Mon February 11, 2013
An 'Autopsy' Of Detroit Finds Resilience In A Struggling City
Originally published on Tue February 12, 2013 9:36 am
For some, Detroit may be a symbol of urban decay; but to Charlie LeDuff, it's home. LeDuff, a veteran print and TV journalist who spent 12 years at The New York Times, where he shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2001, returned home to the city after the birth of his daughter left him and his wife — also a Detroit native — wanting to be closer to family.
The city he returned to, however, was dramatically different from the one he had left 20 years earlier. "It was empty," he tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "It wasn't scary. It was sort of like, in many respects, living in Chernobyl in some neighborhoods. ... I looked and I thought to myself one day: What happened here? What happened?"
He explores that question in his new book, Detroit: An American Autopsy, which, he says, "is dedicated to those of us who live here in the industrial Midwest, specifically Detroit and its inner-ring suburbs. We're still here trying to reconstruct the great thing we once had."
The book is inspired both by his personal experiences growing up in a blue-collar family in Detroit and having lost a sister to its streets, and from the reporting he has done on the city since returning home. First as a reporter for The Detroit News and more recently as a TV journalist for the local Fox affiliate, LeDuff has become known for colorful stories and investigative pieces on the city's politicians, cops, firefighters and struggling citizens.
The book's title may make it sound like an elegy for a dead city but, LeDuff says, that's not quite the case.
"I don't mean that as an anthem to a dead city, but it's almost there," he says. "Everybody asks me, 'What's the future here?' and I say, 'We have auto companies. We have the biggest trade corridor on the continent with Canada. We have all the freshwater in the world. We have great hospitals and the tech center. We are well-positioned, but none of that is going to flower until we weed the garden today of people like [former city councilwoman] Monica Conyers and these sludge contracts, and all the cheating and robbing and killing. Forget the future. Focus on the present. And if we don't, then, yes, we will completely be dead."
On leaving the Los Angeles bureau of The New York Times and returning to Detroit
"It was really a pretty cool life, but then we had the kid and I noticed something. I noticed that I didn't belong in L.A. I had a daughter. We didn't belong to anybody. We weren't connected to anyone. Just to get to a park you had to cross two major boulevards, and I pictured my daughter at 14 with a halter top and blue mascara walking up and down Melrose, and my wife and I — she's also from Detroit — [thought] that we should just cash it in and come home so our daughter would have some roots and some structure and know her grandparents and her 20 cousins and her aunts and uncles, and I don't regret it in the least."
On whether his book fits into the genre of "ruin porn"
"Look, people go to Rome to stare at the ruin porn. [Detroit] is a very fascinating place to look at. It's difficult to live in it, and basically you see the pain's not over. It hurts because that factory is where my dad was working. That's why it's hard. ... When they say 'ruin porn' they're talking about empty, abandoned structures. My work has to do with living, breathing people and the difficult task of getting through this moment — which we will — and building a future. So no, I don't look at it as ruin porn at all. This is a document of us getting ourselves back together."
On his sister who died on the streets of Detroit
"She was beautiful. Really a gorgeous girl. Like an oval face and high cheekbones and long brunette hair, and every boy dreamed of her, and she was wild. She hung out with older boys. They did a lot of dope when mom was gone at the flower shop. My mom had a very big heart, so that crowd was a lot of runaways, so we always had somebody staying over, somebody sleeping out front in their car. And something happened to my sister. She just got lost to the streets. She hooked part time, sometimes as a prostitute, and then she'd come out of her stupor, and she'd clean up, and she'd serve eggs and bacon to men.
"... My sister wasn't about that. [That] wasn't going to be her life, and that has to hurt because what else does she know? Like ... 'This doesn't fulfill me. I don't have any skills,' and then she'd fall into depression and go back out to the street — and eventually they killed her, eventually they killed her. And the place where she died, that's the one place on planet Earth — you know, I've been to war zones, I was in the desert, I've been to five continents by myself — I could never go back to that corner. It just hurt."
On visiting the bar, with his mother and brothers, that his sister used to frequent
"My mom had to see what my sister's life was like after she was gone, and we went to the bar — it was called The Flame — and it was where the hookers and the rough guys and the dope dealers hung out. And we went in there, and [my mom] had her raccoon coat on — as she always did when she went to rescue her kids it seemed, because we all messed up and she'd always come find us — and she wanted an Amaretto and coffee at this dump. Amaretto, much less coffee. So we all had whiskey, and a woman came over wanting to know what we were doing in there ... but my mom said, 'My daughter used to come here,' and the woman asked, 'Who's your daughter?' and my mom said, 'Nicole,' and that's all you had to say in that place because we didn't pay for a drink the rest of the night. Whatever you're going to think about people like my sister — or your own relatives out there, you have them — wherever she went, her crowd had respect for her. There's something dignified in every human being, and when people ask me why I write about the things I write about, that's why: It's because I come from that, and there is dignity in everybody."
