quarter I think.

          • Gregg Smith

            I don’t think it’s the government’s job to fire CEO’s of private companies. We should not have bailed them out.  

    • Ray in VT

      I know, just look how bad the Democrats made the South when they ran it for 100 years.  It’s a good thing that those people got out of the party.

      • Gregg Smith

        The top 10 most miserable places to live are, and have been, run by Democrats with the exception of NYC which sure ain’t Conservative.

        • Ray in VT

          Correction, 10 most miserable cities, and yes, cities have tended to be more liberal and Democratic historically (even when the Democrats were the conservative party).  I find it interesting that the poorest, most uneducated and most obese parts of this country have largely historically been the most conservative.  Detroit is miserable because it has seen such a terrible decline from its prime.  Some places have just bumped along the bottom for 150 years or so, so maybe they just don’t feel so bad about where they are.

  • Steve_in_Vermont

    We’re an optimistic lot. We’ve poured countless amounts of money for decades into education, the “war on drugs”, programs to curb drunk drivers, immigration, etc. We’re even attempting to curb the “gun problem”, all this with a dysfunctional congress. And now, as resources dry up, we’re looking at our major cities in crisis. Perhaps, just perhaps, it’s time we turn the discussion from individual issues to…us. We blame government for so many of our problems, forgetting the government is simply a reflection of who we are and what we (truly) value. But I am not an optimist and suggest that all these issues will continue to worsen until, at some point, they hit a crisis point. Then we’ll see what our real “values” are.

  • William

    It is all self-inflicted destruction by the residents of Detroit.

  • jomuir

    Charlie LeDuff is a Detroiter??? I don’t think he’s lived here for even 10 years. With a little effort you could have found  people who have lived here all their lives and have much to say about Detroit. Also, Detroit is unique in that the surrounding counties have a huge impact on the whole ‘Detroit’ situation.

    Charlie does have some good insights, but is more a showman than a newsman imho. He loves to do silly inane skits to showcase problems in Detroit. Funny but not necessarily helpful in solving problems.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/FEJKSHSD4676PNBDY5TVZ76G3E linda

    i cant believe you are using this guy as an “expert”. have you seen his commentaries? pure sensationalism and negative journalism. unbelievable, tom, unbelievable. 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/FEJKSHSD4676PNBDY5TVZ76G3E linda

    Actually, now why don’t you do a show on Boston and cite his counterpart: VB from the Fox station in Boston as an “expert”. Boston would be insulted to be represented by someone like that, you are winning no friends in Detroit. 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/QMDZ3LH5U2B4GAT7J2HS4TCP6E Jim

    I don’t live in Detroit… but i love Detroit and i hope this city can get back to its feet. i really hope so.

  • http://harvestboston.wordpress.com smh00a

    I’ll tell you what hasn’t worked for Detroit: casinos.

    The urban agriculture projects sound really promising, though. They would create jobs and provide a much-needed products — food — to the urban core and suburbs. Detroit’s future is exciting because it’s sort of a blank slate for economic and societal rebuilding.

    • jomuir

      Spot on about the casinos, they haven’t done anything for Detroit in the long run. 

      But as a Detroiter, I would NEVER eat produce gown on Detroit soil. There’s been too much heavy industry for too many years for me to think the soil’s not contaminated. Also, it’s not a good use of the land as far as real income generation.

      • http://harvestboston.wordpress.com smh00a

        Every city has that problem, jomuir, and there are pretty straightforward workarounds: Raised-beds, soil replacement, rooftop gardens, greenhouses. And the day when growing and selling food becomes “not good use of the land,” I’m throwing in the towel. – Steve

  • http://www.facebook.com/robertlipton Rob Lipton

    Detroit is a modern “gold rush” town, writ large, it’s now becoming a ghost town, tremendously corrupt, racist, class riven, picked apart by very wealthy individual and corporate interests.  And BTW, its the second most violent city over 100,000 in the US, Flint is number 1.   Sad place that is absolutely a harbinger for the future of rust belt US cities.  And really, comparing Detroit to Berlin…………so so sad.   

    • jomuir

      ‘picked apart by very wealthy individual and corporate interests.’ I disagree. Detroit has (mostly) been annihilated from within.

  • DrewInGeorgia

    To me, the singer/songwriter Rodriguez is a walking talking embodiment of Detroit. His story, like Detroit’s, breaks my heart.


  • Bill Bodge

    Take a look at the French Revolution.  Government spending like crazy, nobles don’t want to pay taxes and the commoners under increasing pressure to pay up.  
    We have a depression in Italy, Spain, Ireland and China is having problems with inflation and bad bank loans.  US is borrowing more and more but not investing. Sounds like a recipe for a great future. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/gkeefermcgee Glenn Keefer-Mcgee

      So it’s time for a Reign of Terror?

