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Detroit: A Biography Hardcover – April 1, 2012

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Detroit: A Biography + Detroit: An American Autopsy + Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City's Majestic Ruins
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Chicago Review Press (April 1, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 156976526X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1569765265
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 6.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (63 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #325,489 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"Scott Martelle has the rare ability to bring alive a patch of history from several hundred years ago as skillfully as he does a present-day Detroiter in his living room. This is an extraordinary riches-to-rags story that raises big questions for national policy."  —Adam Hochschild, author of To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918

“The world can learn much from this bittersweet history of urban grit and strength that has now become a 21st-century symbol for industry, loss, and renewal.” —M. L. Liebler, award-winning Detroit poet and editor of Working Words: Punching the Clock and Kicking Out the Jams


“Detroit has played a crucial role in American urban, industrial, and ethnic history, today it is central to any discussion of the future of the nation's cities.  Scott Martelle has done a wonderful job of capturing the essence of Detroit from its early history on the Western Frontier to "Motor City" to today's urban crisis.” —Dominic A. Pacyga, author of Chicago: A Biography

"[Detroit] offers an informative albeit depressing glimpse of the workings of a once-great city that is now a shell of its former self."—Publishers Weekly

"[Martelle's] unsentimental assessment is rich with cold, hard facts about those responsible for what Detroit became and what it is today." —Booklist

"A valuable biography sure to appeal to readers seeking to come to grips with important problems facing not just a city, but a country." —Kirkus

"While the book focuses on Detroit, readers everywhere will find his analysis useful in understanding what many cities are experiencing."  —Solidarity

"[Detroit] offers an engaging, provocative introduction."  —Los Angeles Times

About the Author

Scott Martelle, the author of The Fear Within and Blood Passion, is a veteran journalist and former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and the Detroit News, whose work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Sierra magazine, and other outlets.

More About the Author

Find details about author and journalist Scott Martelle, an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times, at his website,, where he also occasionally blogs.

Customer Reviews

All who could left Detroit did so, even blacks who could afford to do so.
A great read for someone who wants the straight scoop and yearns to see a glimmer of hope on this once-great city's horizon.
Stephanie A. Gillett
This is actually the first book I have read on the history of Detroit and I found it very interesting.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

60 of 76 people found the following review helpful By Richard J. Gibson on March 10, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In one sitting, I enjoyed reading this little book. I think other Detroiters, and ex-Detroiters will too. Outsiders from far away might get it and see their future while nearby suburbanites could learn from it, but if history means anything, they probably won't and won't care. It's a four star effort and worth the read.
That said, I paid my dues in Detroit: born by the bridge, four generations back on my mother's side, family buried in Elmwood, WSU grad, spent half my adult life in the city living at 7 Mile and the Lodge, mostly, working in the schools and for DSS, watching the city disintegrate, leading the resistance to organized decay.
I have only encountered one "Detroit book" that I really hated but have been frustrated by some others; Detroit Dissembled for example, where the text sullies the photos. Detroit Bio could have inverted that by offering one hell of a lot more pictures. But that is a small quibble.
My bigger spat with the author is that he fails to capture the feel of the glory days of Detroit, and the affect of its wreckage. And, as an empire-thinker who doesn't notice the failures of US capitalism and imperialism, able to bribe sections of the mostly white working class for years, then betraying them as it always must, there is a bigger whole he does not witness.
Once, driving or riding a bike down Jefferson, or a walk on Washington Blvd, winter or summer, was to pass through the beauty of the connection of nature, immense trees or white white snow, with the industrial age-magnificent buildings to huddle, or cool off, inside. Then Jefferson became a hub for pre-teen crack whores selling themselves along an avenue of ruined hulks just blocks from the RenCen and Washington became and urban embarrassment with an idiot neon overlay.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By geneseo_rick on October 2, 2013
Format: Hardcover
When you can determine a bias in a historical analysis in the first few pages, you know you might be going down the primrose path.

But I digress. Ignoring this weakness, "Detroit: a Biography" is long on description and short on analytical skill. Even the time line jumps around too much. Sometimes the author digresses into short stories about individual people in the historical landscape, and this ironically turns out to be one of the brighter aspects of the book.

Anyone who is interested in the Indian wars of the 1700's, Detroit's role in the Civil War, or in Henry Ford's turn-of-the-century impact on the city, might find enough of interest in this book. But anyone who wants to learn more about the political, financial, and racial stresses that have brought this city to it's knees in the last few decades, and more specifically led to the bankruptcy of the city in 2013, will be disappointed.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Stephen Sykes on May 20, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is an important book, and I encourage you to read the epilogue first. Ask yourself how a city could get so bad that an intelligent and thoughtful author would conclude that the future is essentially hopeless. If nothing else, the book demonstrates that greed, hate and discrimination are failing social strategies.

I was born and raised in Detroit. I suspect most of the readers of the book will have been, as well. In my case, I lived a significant part of this story without understanding any of the particulars. I just thought this was how life was supposed to be. It wasn't until I moved away that I fully comprehended how unchecked corporate greed and deeply embedded racism had turned the city into a decaying rat hole.

I was born during the post-war boon, experienced the riots in my teens, and left just before the Arab oil embargo slashed a gaping wound in the auto industry. I can't imagine what it must have been like for the author to move to Detroit in the 1980s. Surely, he expected a gentrified city with nice residential areas, some lively nightlife and at least a few good restaurants. But, by then Detroit had turned into a dark and angry place.

Scott Martelle correctly outlines the big picture. The fundamental structure of the auto industry created a two class system. There was no need for educated workers, because the work itself was mind-numbingly dumb. Initially, there was a blue collar/ white collar divide. Eventually, it became a black/white divide.

Henry Ford, the father of the assembly line, was no patron saint. He didn't want his workers educated, and the author notes that there is no Henry Ford University.
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14 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Michigan Reviewer on June 5, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Tis surely a shame that the city of Detroit doesn't get some kind of royalty from all the books written about its demise. I know I have read a whole lot of them. The author gives a good overview of Detroit from the early days with the French up to present times. Nothing really new here, although his study into the negative effects of the rampant racism in Detroit are eye opening. I had a deed for my first home in western Michigan that had a restrictive clause in it. I was amazed. The realtor did point out that it would not hold up in court. I also liked his insight into the thought processes of the car company execs after WWII to return to autos at the expense of staying with the "arsenal of democracy" route. His theory is that had the auto execs remained on that track perhaps Detroit would not have been subject to as many of the economic vagaries that plagued it under the auto industry. His vignettes of actual Detroit citizens are also interesting, albeit a little on the short and shallow side. I had forgotten about the Erroll Flynns. Seems like such a long time ago. He is a little harsh, I believe, on some of the theories for reinventing Detroit. I, personally, think bulldozing neighborhoods with few inhabitants and moving them to other neighborhoods makes perfect sense. Economies of scale. Same thing happened in Flint. He also seems flippant about the idea of urban agriculture. Why not? Obviously what is happening now is not doing much good now, is it? I do respect the author for his defense of public schools and public school employees. From what I have read the teachers have very little to work with in order to turn out a quality product. The author also takes issue w Rick Snyder's new seemingly dictatorial powers in terms of naming emergency managers.Read more ›
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