On his rules for journalism
"There's two rules to this whole game called journalism: Get it right; and don't be boring. Because if you're boring, you're dead. I'll say it this way: [The] press is written into the Constitution like the judiciary, the executive and the legislative, except they didn't leave us any money. We have to find our own money to do it. So if people don't want to purchase your product, you're dead. So I like Borat; I like Jackass; I like Charles Kuralt; I like Colbert; I like 60 Minutes. I like kitty cats and YouTube. Put them all together, shake it up, and give me something — give me something smart and give me something entertaining. That's my mantra."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. To many people, Detroit is a symbol of urban decay. In the new book "Detroit: An American Autopsy," our guest, journalist Charlie LeDuff, writes: It is awful here, but I believe that Detroit is America's city. It was the vanguard of our way up just as it is the vanguard of our way down, and one hopes, the vanguard of our way up again.
LeDuff grew up in a blue collar suburb of Detroit. He spent 12 years at the New York Times, where he shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2001. LeDuff did color stories and investigative pieces on the city's politicians, cops, firefighters and struggling citizens for the Detroit News.
He's now a TV reporter for the local Fox affiliate, where the local website, Deadline Detroit, wrote that LeDuff has, quote, thrown out the rules of how to be a TV reporter. He doesn't comb his hair every day and almost never dresses up. He stares into the camera and makes funny faces. On camera he wears sunglasses and talks with a swagger, referring to the mayor as Dave and the county executive as Bob, unquote. LeDuff spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Well, Charlie LeDuff, welcome to FRESH AIR.
CHARLIE LEDUFF: I've always wanted to be here. Thanks.
DAVIES: Well, it's good to have you. You know, I know a lot of journalists, and practically every one of them would give anything for a job at the New York Times. You were there a lot of years. You shared in a Pulitzer Prize. You walked away from the Times to do freelancing and eventually return to Detroit and work at the Detroit News. Why?
LEDUFF: Well, first of all, let me correct you there. I was not a journalist. I'm a reporter, and the difference is a journalist can type without looking. And I had a good run there at the New York Times. I loved it. I'm a Times man, I'm always going to be a Times man, but I kind of got tired. It's a difficult place. It's a hard place to let your personality and flair come into the copy. They're known for other things.
And actually I had my first daughter. I was stationed in the Los Angeles bureau of the New York Times. I covered the West, and it was great. I crossed the desert with migrants, I went to the Bunny Ranch outside of Vegas with my wife and an old lady photographer. It was a pretty cool life.
But then we had the kid, and I noticed something. I noticed that I didn't belong in L.A. I had a daughter. We didn't belong to anybody. We weren't connected to anyone. Just to get to a park, you had to cross two major boulevards. And I pictured my daughter at 14 with a halter top and blue mascara walking up and down Melrose, and I said this is just not where we're from, and I thought that we should, my wife and I - she's also from Detroit - that we should just cash it in and come home, so our daughter would have some root and some structure and know her grandparents and her 20 cousins and her aunts and uncles.
And I don't regret it in the least.
DAVIES: So you'd grown up in the Detroit area and spent a lot of time there, and in some respects this question really deals with the whole subject of the book. But how was the city different when you got back?
LEDUFF: When I was coming up and working in my mom's flower shop and driving around and delivering flowers - this was the '80s. It was a very large city, it was 1.2 million people, and crack cocaine had just hit, and it was scary. It was rough. It was murderous.
And when I got back, 15 or 20 years later, maybe 25 now that I think about it, it was empty. It wasn't scary, it was sort of like in many respects living in Chernobyl in some neighborhoods. No one is here in the places that I remember - the place where I got my first kiss, near the canals, you know, near the Grosse Pointe border. All that's gone.
And I looked, and I thought to myself one day: What happened here? What happened? And so this is not a book about ruin porn or empty buildings. This book is dedicated to those of us who live here in the industrial Midwest, specifically Detroit and its inner-ring suburbs. We're still here trying to reconstruct the great thing we once had.
And so it changed in the sense that my mom's flower shop is in pieces. My great grandfather's house is in pieces. And to find your past is sort of difficult.
DAVIES: So you worked at the Detroit News, the daily paper, and a lot of the stuff in the book are some of the remarkable stories that you did about firemen, about murder victims, about a lot of people, but you also covered politicians. And I thought we would talk about one of them.
When you got there, I mean this - the mayor's career was aflame with a corruption and sex scandal, that's Kwame Kilpatrick. But a city councilwoman caught your eye, Monica Conyers, and I've marked a little passage of the book I'd like you to read about her. Maybe you want to just set that up, tell us who she is and what her entre was into Detroit politics.
LEDUFF: Monica Conyers, raised in the neighborhood, very saucy, married to basically her grandfather, Congressman John Conyers, not, you know, not bloodwise, but he's two generations older than she is. And he at the time was the head of the Judiciary Committee.
She gets wound up in a kickback and bribery scandal, and we the public are paying for her lawyer when her husband is one of the most powerful men in Washington. So when I got into town, she was just making headlines left and right, getting into bar - she becomes city councilwoman, runs on his name, becomes city councilwoman. Getting into bar fights.
