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:
Labash writes, “I come to think of Wilcox as the curator of a museum that’s been overturned and looted.” And Labash’s own impression of Detroit, a crushing place that still manages to contain “pockets of grace,” complements Wilcox’s:
In my line of work, I’ve seen plenty of inner cities, but I’ve never seen anything in a non-Third World country like the east side of Detroit. Maybe the 9th Ward of New Orleans after Katrina. But New Orleans had the storm as an excuse. Here, the storm has been raging for 50 years, starting with the closing of the hulking Albert Kahn-designed Packard Plant in 1956, which a half century later, still stands like a disgraced monument to lost grandeur.
Here is Wilcox’s photo of that plant now:
For a comparison, take a look at a Library of Congress photo of that same building in the early years of the Twentieth Century, which we found in the Library of Congress catalogue (Labash’s piece is the kind that inspires you to troll the library’s superb American Memory collection):
(Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection)
We are, unfortunately, used to seeing images of our cities in ruins, but such a contrast should shock us. How has it come to this? Not just the state of Detroit, that is, but our complacency about it?
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The best way to start thinking about these questions is to start looking at the facts on the ground. So back to Labash’s Detroit.