Some of my
journalism

Quite the World, Isn't It?


Too many stories, not enough pages

March 31, 2012

Tags: current events, history

Photo: Library of Congress
As I get ready to head east - or, I should say, midwest - I've been thinking about some of the stories that I was forced to leave out of Detroit: A Biography, and, by extension, this process of distilling a vast subject into digestible form.

Two stories stand out, those of Fred Herrada and James Chambers. Herrada, who died while I was writing the book, spent a couple of hours with me in the condo he shared with his wife in Ann Arbor. An American born to Mexican immigrant parents, he was deported as a young child to Mexico during the Great Depression as part of the federal government's "repatriation" program in which hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their children - often American citizens - were summarily kicked out of the country. Herrada returned a few years a later; his parents had already resumed their lives in Detroit and sent for the rest of the family. But the experience was another one of those overlooked slices of American history that tend to fascinate me.

I found Herrada through his daughter, Elena Herrada, a political activist and die-hard Detroit booster. She met me at her parents' house and stayed on through the interview, where she learned for the first time that when she was still a young girl and the family was living in Detroit, a neighbor girl had been raped, and that her parents, without letting their children know, feared for the family's safety during racially tumultuous times. Then, like so many others, they moved out of the city. Elena, though, long ago moved back in, and is a member of the Detroit Public Schools board of education. I had hoped to use the Herradas' story to illustrate the stability of the Latino neighborhood in southwest Detroit, but the focus of the book veered in another direction.

Chambers I met through a mutual friend in a bar in the Cass Corridor. He had moved to Detroit as a child from rural Louisiana after a cousin (if I recall the relationship correctly) had been murdered by a white man. The child and other friends, all black, routinely took a shortcut through the man's yard to get to a favorite swimming hole, an act that angered the man. One day he killed the boy with a shotgun blast, a final straw for Chambers' fearful mother, who promptly moved the family north.

Chambers grew up in public housing on the near west side, and told fascinating stories of living through the 1967 riots, the sense of fear and excitement as the buildings burned and the bullets flew. He recalled getting conscripted by neighbors to drive a forklift into a burning rug warehouse and wheel out rolls of carpeting, which promptly disappeared into the streets. A teenager then, he was too young to fully register the significance of what was happening, but in his recollections those burning streets came to life. When I interviewed Chambers, he was living with his wife in a beautiful two-story colonial house, the front stoop guarded by stone lions, in Detroit's Boston-Edison neighborhood, and worked as a line repairman for the telephone company (if I recall, writing this from memory not notes). I had hoped to tell the story of the '50s migration of blacks from the South through him, but wound up using another man's story instead.

Hard choices to make, deciding whose story to tell and whose story to leave out. There are so many slices of history, and so few pages in which to tell them.


Road tripping: Detroit, here I come

March 25, 2012

Tags: current events, history

On April 2 - a week from Monday - I'm starting a five-day tour of southeast Michigan that will cover Ann Arbor, Lansing and, of course, Detroit, marking the official publication of Detroit: A Biography. The book has already found its way to stores shelves, and the usual online outlets. I'm hoping these appearances will draw some attention, and maybe spark conversations about the city's future as Detroit faces a crippling financial crisis.

The biggest event likely will ber a Wednesday night launch gathering at the Anchor Bar, the old newspaper (and sports) hangout in downtown Detroit. Vaughn Derderian hosts an occasional series there called Beer and Politics, which strikes me as a splendid program in an unusual setting where average Detroiters can talk about their city. Very pleased that Vaughn has decided to let me come talk about before such an engaged crowd.

I'll also be in conversation with old friend M.L. Liebler on Thursday night at The Book Beat, a great bookstore in Oak Park. I start the week in Ann Arbor at Nicola's, then up to Lansing for a talk and signing at Barnes & Noble, both of which should be interesting and engaging events. The full calendar of the public events is below (I'll be doing some private talks, too) is below. And there will be some local media coverage, including radio interviews and a Detroit television appearance Monday morning on WXYZ Channel 7, which I'll add to the events page in the next couple of days.

If you have a suggestion of places where we might squeeze in another talk, or if my contacts in the media are interested in covering any of this, drop me an email.