DAVIES: And was not yet into legal trouble then, right? Right. That is to say, corruption issues.
LEDUFF: She was, but we the public didn't exactly know about it at the time. I certainly didn't when I blew into town.
DAVIES: Why don't you read this passage, and this is you, Charlie LeDuff, coming into Detroit, back to your hometown, and you see this public figure, and your reaction to her.
LEDUFF: Monica was my kind of woman, at least as far as the reporter in me goes. She was a self-absorbed, self-serving diva, a honeypot and a loudmouth who let a bit power go to her id. It didn't matter to me if she spent tens of thousands of dollars on overseas trips paid for by the city's pension fund. It didn't matter to me if she mishandled the business of the poorest citizens in the country. It wasn't my problem. It was my job.
She typified the politicians of the current American landscape, an overfed buffoon who fattened herself at the public trough while the ribs began to show on the gaunt body politic. And in that capacity she was nobody special. Chicago had its Governor Rod Blagojevich, Newark had its Mayor Sharpe James, San Diego had its Congressman Duke Cunningham, and Youngstown, Ohio had its Congressman James Traficant. Clowns for sure.
But Monica's makeup was better. She was the perfect political caricature wrapped up in a real human being, and one thing about clowns: clowns sell copy. I started keeping notes on her. Monica was fascinating, the big-mouthed girl from a broken home. Her father had a record for breaking and entering, her brother for robbery. Conyers was susceptible to violent outbursts.
She was a drunk in rush-hour traffic, a wreck in the waiting. I could have been related to her. I waited for the moment, and Monica delivered.
DAVIES: OK, that's Charlie LeDuff reading from his new book "Detroit: An American Autopsy." Before we talk more about Monica, why do you say you could have been related to her?
LEDUFF: Because, you know, my ma has been married three times. I've got half-brothers and step-sisters, and I'm known to be a little crazy, I think you'll find that out in the book.
DAVIES: So you say you waited for the moment, and Monica delivered. How did she deliver?
LEDUFF: Well, it begins with Monica getting into a fight with the city council president, Ken Cockrel, Jr., who is balding and has his ears low on his head. And she starts screaming at him, calling him Shrek. And he says, Shrek? She said, that's right, Shrek. And he says, Madam, I will table the meeting. And she said, go ahead, do it, baby, do it. And it got ridiculous, and it made headlines in this town.
And I got the idea to bring some middle school kids, some 12-year-olds, to the city council to sit down and talk with her. And she got in a fight with a 12-year-old, which she lost, and then she did a sit-down interview with me, and we re-enacted the Shrek incident, where I played her, and she played Ken Cockrel, Jr.
DAVIES: Well, I want to play a little bit of this.
LEDUFF: I'm glad.
DAVIES: It's a little long to play it all, but this was - you know, you now work in television, but this is when you were at the Detroit News, and this was a video I guess for their website. And what people can't see is that you open this, and you conduct the interview wearing a white dinner jacket.
DAVIES: And you're really mugging some reactions, kind of being very familiar with her. Let's listen to some of this piece.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
LEDUFF: Hello, I'm Charlie LeDuff of the Detroit News, and this is your Detroit.
Monica Conyers, the colorful Detroit city councilwoman, has drawn heat in recent weeks for what some call outrageous behavior. She has threatened to shoot a witness, threatened to have another beaten up by her brothers, and called the balding city council president Shrek.
MONICA CONYERS: Grow up. Control your house, and you know how to treat other women better.
KENNETH COCKREL, JR.: You're the last one to talk.
CONYERS: I'm the first one to talk to you, Shrek.
LEDUFF: (Unintelligible) sat down with the Detroit News for this exclusive interview. You're a schoolteacher. I mean doesn't name-calling, fights like that make the city look like it's being run by schoolchildren?
CONYERS: Well, you know, probably to some, but I've seen worse. All I said was Shrek. I never said Shrek was bad or good. I just said Shrek. And it's kind of like being bullied. Do you know that when I was in elementary school, I was bullied a lot? Since I've been married to my husband, I've been bullied by women who thought they were going to marry my husband.
And so I'm just at a point, I'm just not going to take bullying anymore. I'm just not.
LEDUFF: As a councilmember, you have, apparently, threatened someone in a hearing....
CONYERS: In the pension board.
LEDUFF: With a gun.
CONYERS: Well, I did not threaten him with a gun.
LEDUFF: OK, you threatened to have someone beat up.
CONYERS: No, I did not.
LEDUFF: OK, you've been in a bar fight.
CONYERS: I was defending myself. And I was not a councilmember then. I was a private citizen.
LEDUFF: Are you concerned maybe some voters might consider you a nut?
CONYERS: Some people - no, that's the first time I've ever heard of that. Everything before now has been just about my temper, that people - allegedly that I have a temper.
LEDUFF: If you were a nut, if you were a nut, what kind of nut would you be? Pecan?
DAVIES: And that is our guest, our guest Charlie LeDuff. Some old memories there.
LEDUFF: (Unintelligible) awesome, man.
