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Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and Detroit native Charlie LeDuff says that the city must forget the future and instead focus on the present. His new book is called Detroit: An American Autopsy. (AP)

An 'Autopsy' Of Detroit Finds Resilience In A Struggling City

Feb 11, 2013 (Fresh Air from WHYY)

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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."


Interview Highlights

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."

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