April 2: Ann Arbor, 7 pm, Nicola's Books in the Westgate Shopping Center at Jackson and Maple in Ann Arbor. Phone: (734 ) 662-0600.

April 3: 6 p.m. Barnes & Noble, 5132 W. Saginaw Hwy. in Lansing

April 4, 7 p.m., Detroit, book launch at Beer & Politics event, Anchor Bar, West Fort and First Streets (cash bar).

April 5: 7 p.m., in conversation with M.L. Liebler at The Book Beat, at 26010 Greenfield Road in Oak Park.


Mark the calendar: 'We Built This City'

March 23, 2012

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

Organizers of the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books have announced the schedule for this year's festival, and once again I'm happy to see my name on it. I'm slotted for a panel at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 22, in Taper Hall. The subject: "We Built This City."

It should be an interesting hour or so. The other two panelists:

- Bill Boyarsky, a familiar name to longtime LA Times readers for his years as a columnist, reporter, and editor He also is the author of Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics and contributes regularly to Kevin Roderick's LAObserved website (a must-read sit for Angelenos interested in media and politics), and at Truthdig.

- Rebecca Solnit, who's always sharp and insightful, also was behind the book, Infinite City, an atlas of San Francisco. But not just any atlas. She writes about the different ways of perceiving a city. At least most recently. By my count, this is her ninth book.

And my book, Detroit: A Biography, obviously enough, is about Detroit.

So we'll have a conversation about three iconic cities: Detroit, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Can;t wait to see where Thurber takes us with his questions. Hope to see some of you there. And as usual, I'll be wandering around both days, so say hello if we cross paths.


On crossed paths, nearly 30 years later

March 22, 2012

Tags: current events, history

An old friend and one-time editor, J. Ford Huffman, sent me a message the other day pointing out an interesting bit of timing. My Detroit: A Biography, as you all know by now, is just hitting bookstores. As is a book J.Ford co-edited, The End of Don't Ask, Don't Tell: The Impact in Studies and Personal Essays by Service Members and Veterans. And our mutual friend and former colleague Julia Heaberlin's debut novel, Playing Dead come out in a few weeks.

We all worked together at the Rochester Times-Union newspaper in New York in the mid-1980s, and as J. Ford pointed out in his message, there's a nice synchronicity to all three of us having books out this Spring. But that also got me thinking about some of the other people who worked at that great, and late (it closed in 1997) newspaper that another former editor of mine once described as less a daily newspaper than a daily magazine.

It was an interesting array of journalists who cycled through the paper during the three years I was there, including Kate Philips and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner David Barstow, both now with the New York Times; former Washington Post White House reporter and current Politico editor John F. Harris (also the author of The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House and co-author of The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008; and Jim McCommons, author of Waiting on a Train, about his year of travel aboard Amtrak trains.

Two other colleagues from that era, Marla Dickerson and Reed Johnson, work for the Los Angeles Times (we also worked together, with new novelist Julia at The Detroit News, and Steve Dollar is a prolific freelance critic and author of Jazz Guide: New York City. And the list goes on.

Quite the springboard, the Times-Union was, quite the springboard...


Let William Hughes tell you my Detroit: A Biography story

March 21, 2012

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

Cover of the audio version of Detroit: A Biography
This is lot of fun for me. A few months back, Blackstone Audiobooks bought the rights to Detroit: A Biography, and it looks like their version is already available. The cover is different from the print version, and the narrator is William Hughes, who, I noticed, also read The Soloist, by columnist and former Los Angeles Times colleague Steve Lopez. The book is based on Lopez's columns about a homeless classical musician, and was also made into a movie. So here's hoping some of that success rubs off via Hughes.

If you go to the Blackstone site for , there's a button to click that plays a short sample from the book. They selected a snippet from the chapter about the onset of the Great Depression in Detroit. It begins:
The “Roaring Twenties” party in Detroit – and elsewhere – ended less abruptly than we think. In retrospect, we tend to look at the stock market meltdown of late October 1929 as the economic collapse that sank into the Great Depression. In truth, signs of the bursting bubble began emerging well before then (and this is a bit of an historical mine field, with debates still ongoing over what really happened to spur the worldwide depression). In February of 1929, concerned over the vast amounts of money the nation’s private banks were lending to speculators investing in the stock market, the Federal Reserve asked member banks to “restrain the use, either directly or indirectly, of Federal Reserve credit facilities in aid of the growth of speculative credit.” It didn’t do much good. Broad consumer faith in the economic boom began to falter, and then turned into a financial panic with the Wall Street selloff, likely sparked by a mix of scandals and feared regulation of public utilities, and criticism at home and abroad of the “speculative orgy” on Wall Street. News stories detailed the first hemorrhages, which helped fuel the panic. In rapid order, several million people lost their jobs, their life savings, and their homes. Banks failed across the nation, and personal fortunes large and small evaporated. Small businesses withered and died; homeowners were evicted; farmers were booted off land they could no longer afford to tend. In an era of unregulated banking, thousands of small banks shut their doors, never to re-open, the deposits of their customers gone. By the end of 1931, the Great Depression was on. Billions of dollars of equity evaporated as the nation’s publicly traded companies lost 73 percent of their value through 1932 (ultimately the market would lose 90 percent of its value).
So go ahead, all you commuters, buy a copy of the audiobook and for a few days, anyway, start your workdays with my words - and Hughes's voice - in your ears.


A nice overview of Detroit: A Biography from Atlantic Cities

March 12, 2012

Tags: current events, history, personal

One of the websites on my daily list of visits is The Atlantic Cities, part of the publishing group that puts out The Atlantic monthly magazine. Great site with a lot of interesting looks at slices of urban existence. So it makes me doubly happy to see them with a nice write up today of Detroit: A Biography (the writer, David Lepeska, interviewed me last week):
That the price of a house in Detroit can cost less today than a new car seems one of the great ironies of 21st century America. But no major city has been harder hit by the recent recession, or by the decades of manufacturing attrition that preceded it, than the Motor City.

It’s famously lost a quarter of its population in the last decade and 60 percent since 1950, and now sits on the brink of bankruptcy. “We are at a critical and pivotal time like none in Detroit's history,” Mayor Dave Bing said in his state of the city speech Wednesday.

In his forthcoming book, Detroit: A Biography, journalist Scott Martelle details how the city – felled by one of the great innovations of the industrial era, a grave lack of official foresight and swirling poverty and prejudice – has come to redefine urban collapse.


E-books, Amazon, and the looming cultural decline

March 9, 2012

Tags: current events, history, bookstores

Scott Turow, who when he's not writing best-selling books is a lawyer and president of the Author's Guild, posted a letter a little bit ago on the organization's websites that bears reading by anyone who loves books.

Turow lays out the background of the fight over e-books and their prices, and what it could mean if the Department of Justice steps in, as is becoming likely, and tries to stop efforts by five publishers and Apple to create some competition for Amazon (and Nook). It's complicated, so I urge you to read Turow's letter. But the key passage to me is:
"Our concern about bookstores isn't rooted in sentiment: bookstores are critical to modern bookselling. Marketing studies consistently show that readers are far more adventurous in their choice of books when in a bookstore than when shopping online. In bookstores, readers are open to trying new genres and new authors: it’s by far the best way for new works to be discovered. ... For those of us who have been fortunate enough to become familiar to large numbers of readers, the disappearance of bookstores is deeply troubling, but it will have little effect on our sales or incomes. Like rock bands from the pre-Napster era, established authors can still draw a crowd, if not to a stadium, at least to a virtual shopping cart. For new authors, however, a difficult profession is poised to become much more difficult."
That includes me. Detroit: A Biography is my third book, but no one could make the case that I'm a well-known author (as the joke goes, I'm not even famous in y house). In early April, Detroit: A Biography will be featured for two weeks on Barnes & Nobles' "New In Nonfiction" shelves in nearly 700 stores across the country.

In an Amazon-run book world, I would never get that exposure. And thousands of readers wouldn't have the opportunity for a moment of serendipity, to chance across that wonderful cover created by the Chicago Review Press graphics folks, and discover both a new work, and a new author.

Akin to the decline in our journalism, we are increasingly becoming an electorate informed by the echoes of what we already know. To have our reading public fall into that same pit of ignorance does not bode well for us as a culture, or a responsive democracy. This is an important issue. I urge you to follow it developments, and to act when it becomes appropriate.


Books, books, and more books; my friends have been busy

March 2, 2012

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, fiction

My wife and I wandered over to the UC Irvine Bookstore last night for a talk and signing by Anne-Marie O'Connor, a former colleague at the Los Angeles Times, who has just published her first book, The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Good talk about a valuable painting done in fin de siecle Vienna, stolen by Nazis, and finally recovered by descendants of the true owner a few years ago. It should be a great read; I remember Annie's journalism about the legal battle when she was at the LA Times.

But it has me thinking also about the other books I've recently read, or have on my "to read" stack, which is beginning to resemble that tower in Pisa. All by friends and acquaintances published this spring or in the previous few months, alphabetically:

- Julia Heaberlin's debut novel Playing Dead (in galley; out in May)
- Adam Hochschild's World War One-era history,To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918
- Domenica Marchetti's most recent cookbook, The Glorious Pasta of Italy
- Robin Mather's The Feast Nearby: How I lost my job, buried a marriage and found my way by keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering and eating locally (all on forty dollars a week)
- Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer's The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
- Maile Meloy's children's book, - Lisa See's Dreams of Joy
- Julia Flynn Siler's Lost Kingdom: Hawaii's Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America's First Imperial Adventure

That's a lot of busy writers.


It's real - got the first Detroit: A Biography in the mail yesterday

March 1, 2012

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

I received the first copy of Detroit: A Biography in the mail yesterday, which as you might suspect is a pretty cool feeling. And the designers at Chicago Review Press did a wonderful job with the cover, which, as best as I can describe it, has a bit of a mock dull-metal finish to the paper. It works beautifully with the 1929 picture of Detroit taken from the Windsor side of the Detroit River, which I found in the Library of Congress digital archives (lot of great photos there). From a practical standpoint this means copies of the book should start showing up at retailers in a couple of weeks or so.

And I have some wonderful news on that front, too. Barnes & Noble will be featuring Detroit: A Biography in all of its stores (nearly 700 nationwide) from April 3-16, placing it on the “new in nonfiction” tables and racks. That should get the book in front of readers who might not otherwise find it. Let’s hope they pick up a copy!

And for you Michiganders, I’ll be in the state—Detroit, Ann Arbor, Lansing—the first week of April for a series of appearances (details after the jump). I’ll also be on the Craig Fahle Show on WDET-FM in Detroit on April 3 (show starts at 10 a.m.), and we’re hoping for other media events. And I’ll be talking at a couple of classes at Wayne State University, too. Should be a busy and fun week.

As always, thanks for the interest and the support. (more…)
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About me


A third-generation journalist, I was born in Scarborough, Maine, and grew up there and in Wellsville, New York, about two hours south of Buffalo. My first newspaper job came at age 16, writing a high school sports column for the Wellsville Patriot, a weekly (defunct), then covering local news part-time for the Wellsville Daily Reporter.

After attending Fredonia State, where I was editor of The Leader newspaper and news director for WCVF campus radio, I worked in succession for the Jamestown Post-Journal, Rochester Times-Union (defunct), The Detroit News and the Los Angeles Times, where I covered presidential and other political campaigns, books, local news and features, including several Sunday magazine pieces.

An active freelancer, my work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Sierra Magazine, Los Angeles magazine, Orange Coast magazine, New York Times Book Review (books in brief), Buffalo News, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center), Solidarity (United Auto Workers) and elsewhere. I teach or have taught journalism courses at Chapman University and UC Irvine, and speak occasionally at school and college classes about journalism, politics and writing. I've appeared on panels at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the Literary Orange festival, moderated panels at the Nieman Conference in Narrative Journalism and the North American Labor History Conference, among others, and been featured on C-SPAN's Book TV.

I'm also a co-founder of The Journalism Shop, a group of journalists (most fellow former Los Angeles Times staffers) available for freelance assignments.



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