DAVIES: That's from a video that our guest, Charlie LeDuff, made when he was working at the Detroit News. He has a new book called "Detroit: An American Autopsy." Well, that's the kind of stuff that political reporters live for. And what's interesting about it is that when a public official loses their temper and says something stupid like calling a council president Shrek, the typical reaction is to issue a statement of apology and not talk about it.
She clearly took a different approach. Was it hard to get her to talk to you?
LEDUFF: Nope. Short answer, not at all. She loved to talk, and as you heard, it wasn't one incident, it was - I mean she ended up going to federal prison. So she was stealing, calling people Shrek, beating women up at a bar, on and on and on. In fact, when all of this went down, I called her to get a comment, and she - in her own voice she said - it's in the book, I forget the name, Teresa or Veronica.
She said no, Monica's not here. I said, Monica, this is your voice. No, it's not Monica, and she hung up. About two or three weeks later, I'm interviewing her again, and I'm outside having a cigarette, and she's standing nearby, and I called the number...
DAVIES: Her cell phone.
LEDUFF: Yeah, and she answers it. Monica, what is the matter with you? That's Detroit.
DAVIES: She ultimately went to prison for participation in some various corrupt activities. Have you maintained any contact with her?
LEDUFF: No, I tried to reach out. She went to Camp Cupcake, where Martha Stewart went. She went for - sentenced to three years. And I tried to get a hold of her. I made an offer to her people, I'll go pick her up, and we could road-trip it back, stay at the Motel 6, you know, I'll be there at the gates. And so how was it? You know, did you study the Bible?
But I didn't, and she's back in Detroit in a halfway house, you know, as part of her federal release. So I have heard sightings of her, but I have not physically seen her myself, and I'm looking forward to it. In fact, you know, I'd like to invite her to the book-reading. You know, I'll be doing events, Monica, just check them out online and just come - I've got a book for you.
DAVIES: You know, one of the things that I thought about as I was reading about your interactions with Monica Conyers and some of the other political figures in Detroit, is something I observed as a young reporter, which is that when you write a very tough story about a public official, you might think they'd be angry, and they might be, but a lot of them are then kind of like fascinated by you and are more inclined to return your calls and answer your questions.
It's kind of like they get slapped, and they think, ooh, that was interesting. Do you know what I'm talking about?
LEDUFF: I do. Well, you know, they sort of know that you're around, you're in the game, and you're not a marshmallow. You know, bland is not interesting, not only to the reader or the viewer but to the subject. And that's sort of why you see the videotapes, the sort of flair I put on it. You know, sometimes I'll appear on TV now in my underpants. Any way I can get you to listen, to get the power players' attention, to get people their information in a way that they're going to accept it.
So I think you're absolutely right: Once your subject knows that you're nails, then they're going to pick up that phone.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Charlie LeDuff. His new book is called "Detroit: An American Autopsy." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Charlie LeDuff. He was a reporter for the New York Times for many years. He's now working in Detroit as a television reporter. His new book is called "Detroit: An American Autopsy."
You know, Detroit is a city where race is an issue in so many ways, and you were doing your reporter, perceived as a white guy, although as we learn in the book you're racial and ethnic background is a little more complicated. But you were clearly perceived as a white reporter asking very tough questions, giving it to African-American politicians.
And you know, any politician when under duress will reach for a lever(ph) and race is one of them. Did you have any particular approach to dealing with that, deflecting it, or whatever?
LEDUFF: In the interest of good, honest radio, no. You know what? When you grow up here, race is right under the surface. This is a Southern town - you know, basically built by Southerners, and we never had to deal with our legacy, our sins, the feelings we carry, because we were the North, and we didn't do that.
But I left here as a young man, and I grew up, you know, as a man, my formative years were in New York and Los Angeles. So I had time to confront myself, to discuss these things with myself, to compete with people in the wide, wide world, people of many origins and shades. And when I came home, I didn't give a damn. I'm just - you're a man, I'm a man; you're a woman, I'm a man. We're human beings. That doesn't play into this.
And if anybody wants it to be a factor, then live in your fantasyland, because that's not what I'm about. And I think that's the only way to deal with this legacy, this thing called race in America. You just have to be of the human race.
DAVIES: You did some great stories at the Detroit News, I mean both about high-ranking public officials and about people in communities, murder victims, firefighters - and in one compelling story a firefighter who died in an arson fire and the effort to catch the arsonist, which your stories played a role in. Why did you leave the Detroit News?
LEDUFF: I think newspapers were limiting. I think I had finally gotten to the point where - you know, I got to write in my style, but you just - I was done with it. It's very difficult. Newspaper articles, for someone who has never written one, is a Mensa exam. You know, I mean you have to research it, you have to formulate it, you have to, you know, fact-check.
There's no energy left by the time you're done. And I - this new thing called the Internet, you know, TV, I figured I could take that stuff I learned in newspapers, which was get the facts, get it right, double-check it, know what you're talking about, and then take it and create something more consumable.
