I errantly asked someone what motorcycle magazine he worked for, thinking him an out-of-work biker/pirate since he looked like the bastard spawn of Sonny Barger and Jean Lafitte—I described him at the time as ‘a leathered scribe with bandito facial hair.’ Part Cajun, part Native-American (he says his Indian name is ‘White Boy’), Charlie was as much performer as reporter, walking around in sleeveless New York Post baseball jerseys, once breaking a wine glass on his head to keep campaign staffers off balance. ‘It’s a trick,’ he told me quietly, ‘the glass is thin up at the top.’
But Charlie was also writing some of the best newspaper feature stories in the country. His beat involved covering what he calls ‘the hole,’ forgotten people in forgotten places.
LeDuff comes across as an ideal guide to Detroit: energetic, committed and deeply sane, despite occasional appearances to the contrary. Also, crucially, he is an experienced, Pulitzer Prize-winning national reporter who chose to return home. Thus, he combines breadth of experience not just with local familiarity, but with local allegiance. Which is to say, with the kind of attachment that can only be bred in the bone.
How did LeDuff end up leaving the Times for Detroit? Labash tells us that
earlier this year, as the nation was roiling and the Detroitification of America was set to explode with the mortgage crisis and massive layoffs, Charlie moved home to work for the Detroit News. ‘I chose them because they chose me… They let me do human,’ he says. At first, I felt sorry for him. After all, who goes back to Detroit willingly to find work these days? There was a notes-from-Siberia feel to the whole enterprise. When I talked to Charlie on the phone, passing on an idle bit of media gossip, then insisting it stay in the cone of silence, he’d say, ‘Who am I going to tell, Matt? I’m in Detroit.’
But I stopped feeling sorry for him when his pieces started arriving in my inbox like a steady drip. Charlie was back in ‘the hole’ with a vengeance.
In fact, the Standard piece is as much about urban journalism as it is about the city itself. Listen to LeDuff here:
One night over dinner, Charlie admits that he knows most people think he’s gone back to a dying newspaper in a dying town. But he feels he has work to do here. Not the kind of work that makes Gawker. Real work. He’s always wanted to write about ‘my people,’ as he calls them—Detroiters in the hole—but he wasn’t ready before. Now he is.
The conversation continues:
He says there has to be room for the kind of journalism ‘where it’s not a fetish, where it’s not blaxploitation, where you are actually a human being with a point of view. The city is full of good people, living next to s—.’ But most media-types don’t bother to ask since they view those people as ‘dumb, uneducated, toothless rednecks. They’re ghetto-dwelling blacks. Right? They’re poor Mexicans. They’re a concept, not a people.’
At this point you may be wondering whether you shouldn’t just read LeDuff. And you should—try this or this for starters—but stick with Labash too. He demonstrates a sharp eye and keen empathy as he hangs around with LeDuff and friends, and then branches out on his own.
In fact, you are in for a long ride. The article goes on for seventeen pages. But, impressively, it is never boring. We give credit not just to Labash for that but also to the Standard, for providing the space and allowing for so many photos. More than 10,000 words unscroll around excellent photographs, several by local photographer and artist Randy Wilcox. Wilcox, as Labash puts it, “combs the ruins of Detroit.” And out of these ruins come photos like: