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.
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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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