Like for instance, Jon Stewart, "The Daily Show." Great show. What do they do? They take what the newspapers have created, dispense with the boringness of it, and get right to the point and simply say it. You know what I mean? They mock what's obvious. And newspapers still aren't ready to go there, to just say it.
There's this construct, equal credence to what you think the truth is and what's probably false, but they both get some stature. I just didn't want to do it anymore. I wanted to get - like you heard that Monica Conyers tape, I wanted to go there. I think that thing said as much about her as any newspaper profile is ever going to do.
DAVIES: Was it hard to get a job on television?
LEDUFF: I was at home writing this book in my underpants when the phone rang, and it was a guy named Huel Perkins - well, he's the uncle of Detroit. And he said: You want to come do some work for us? And I said I would love to. So a shout-out to Huel, and that's how it happened, just like that.
GROSS: Charlie LeDuff will continue his conversation with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. LeDuff's new book is called "Detroit: An American Autopsy." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with journalist Charlie LeDuff, author of the new book "Detroit: An American Autopsy." LeDuff writes: This a book about a rough town and a tough people during arguably some of the most historic and cataclysmic years in the American experience. It is about the future of America and our desperate efforts to save ourselves from it. He has some pretty unconventional ways of revealing what's going on in his hometown.
DAVIES: Anybody who does a little work on YouTube can find some great stuff that you've done, some real investigative reporting. There was one on a sludge hauler and his questionable connections and practices, which it has some terrific stuff and some very, very creative and funny things. But I thought we would listen to a bit of another piece of yours that got a lot of attention, where you decided to golf through the city of Detroit - an 18 mile course, where you were going to hit a ball, go there, play it and keep playing. Where did this idea come from?
LEDUFF: I think what it was, was my brothers had played golf like the Saturday before. And it was just one of those dog days summer mornings and I'm driving to work like, I need a story, I need a story. And I just think, because I was talking to my brothers about their golf game the previous day or before, I was so let me just golf the city. Let's just knock a ball through the whole entire city and see how empty it is and who is out there and we did. We did, it took two days, 100 degrees, 18 miles.
DAVIES: Let's listen to a little bit of that report.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV REPORT)
LEDUFF: Ah. Right from the get go, I'm realizing this here might be the stupidest idea I've ever had. It's 100 degrees, I'm wearing black, and I can't golf. But I'm committed, because they're talking of reinventing this city.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Seven miles.
LEDUFF: What does that mean with millions in budget cuts? What does the city even really look like, block-by-block? Who lives here? What do they want and what do they need? Has anybody asked them? Besides, how many cities are so empty you can take a full-on swing?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: That's awesome.
LEDUFF: Right away or run into trouble. I lost my ball in the weeds on Robinwood Street. This lady lost her daughter.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...trying to kill herself.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No shoes on. She's in one of them free houses.
LEDUFF: What is she doing?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: She's killing herself.
LEDUFF: How do you know?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Because she took all the pills I own.
DAVIES: And that's Charlie LeDuff from his - one of his TV reports in Detroit where he's now a reporter. He has a new book called "Detroit: An American Autopsy." In that case, you're whacking your ball through a semi-abandoned neighborhood and there's a woman who's trying to find her daughter who she says is going to take all her pills and kill herself. What became of the daughter? Do you know?
LEDUFF: Yeah. They found her. I had a golf game, man. You know, I couldn't be there all day, you know, I got to make 18 miles.
LEDUFF: Oh by the way, I set a course record, 2,525 strokes. I dare any of your listeners to beat that. OK. But anyway, I am a human. That woman could've been my aunt. My sister was that kind of girl that, you know, went missing, so I care. So we - I flagged down some cops, we called some that I knew, because, you know man, at some point you're not a reporter anymore. I don't know about this I have to maintain my objectivity, I'm a human being. So, called a few guys. They found her. She wasn't dead. She wasn't even high. And happy ending to that story. So, and we moved on.
DAVIES: You said when we were talking earlier that you would appear in your underwear to get us to watch. You want tell us why you were in your underwear for a story?
LEDUFF: Oh, let me say, a - oh, OK. Well, there was a judge here, very - son of a very famous judge, and he had done a Congressman Weiner deal, which he was texting nude photos of himself to female bailiffs. And I went to interview him and he invited me into his chambers. And I said is this you? And he says - very famous, he says - hot dog. Yup. That's me. No shame in my game. Well, turns out there was some shame in his game. After he was investigated and censured, he took up with a woman that had a case before him and he was helping the woman manipulate the case. He got her pregnant. He wanted her to have the abortion. It all blows up here. And I come to find out last month that the man is still getting paid $12,000 a month while they investigate him and decide to throw him off the bench or not, $12,000 a month. This is outrageous, so I go to third circuit court in the front on a very cold day, maybe 20 degrees, and I take my pants off and walk into frame and, you know, explain the severity of the situation. And why did I do that? To show the people that I felt this is completely outrageous and ridiculous. And I don't know a better way to do it than, you know, the naked judge and me showing up half naked in front of the courthouse because that's what a mockery this has all become. And to be honest with you, I came home, you asked me what it looked like, it's a mess. I want it fixed. My colleagues on the other side of this glass want it fixed. We want it changed for our children and our grandchildren and in the end, that's what I'm going to do - whether I got to take my pants off, whatever it takes, I want it changed.