  • TheDailyBuzzherd

    Reference the situation from afar, “Roger and Me”. That was 1989,
    and even then, it was, “Wow. They are SCREWED.” One thinks,

    “Things aren’t bad. They’re much worse.”

  • William

    “It does not come easy”….very good point Charlie…which made Tom speechless….

  • SickOfTheElites

    The answer is simple Charlie, tell the treasonous corporations that they are going to bring their 2+ trillion dollars in profits they are holding off shore back to this country and pay their 30% taxes on it. And the government can start rebuilding the crumbling infrastructure of this country with that money.

    If they don’t want to do that then their charters to do business in America are revoked.

    Period end of story.

    They will bring the money back to this country and HIRE AMERICANS then they won’t be doing business in this country anymore 

    That’s the answer Charlie.

  • vermontague

    The richest country in the world cannot continue indefinitely dumping $300 million/day in the trashcan of Afghanistan, and simultaneously provide for its people. Congress is a bad joke and refuses to govern. If you think Detroit is bad, beware: it’s coming soon to a neighborhood near you.

  • burroak

    Yes, some of Charlie’s observed realities are bleak, but he realizes they are not absolutes.

  • http://twitter.com/MBumbel marcelo bumbel

    Some food for thought: Windsor, Canada, prosper, next door, has a 77% white population. Detroit has a 8% white population…

  • AS

    This world is full of boom-bust towns. Particularly the US. The most recent boom is going on right now in North Dakota and the biggest bust I can think of in recent memory is Pittsburg after the steel industry fell. What can we learn from this happening over and over? Is there a lesson we can learn from how Pittsburg is turning it around?

    • http://www.facebook.com/oriyah.sandefur Oriyah Yoran Sandefur

      Pittsburgh was a big bust, this is true. And now look how it flourishes, a center of higher education, high tech, and medicine. Young people who used to flee da Burgh for a better life are now returning to make a better life for themselves. I was born was and raised in Pittsburgh, now living in Boston, but my family and I are strongly considering moving back. Detroit should look to Pittsburgh as an example of how to rise above the ashes. It can be done, painfully and over time, but it can be done.

  • J__o__h__n

    It is ironic that the city that produced the cars that destroyed cities in favor of the suburbs is the biggest example of a failed city. 

  • SickOfTheElites

    Hey Dude. It IS GOING TO HAPPEN.

    Why? Peak oil.

    Suck on that DUDE.

  • Roy-in-Boise

    The unfortunate cure for a cities like Detroit is municipal bankruptcy.  Raising the abandoned buildings recreating open-space and simply allowing people to relocate and go where they will. What ever Detroit was is not what it will be. The country and the world is realigning. No city is guaranteed to be in existence forever, geographers and archaeologists study this every day.

  • Ray in VT

    I have Mr. LeDuff’s book right here in front of me, and I have to say that this interview makes it an even more appealing read.  I have a great amount of respect for people who tell it like it is, and Mr. LeDuff is certainly giving out some tough love.

  • burroak

    Kudos to Charle LeDuff for his book; he is writing about an economic cancer that is not an isoloted diagnosis.
    Detroit is one example of a once thriving American city that has been beaten, forgotton, abandoned, dejected……but not defeated. And Charlie captures this with his courageous American spirtit that will persevere, against all odds. 

  • Call_Me_Missouri

    David you just something that is almost right but needs to be extended a bit.  My theory for a long time builds on the “If you build it, they will come” thought…

    If you make Green Technology MANDATORY the job crisis goes away.  If you make it mandatory that every home must generate some percentage of their own electricity through wind / solar or some other green (not renewable, but green) technology then Manufacturing and Installation Jobs would EXPLODE.  If you add to this Weatherization of existing homes and corporate buildings…  My God where would we be!

    Where there is No Market there are No Jobs.

    Where there is No Demand there is No Market.

    There is nothing like GOVERNMENT REGULATION to create Demand for products created by the Private Sector Markets that create Private Sector Jobs.

    People are not going to Weatherize their homes unless they HAVE TO.

    People are not going to install Solar Panels or Wind Turbines on their homes unless they HAVE TO.


    • http://read-write-blue.blogspot.com/ RWB

      Are you serious?  Green jobs are why Spain has a 25% unemployment rate.  

      • Ray in VT

        So if they hadn’t had any sort of green jobs push there then everything would be fine?  Hmmm, that doesn’t get reported in the news.

        • http://read-write-blue.blogspot.com/ RWB

          Spanish economics is an interest of mine.  They have suffered tremendous losses because of poorly conceived investments in “green-jobs” that aren’t really that green.  Parallels can be drawn to what is going on in Falmouth with the windmills there.

