Motor City Burning

Bill Morris’ Motor City Burning offers a compelling fictional account of a city that more than any other stands as a metaphor for America’s intertwined problems with race and urban-industrial decline. The book is also a great crime novel, focusing around Frank Doyle, a tough, dogged, and unexpectedly cultured white homicide detective, and Willie Bledsoe, an equally compelling black former civil rights activist, current busboy, aspiring writer, and very possibly, murderer.

Set in the immediate aftermath of the riots in Detroit – Motor City Burning paints a picture of a city still reeling from urban violence  that was much more intimate than I had understood before reading the book. It’s hard to shake the image of Helen Hull, the innocent victim in the fictional murder at the center of the plot, standing in a lit window as “a beautifully silhouetted target” for the widespread rooftop sniper fire that seems to have accompanied the rioting. This was more than just a city on fire, as the media slogan used to describe the urban unrest of the late 1960’s would have it. Instead, one gets the sense in Morris’ book that the events in Detroit during the summer of 1967, just months after I was born, were not so much a riot as a doomed, chaotic, often ugly revolt against an equally ugly race-based power structure.

Given this backdrop Morris manages the tricky feat of painting a sympathetic portrait of a black sniper and a white cop, two potentially very unsympathetic figures. In a direct echo of today’s urban politics, Morris is at pains to make clear the police’s culpability in the intensity of the violence that swept Detroit. “Doyle believed it was racist cops like Czapski, as much as any other single factor, that explained the fury of last summer’s riot. The brothers were sick and tired of being called ‘boy’ and ‘honey baby’ and worse. They were tired to getting stopped for no reason, of getting love taps from police flashlights, getting their justice served up in alley court.”  While Morris’ Doyle is a model cop and an all around stand-up guy, his former squad car partner, the aforementioned Czapski, spews racist slurs and delights in meting out petty acts of sadism, including one of those flashlight “love taps” to Willie’s head for the crime of what we would now call driving while black. That Willie may in fact be guilty of a very real crime seems almost beside the point, unless of course you remember the image of Helen Hull silhouetted in a window.  (For more thoughts on the issue of urban criminal justice policy, see my review of David Kennedy’s Don’t Shoot.)

But Morris’ book, set mostly in the relatively peaceful aftermath of the riots, is not merely a chronicle of violence and racial tension. At root it is also extended love letter to the sprawling, tough, powerful Detroit of Morris’ youth. This was a place whose prosperity, to take up theme of this blog, came on the backs of men and families whose lives revolved around hard, repetitive, dehumanizing, dangerous factory labor. And yet it seems from Morris’ account to be a place that, to borrow a currently tarnished metaphor, may really have looked like a gritty American melting pot.  Morris portrays Detroit as place of opportunity and creativity (Motown records figures prominently in the book) for myriad different Americans – southern black, southern hillbilly, Polish, Arab, Irish, Italian, and many others. His book makes clear that great deal of human and social potential was unnecessarily wasted during Detroit’s decades of decline, and makes the reader hope that recent reports of an arts-based turnaround the motor city turn out to be grounded in more than just wishful thinking.