DAVIES: You know, Detroit has become such a symbol of urban decay. And, you know, people have used the term ruin porn to describe folks who come to gawk at the state of the city, you know, crumbling factories and abandoned housing and corrupt politicians and its struggling citizens. And no doubt, a lot of Detroit residents resent that. And I wonder, do you resent it, and do you worry that some of your reporting which, you know, shows the hard side of the city, plays into it?
LEDUFF: It doesn't bother me. I don't care. I don't care what people think of us or me. We're busy living. Do what you want. And, look, people go to Rome to stare at the ruin porn. OK. It is a very fascinating place to look at. It's difficult to live in it, and basically, you see, the pain's not over. It hurts because that factory is where my dad was working. That's why it's hard. Now as far as what I do, when they say ruin porn they're talking about empty, abandoned structures. My work has to do with living, breathing people and the difficult task of getting through this moment - which we will - and building a future. So no, I don't look at it as ruin porn at all. This is a document of us getting ourselves back together. And I think Detroit's much better positioned to succeed in the future than most other big American cities.
DAVIES: Charlie LeDuff's book is called "Detroit: An American Autopsy," and we'll talk some more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Charlie LeDuff. He worked at The New York Times and at The Detroit News. He's now an innovative TV reporter for Fox 2 in Detroit. And he has a book called "Detroit: An American Autopsy."
You write a fair amount about your family in this book. You want to just describe a bit about the neighborhood you grew up in and what kind of family you had, what kind of community?
LEDUFF: Like I said, my mom's been married three times so we moved around. But I'll just get to the point in the book. I grew up blue collar suburbs, about two miles from the city limits of Detroit on a very busy intersection. My mom worked very, very long days, 16 hour days in a flower shop on the east side of Detroit, commuting every day. Her husband, my stepfather at the time, he sort of freelanced being a dad sometimes and that one came apart. So it was five of us all the time, latch key kids, just trying to, you know, hold on. We weren't raised in the ghetto by any means. We had books in our home. We had religion. We had dinner at six until I was about nine years old and the dinner stopped, and then things started to sort of fall apart.
DAVIES: Was that 'cause your mom was working nights?
LEDUFF: Yeah. So it's a toxic mix, I think - no father, mother working, young teenagers looking after children. It's not a good recipe for success. Although, we all are successes in our own right, and I'm very proud to be from my family.
DAVIES: And I know you had some wild years as a youngster, but went to school, right, got into journalism, and you were...
LEDUFF: Yeah, I made, I was the only one of my siblings who graduated high school, you know, by the time I was 18. My brother went back after his military service and got his college degree. But yeah, I was - I got lucky. I really did. I wasn't working in a screw factory or, nothing wrong with that but, you know, if you've ever been in one it's not a nice place to work and, you know, I don't stock beer shelves, which is cool but if you ever stocked a beer shelf it's a hard thing to look at for the length of your life and that's kind of what we have left in America, I think. We really blew it.
DAVIES: You say you were lucky.
DAVIES: In what way? I mean what - why were you able to finish college and...
LEDUFF: I think - I think when my mom was going through that second divorce I was not a female like my sister, I was not young like my brothers. I was, I don't know, about 14, so I was sort of formed - if you know what I'm saying. I wasn't doing drugs, you know, I was turned off by them, watching my sister and her crowd. I had a good group of friends, so it just, the stars just aligned for me where I had a support group, you know, and my sister didn't. And my brothers were young and, I think, hurt a little bit by the circumstance, but we're all really close to our Ma because we realize, now, who she was and what she was doing. She was, you know, she was being everything, everything. And so I got off to college like my mom wanted me to.
DAVIES: Your sister Nicole is a painful story, here. Do you want to talk about her as a young person and tell us what happened?
LEDUFF: You read it. Ask me something, man. That's, you're asking me.
DAVIES: OK. OK. OK.
LEDUFF: You know?
DAVIES: What are your memories of her as a teenager?
LEDUFF: She was beautiful. Really a gorgeous girl, you know, like an oval face and high cheekbones and long brunette hair, and every boy dreamed of her. And she was wild. She hung out with older boys. They did a lot of dope when mom was gone at the flower shop. My mom had a very big heart, and so that crowd was a lot of runaways, so we always had somebody staying over, somebody sleeping out front in their car. And something happened to my sister. She just got lost to the streets. She hooked part time, you know, sometimes as a prostitute, and then she'd come out of her stupor, and she'd clean up, and then she'd serve, you know, eggs and bacon to men.
And my sister wasn't about that. You know, I mean I think she just that wasn't going to be her life, and that has to hurt because then what else does she know? You know, like I can't make this, this doesn't fulfill me. I don't have any skills, and then she'd fall into depression and go back out to the street - and eventually they killed her, eventually they killed her. And the place where she died, that's the one place on planet Earth I - you know, I've been to war zones, I've - like I told you, I was in the desert, I've been to five continents by myself - I could never go back to that corner. Just hurt.