        • http://read-write-blue.blogspot.com/ RWB
  • Ray in VT

    It is a shame that On Point did not use this fine song by Flogging Molly that would have been extremely appropriate today:


  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Allen-Shepard/100005095509923 Allen Shepard

    Charles,    Thanks for being a realist. Borrow Lex Luthor’s line from “Superman” “Countries come and go, cities rise and fall – some people are just no damn good. But there *is* only so much land and people will pay through the nose to get it.” 

       Detroit has land.  Detroit has people – blue collar workers. Go for what is labor intensive & hard to export. Creativity, Theme park (cheap land),  call centers, growing mushrooms (legal specialty kind) .

        By creativity I do not mean poets. No offense. They are called “starving” artists for a reason. Manufacturing design and testing. You want a computer geek – hit silicon vally. You want a top model go to holly woood, the other silicone vally. You want to build a prototype of that new ______, come to Detroit. 

    Hope to hear more from you sir. Keep being real. Keep working the numbers. I do see you as an optimist. 

    Kind Regards,

    • Ray in VT

      It is my understanding that Pittsburgh has seen something of a revitalization in recent years following the decline of the steel mills there, so perhaps Detroit can learn some lessons from what happened there.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Spence-Blakely/1251757037 Spence Blakely

    The lady caller who related corruption to low voter turnout nailed it. Apathy breeds corruption. It’s one thing for city officials to honestly try and fail but another to pander and betray. A resurgence can’t occur, until that problem is solved. People Power means people getting involved.

    • http://read-write-blue.blogspot.com/ RWB

      Transparency is the cure to corruption, but only if it is
      coupled with civic pride.  Evidently no one
      cares about Detroit.   

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Spence-Blakely/1251757037 Spence Blakely

        True, but civic involvement is what motivates (motorvates?) transparency.

        • http://read-write-blue.blogspot.com/ RWB

          What motivates secrecy, is corruption and vice.  But if you are openly corrupt and no one cares, or worse still they reward you with high office we end up with what we see in Detroit.

  • Steve_in_Vermont

    It really comes down to peoples definition of community. Is it “What can I do to help, to work to make things better, to get involved?”, or is it “What you got for me, what job, what program, where’s the money?”. And this goes for everyone, everywhere, rural or urban, black or white.

  • patrick jones

    Charlie LeDuff is a member of the same generation that has diagnosed and framed the city’s collapse.  The problem with recent books and media about Detroit is that they assess the circumstance against the same ideologies that reference its collapse.  Urban agriculture definitely is not going to save the city–and that’s the point.  It’s a new city already–in its existing state–and innovating Detroit should be predicated accordingly to what that is.  It’s time for a millenial’s view of Detroit to frame this conversation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    detroit is just another victim of prohibition

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1266410766 Phyllis Craine

    In the early 90′s I went to Detroit just once on a business trip and was shocked at the sight of the miles and miles of blighted abandoned houses   And that was 20 years ago.  Can’t even imagine it now

  • Donn Irving

    Anyone with any travel experience in and around Detroit 30 years or more years ago could see this coming. The fastest growing civil service program (or need) was corrections from court to the ultimate housing unit in the Michigan state slammers. 

    And there’s not a damned thing anyone can do about it. 

    Bulldoze the place. 

  • CathCav

    I like what Patrick Jones says: It’s a new city already.  Work with what is there, not with the historical Detroit.  I was brought up in Detroit during the 60′s when it was thriving.  I look forward to it’s reinvention. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/YouMustBeSatisfied Courtney Attard

    I was disappointed by the lack of representation of actual Detroiters living in the city right now. Charlie LeDuff in no way embodies the true Detroiter though his pessimistic attitude is indicative of the views held by many other older, white suburbanites who are also harboring racial prejudices and living in fear. I’m 24 and live in Ann Arbor, but am in Detroit every weekend for different concerts, art shows, sporting events, and just to hang out. It will be my generation that revitalizes Detroit. Would have been awesome to hear from some of the people working on the forefront of this movement among the younger generations and from some of the older people that have lived in the city their whole lives. I recommend you all listen to Craig Fahle for a better representation of Detroit.

  • ExcellentNews

    Right on, Mr. LeDuff! Detroit and Aspen, CO are the future of America. The 99% idle, poor, desperate, uneducated, dirty, hustling for survival. The 1% snug in their private security estates, wondering what champagne goes best with caviar.

    Why? Simple! Government by the oligarchs for the oligarchs.  Just like the third-world banana republics we compete with. Jobs are outsourced, offshored, or eliminated through automation. Those who drive it (CEOs and corporate owners) and those who fund it (bankers) multiply their wealth hundredfold – with a tax cut to boot. The middle class that made America great – in decline. The political process is poisoned by corporate shills, returning 3000% ROI to their industry captains.

    Better watch some of these National Geographic video to glean valuable survival skills from shantytown and garbage dump dwellers…

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