White grad student inserts himself into the lives of at-risk black youth in a part of Detroit more postapocalyptic than most.
It’s one thing for social scientists to parachute into bombed-out urban districts and write movingly of the ills they discover, but quite another for Bergmann to note about one of his adolescent subjects that the boy was locked up for possibly shooting someone on a corner “not far from where I lived.” It’s this personal engagement that gives such resonance to his account of several years spent monitoring the lives of two teenage drug dealers. Bergmann met Dude Freeman and Rodney Phelps in 2000 at a Detroit juvenile detention facility where he had “an unpaid internship [that] allowed me virtually free movement through the highly restricted institution.” Though he had little in common with these kids, he easily ingratiated himself and became firmly implanted in their chaotic lives, thanks to a disarming sincerity that is among the text’s most winning traits. Bergmann reports on a fluid world, with a sprawl of poor youth floating in and out of the barely structured drug trade omnipresent in their napalmed neighborhoods; “getting ghost” is the evocative Detroit slang for their elusive movements. Dude is a lesser figure here, skipping out on his family and probation officer not long after being released from detention. Rodney, the kind of low-achieving charmer social workers gravitate toward, does a good job of seducing the mostly clear-eyed Bergmann. By the end, with Rodney facing a murder charge, the author seems oblivious to the fact that his subject is most likely a cold killer. Bergmann backdrops his personal narrative with evocative pocket histories of Detroit’s urban decline and the racial texture of its modern social fabric—the universally Arab and Albanian shop owners, the faraway white suburbs, the tension between poor and middle-class blacks.
Not just illustrative and emotive, this pummeling, immersive social text is grounded in street-level reportage and seeded with wisdom.