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In Drug Underworld, Researcher Finds City's 'Soul'

Luke Bergmann is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health.
Luke Bergmann is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health.

Luke Bergmann didn't have much trouble ingratiating himself as a researcher with Dude and Rodney, two young drug-dealing Detroiters in 2000. "Remember, dog," Rodney tells Bergmann, "we used to being watched. We always got somebody looking at us, so it really ain't no difference with one more."

When Bergmann (a fellow at the University of California, Berkeley) moved to the Motor City to conduct doctoral work on its narcotics trade, drugs were, he writes, a "mundane fact of life." For thousands of kids, "dealing governed the seasonal cycles of their lives and taught them about the nature and power of the state, capitalism and family." More than school, church or, as Bergmann starkly demonstrates, home, the "spot" — a neighborhood or dealer's de facto drug bazaar — was paramount to one's identity and place in the community.

Getting Ghost is reminiscent in subject and depth of reporting to Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family, her Bronx-based 2003 landmark in immersion journalism. But Bergmann tells a profoundly different tale in a quite different way. Unlike Random Family's fly-on-the-wall technique, which managed to be objective yet achingly moving, Getting Ghost includes in its dramatis personae Bergmann himself, a distinction that adds an element of surprise to the book's social-science intent. Indeed, Bergmann recalls encountering familiar white faces — some former acquaintances from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor — anxiously waiting in the customers' line at some of his subjects' spots. Bergmann's interactions with his subjects — the often rambling musings on the nature of, say, "rawheads" (heroin users) and "dopeheads" (crack users) — are unfettered and fresh, uncomplicated yet fascinating.

Bergmann uses Dude and Rodney to create two separate, spiraling narratives: Dude's east side neighborhood is one petri dish, Rodney's west side community another. In other words, the real protagonist of Getting Ghost is Detroit itself and the vaporous, intangible society — the people, roadways, infrastructures and institutions — at its center. After a dealer's brother is gunned down on Dexter Avenue, he searches for answers and talks about the boulevard with a mix of affection and indifference. "Dexter's done nothing to nobody," he says. "It's just a street. It's just a sign at the end of a pole. It's been there for over a hundred years."

Evocative pieces of poetry such as this can get trampled by Bergmann's dead-on but sometimes overwrought academic analysis: "[The dealers'] devotion to this space, Dexter, and to one another would seem suggestive of a familiar kind of sociospatial delimitation, of the circumscription, boundedness and intimate finitude of their 'set.' "

Still, occasional lapses into jargon can be forgiven in a story so compelling and so determined to illuminate Detroit's darkened "spaces" — its vacant lots, boarded-up and burned-down houses, inadequate juvenile justice systems. As Getting Ghost vividly and tragically illustrates, Detroit is hardening itself with a wicked cynicism, girding against unfulfilled promises with a "that's life" attitude that, Bergmann ironically demonstrates, is now used to write off death.

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Simon Maxwell Apter
Simon Maxwell Apter is assistant editor at Lapham's Quarterly, where he also runs the Web site. His commentaries and reviews have appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, The American Prospect, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is also a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post.