By Luke Bergmann
(The New Press, 315 pages, $27.95)
A portrait of Detroit as seen through the eyes of two young drug dealers.
Crowned as the arsenal of democracy in World War II, Detroit seemed to have everything going for it -- a strategic location on the Great Lakes waterway, a thriving auto industry, well-paying jobs and the legacy of superb city planning: magnificent avenues and parks, palace-like public buildings, striking commercial architecture and handsome residential housing in dozens of thriving neighborhoods.
How much things have changed. Detroit today is so deeply depressed economically and so permeated by its illegal drug trade that it is now perfectly apt to tell the city's story from the point of view of two young black drug dealers. This is what Luke Bergmann sets out to do in "Getting Ghost." The title mingles a street phrase -- "getting ghost" means to disappear from the neighborhood or to float in and out of the drug trade or simply to die -- with a metaphorical reference to Detroit's ghostly past.
"Nothing more clearly illuminates and animates the social and symbolic significance of drug dealing on the streets of Detroit," writes Mr. Bergmann, "than the fiery, deadly, mortifying, and exultant history of the city's racial and class politics." One might expect, from such a comment, yet another attempt to blame anonymous social forces for wasted lives. But Mr. Bergmann is far too fine and truthful an observer to succumb to ideological platitudes or easy explanations.
His tale starts in the old black neighborhood of Paradise Valley, where he now lives and where, he notes, Aretha Franklin first performed publicly. (Oddly, he doesn't mention that her father's acclaimed church was bulldozed in the 1960s by urban renewal, despite the Rev. C.L. Franklin's furious opposition.) After the funeral of a young person from the neighborhood -- the "mourners looked like lost children" -- Mr. Bergmann heads to the juvenile detention center where the two main figures in this narrative live.
Dude Freeman is a quiet boy from the East Side, in contrast to Rodney Phelps, the "life of the proverbial party on his unit, bright and noisy in a way that seemed reminiscent of his West Side neighborhood." Both young men have been in and out of detention for years. Their lives have centered on the street drug trade, which has blurred the lines between childhood and adulthood and shaped their expectations about life (short) and death (violent).
What plays almost no role for either of them is an institution that Americans tend to think of as universal -- the public schools. The Detroit schools are such a disaster by almost any standard -- ugly, virtually broke, extraordinarily dangerous and educationally ineffective -- that more than three-fourths of their black male students drop out of high school before graduating.
Dude, who had been briefly hopeful about education as a way out of his miserable life, violates his probation by refusing to attend his assigned school. As soon as he sees the grim orange buildings, we are told, he knows that he has been consigned to failure, for his is a "skipping school," so dysfunctional that no one is expected to show up regularly. When a school official seems to take particular interest in Dude, promising to watch out for him daily, Mr. Bergmann is himself hopeful -- until he calls the next day and finds out that the official too has "skipped," calling in sick.
The limits on the futures of Dude and Rodney -- moving as they do between petty drug dealing and institutionalized detention -- is thrown into relief by a parallel universe within their own neighborhoods: the small businesses owned mostly by Arabs (and almost never by African-Americans). The near total destruction of Detroit's neighborhood retail business by the 1967 riots -- what wasn't burned soon closed anyway -- has never really been reversed. It is true that bleak new businesses have arisen -- gas stations with convenience stores, liquor stores, dollar stores. Nearly all are architecturally hostile, with clerks and proprietors barricaded behind glass partitions. None offers the likes of Dude or Rodney much opportunity for upward mobility.
Berry Gordy Jr. famously began pulling his Motown Records out of Detroit shortly after the riots -- but so did nearly every other black business proprietor who had any choice. The result is an African-American city without African-American-owned businesses. Historian Gerald Early regards this fact as Detroit's great tragedy, noting that Motown had grown out of an entrepreneurial urban black culture that had itself spawned such enterprises as jazz clubs, radio stations, beauty parlors, restaurants and clothing stores. Of course, an earlier Detroit "ghost" -- coming before the riots -- was urban renewal, the notorious government effort to shift around urban populations. In Detroit, it flattened the primary black commercial strip to build a freeway.
Mr. Bergmann offers no cheery prognosis -- not even the vague possibility of a better tomorrow. His story ends grimly enough. Dude is found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for killing a man and is sentenced as an adult to a minimum of 10 years in the state penitentiary. Rodney, who had been trying to turn his life around by starting a car wash, is murdered in a hail of bullets, presumably by associates in the drug trade. The girlfriends of both young men struggle on, raising children, caring for troubled relatives, trapped in their neighborhoods, perpetuating a communal downward spiral.
A Detroit Free Press reporter, Barbara Stanton, once wrote of the city's troubles: "Instead of a single, stupendous explosion, there is a steady relentless corrosion." "Getting Ghost" allows us to see such corrosion working its way through individual lives and, it would seem, through the very soul of a city.
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