DAVIES: Well, you describe in the book, how you would drive many blocks away just to avoid the neighborhood where she died. And we'll just say she died in a traffic accident after a night of partying, I guess. But you saw it as the result of the life that she had led. You describe, um...
LEDUFF: You want to hear how she died? She got into a car with a strange man and he was doing 80 down a residential street, and it's basically like kidnapping, as I see it. And she jumped out, jumped right out of the car going 80 right into a tree.
DAVIES: There's a...
LEDUFF: And, you know, right where that tree's that.
DAVIES: You know...
LEDUFF: I visit that tree. I visit that tree now. I'm over it.
DAVIES: There's a touching story in the book of your mother, after the death of your sister, Nicole, wanting to come to terms with it and see that place. Do you want - can you describe that moment?
LEDUFF: When we went to the bar?
LEDUFF: Can I say something to you, brother, before I...
DAVIES: Sure. Sure.
LEDUFF: This is like, kind of, - I never really talked out loud about it and just such, you know, and so...
DAVIES: You don't have to. I mean it's - it's...
LEDUFF: It's OK. It's OK. I just want to share. I'm feeling something. Anyway - so my mom had to see what my sister's life was like after she was gone, and we went to the bar - it's called The Flame - it was where the hookers and the rough guys and dope dealers hung out. And we went in there, she had her raccoon coat on - as she always did when she went to rescue her kids it seemed, because we all messed up and she'd always come find us - and she wanted an Amaretto and coffee at this dump. Amaretto, much less coffee. Please. So we all had whiskey, and a woman came over wanting to know what we were doing in there.
LEDUFF: We got a weird feeling - my brother and I - but my mom said, my daughter used to come here. And the woman asked, who's your daughter? And she said, Nicole, and that's all you had to say in that place because we didn't pay for a drink the rest of the night. Whatever you're going to think about people like my sister or your own relatives out there, you have them. Wherever she went, her crowd had respect for her.
There's something dignified in every human being. And when people ask me why I write about the things I write about, that's why because I come from that and there is dignity in everybody.
DAVIES: You know, the title of the book, "An American Autopsy," suggests that the city is dead beyond revival. It's not the way you see it, is it?
LEDUFF: No. But it's half dead. Yeah. That title means a lot of things, I think, the subtitle. One is, it's also anatomy. OK. So when you open up, you know, what's connected to the spine, to the hips, to the legs, and so I'm trying to look at Detroit holistically, the politics, the suits. Our masters of the universe are not brokers. They're car executives. The union man, black, white. I'm doing that.
Number two, I'm also saying - and I believe this - that Detroit is the bell weather for America. Why is Philadelphia interested in Detroit? Because Philadelphia's wondering if it's going to be Detroit, and in a lot of ways, Philadelphia is Detroit and so I don't mean that as an anthem to a dead city, but it's almost there, but the people are alive and we're getting down to the nitty gritty of fixing it.
Everybody asks me, what's the future here? And I say we have coherent auto companies. We have the busiest trade corridor on the continent with Canada. We have all the fresh water in the world. We have great hospitals and the tech center. We're well-positioned, but none of that is going to flower until we weed the garden today of these sludge contracts, and all the cheating, and robbing and killing. Forget the future. Focus on the present and, if we don't, then - yes - we will completely be dead.
DAVIES: Do you see progress in the politics of the city?
LEDUFF: I do because guess what? Our former mayor - his defense team just rested, so his corruption trial is now in the jury's hands. Corruption trial - we had one. We have a federal investigation into our county government. We have - I mean, the feds are hanging more paper here than an interior decorator. You know what I mean? So we're starting to clean this joint out, which has never been clean. The white people here like to say it started with Coleman Young, the first black mayor, 40 years ago; but for 100 years, this place has been corrupt, but money covers a lot of sin. There's no more money left. Time to fix it.
DAVIES: So a lot of the greed and corruption and incompetence was there before, but when times were good and the economy was strong, it mattered less than now, when there's really so little margin?
LEDUFF: I believe so, and I think, if you look at the United States of America, people's anger with Washington is rooted in that. We've lost our homes, we've lost our jobs, we've lost our faith. And, you know, you look at Iraq and - where's the water treatment plant we were supposed to be building for $10 billion?
People are fed up. They're sick of it. They want a government that is responsive to them instead of dismissive of them and dipping into their pockets.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Charlie LeDuff. His book is called "Detroit: An American Autopsy." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Charlie LeDuff. He's a veteran reporter. He worked for the New York Times and the Detroit News. He has a new book called "Detroit: An American Autopsy."
You write about your brother Billy who, at one point in the book, worked in a screw factory. And he's, you know, an interesting example of somebody making their way in the city. Do you want to just talk a little bit about what he was doing there and, kind of, where he's going?
LEDUFF: Billy is every white middle class man nightmare because everybody's afraid of having it and then losing it. But Billy's tough and Billy's building it again, but long and the short, Billy was selling those crap, subprime loans. That's what he was doing. He's moving paper. Moving paper.
DAVIES: He worked for a mortgage broker or something?
LEDUFF: Yeah. And he was good at it, man. He - you know, like I said, he didn't graduate high school, but that guy's a numbers shark. And he made $75,000 a year working three days a week. He was that good. And then, pop, bust, gone.
And he gets a job in the screw factory that his wife hooks him up with and he's thinking, factory - sweet, union, great pension, sick days, great. You know? Nope. Eight dollars and fifty cents an hour and that's it. And stand over there and inhale those fumes and, you know, suck up those mineral spirits and it was horrible.
And I was talking to my brother the other day about it. He goes, you know, the only way to make time pass was to actually work, which made the lifers in the factory mad, because they knew he wasn't staying and he was upsetting the balance, which is, you know, drag it out and drag it out. And so, one day, the boss made my brother clean the toilet. My brother said, what? He went and cleaned the toilets and somebody wrote some graffiti intended for him that says - you know, I'll paraphrase it for radio. You know, hard workers suck.
And my brother's like, man, this is what went wrong. It's what went wrong in America, like, we had everything. You didn't have to be educated. Go to the factory. If you don't like it, quit. Go across the street. There's another great paying job. You got a power boat. You have a vacation home on the lake. It was awesome. And then we woke up - this generation - and the music had stopped and there's no chair. And that's what Billy's all about.
DAVIES: So is he still at the factory?
LEDUFF: No. Then, he got another job as a salesman. He lost that one and he's training now for a new job, I believe. The Yellow Pages, something like that. But Billy's a winner, you know. They grow 'em tough on Joy Road, which is where we come from, and Billy's got three teenage kids. You know what I mean? He's a good father, doing what he's got to do, maybe not his dream, but his dream is to have good children, so I guess he's making it, isn't he?
DAVIES: You're - it seems like you're having a ball doing your TV reporting in Detroit and shining a light on things in the city that need it. Your daughter is how old now?
DAVIES: Yeah. I mean, what kind of future do you picture for her in Detroit?
LEDUFF: I don't know, man. You know, I don't know. But all I know is this. She sees me on TV and she - who's that bad man, Papa? What did he do? What is government, Papa? Why were you yelling at that government man, Pops? I said, because we, the people, ask them to take care of the money for the roads and the school buses and he's not doing it. Oh, that's not good, Pops, is it? I said, no, darling, it's really not.
So I'm going to do everything I can 'til the Lord takes my last breath. It's going to be better than this. And, you know, my friend, for the first time in my life, I actually believe in journalism as a force for good, not that I had any answers or solutions, but you know, there's a basic minimum standard of which people should be able to live, like having an ambulance show up to your house on time, having a fire truck show up to your home that actually can pump water. Having your home broken into and not have to wait around for eight hours for the police. At minimum, we deserve better than that, and I can honestly look at my daughter and say, we're going to have it and I hope maybe one day my daughter looks ain this archive and she says, I was proud of my dad.
DAVIES: You know, it's interesting because we're at a time when newspapers everywhere are collapsing and investigative reporting is threatened. Do you feel optimistic about what the media can do?
LEDUFF: They are collapsing. They're collapsing and they were slow to pick it up. I mean, they didn't even realize giving their content away for free was going to kill them. You know what I mean? They're very high bound and old institutions, but without them and that sort of indepth journalism, I say this to people. I say, you don't know anything. Media. I can't trust the media. I hate the media. I say, you don't know anything until the media tells you. You know what I mean?
There's very few people going into the archives of the, you know, buildings department and looking at that contract. You know, Kwame Kilpatrick here, our mayor on federal racketeering charges - that didn't come out because somebody told. That was because reporters did their work.
So I'm always going to be a Times man. I'm always a newspaper man. I always believe in doing - right Bob - I'll shout out to Bob Shadobauer(ph), the guy I work with, the cameraman and editor. We do an enormous amount of journalism before we even press the button. But having said that, once you press the button, I got a rule. There's two rules to this whole game called journalism. Get it right and don't be boring because, if you're boring, you're dead.
And I'll say it this way. The press is written into the Constitution like the judiciary, the executive and the legislative, except they didn't leave us any money. We have to find our own money to do it and so, if people don't want to purchase your product, you're dead. So I like "Borat." I like "Jackass." I like Charles Kuralt. I like Colbert. I like "60 Minutes." I like kitty cats and YouTube. Put them all together, shake it up and give me something. Give me something smart and give me something entertaining. That's my mantra.
DAVIES: Well, Charlie LeDuff, thanks so much for spending some time with us.
LEDUFF: I swear, I always wanted to be on this show, so it's really my honor.
GROSS: Charlie LeDuff spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. LeDuff is the author of the new book, "Detroit: An American Autopsy." You can read an excerpt on our website, FreshAir.NPR.org, where you can also download Podcasts of our show and you can follow us on Twitter at NPR FRESH AIR and on Tumblr at NPRFreshAir.Tumblr.com.
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