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Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story Paperback – September 20, 2016
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* A Best Book of 2015 (The Economist) *
* Winner - Robert F. Kennedy Book Award *
“Elegiac and richly detailed . . . Maraniss . . . conjures those boom years of his former hometown with novelistic ardor. Using overlapping portraits of Detroiters (from politicians to musicians to auto execs), he creates a mosaiclike picture of the city that has the sort of intimacy and tactile emotion that Larry McMurtry brought to his depictions of the Old West, and the gritty sweep of David Simon’s HBO series “The Wire.” . . . People’s experiences intersect or collide or resonate with one another, and Mr. Maraniss uses them as windows on the larger cultural and political changes convulsing the nation in the ‘60s . . . [Maraniss] succeeds with authoritative, adrenaline-laced flair. . . . Maraniss cuts among story lines about the auto industry, the civil rights movement and City Hall, and among subplots involving Ford’s development of its top-secret new car (the singular Mustang), the police commissioner’s efforts to get the goods on the mobster Tony Giacalone and Berry Gordy’s construction of a hit factory with Motown. The result is a buoyant Frederick Lewis Allen-like social history that’s animated by an infectious soundtrack and lots of tactile details, and injected with a keen understanding of larger historical forces at work – both in Detroit and America at large. . . . Maraniss’s evocative book provides a wistful look back at an era when those cracks were only just beginning to show, and the city still seemed a place of “uncommon possibility” and was creating “wondrous and lasting things.” (Michiko Kakutani for The New York Times)
“Captivating . . . Maraniss hears the joyous sound of a city suddenly, improbably filled with hope. . . . Maraniss asks himself what in the city has lasted, a question that often haunts former Detroiters. The songs, he decides. Not the reforms, not the dream of racial justice, not the promise of a Great Society, but the wonderfully exuberant songs that came pouring out of Berry Gordy’s studio. That’s the tragedy at the core of this gracious, generous book. All that remains of the hopeful moment Maraniss so effectively describes is a soundtrack. And that isn’t nearly enough.” (The Washington Post)
“Once in a Great City is incandescent. Through evocative writing and prodigious research, David Maraniss offers us an unforgettable portrait of 1963 Detroit, muscular and musical, during the early days of Motown and the Mustang. Bursting with larger than life figures from Henry Ford II, Walter Reuther, and Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, to Berry Gordy, Martin Luther King, and Reverend C.L. Franklin, Aretha's father, this book is at once the chronicle of a city during its last fine time and also a classic American story of promise and loss.” (Gay Talese)
“The great virtue of Maraniss’s bighearted book is that it casts a wide net, collecting and seeking to synthesize these seemingly disparate strands. . . . Even where material is familiar, the connections Maraniss makes among these figures feel fresh. He’s even better on the lesser known. . . . Motown is clearly where Maraniss’s heart is, and it is where his materials—music, race, civil rights—come together most naturally. . . . You finish Once in a Great City feeling mildly shattered, which is exactly as it should be.” (New York Times Book Review)
“Maraniss has written a book about the fall of Detroit, and done it, ingeniously, by writing about Detroit at its height, Humpty Dumpty’s most poignant moment being just before he toppled over. . . . An encyclopedic account of Detroit in the early sixties, a kind of hymn to what really was a great city. . . . The display of municipal energies is so impressive that every page haunts us with the questions What went wrong? How could so much go so wrong so rapidly? How did a city of so many fruitful tensions and monuments and intermediary institutions turn into the ruins we see now, with scarcely a third of its 1950 population remaining and so many of the sites that Maraniss mentions ruined or destroyed?” (The New Yorker)
“David Maraniss is a journalist's journalist. . . . the book explores the optimism that existed in those days and the signs of major problems to come. It's a fascinating political, racial, economic and cultural tapestry.” (Detroit Free Press)
“David Maraniss turns back the clock to paint the picture of an American metropolis in its prime, however, one where the seeds of the city’s future fall were already starting to take root. . . . Maraniss’s recounting of the story of his birthplace has the distinct feeling of the first big drop of a roller coaster. A car chugging upward towards heady heights, but en route takes an inevitable plunge back into cold reality. . . . Maraniss is able to give these characters life by injecting them with foibles along with the force of personality that made them prominent figures in the building of the city. . . . The simple breadth of the book is impressive, with Maraniss merging and wrangling disparate storylines about culture, politics, race, and the Ford Mustang into a single patchwork image of the Motor City.” (Christian Science Monitor)
“A compelling portrait of one of America’s most iconic cities. . . . Maraniss highlights the class and race frictions that demarcated and defined the city and gives readers a glimpse of the colorful life of mobsters and moguls, entertainers and entrepreneurs. Among the famous Detroiters he highlights are Henry Ford II, Lee Iacocca, Berry Gordy Jr., George Romney, and the Reverend C. L. Franklin. Maraniss captures Detroit just as it is both thriving and dying, at the peak of its vibrancy and on the verge of its downfall.” (Booklist (starred review))
About the Author
Born in Detroit, David Maraniss is an associate editor at The Washington Post. Maraniss is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and bestselling author of Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story; First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton; Rome 1960: The Olympics that Stirred the World; Barack Obama: The Story; Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero; They Marched into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967; and When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi, which was hailed by Sports Illustrated as “maybe the best sports biography ever published.” He lives in Washington, DC, and Madison, Wisconsin.
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David Maraniss was a reporter for the Washington Post and has written a number of other books, including a brilliant biography of Vince Lombardi, which I highly recommend. He was born in Detroit although his family moved when he was young. I think this is a great book.
The book covers the time period roughly from late 1962 to late 1964, with the emphasis being on 1963, a time when America was truly on top of the world although cracks were beginning to show. Detroit was at its height; the country as a whole was prosperous, the car industry was booming, and no one, I'm sure, could possibly have imagined a time when Japanese cars would be a serious threat to the Ford, Chrysler, and GM. Detroit was a vibrant, dynamic city which, in fact, even bid on the 1968 Summer Olympics, a fact which astonished me; indeed, Detroit was selected over Los Angeles as the American bidder for the games. (The Games eventually went to Mexico City.) It's simply incredibly today to think about Detroit as being a serious competitor for the Olympics. But that's what Detroit was in 1963. And the auto industry helped to create a solid middle class African-American community which, ultimately, fueled the growth of Motown, probably one of, if not the, first large-scale African-American enterprises. The auto industry, despite the racism of many union members (and, yes, they were racists), enabled many black families to purchase pianos, which created a pool of musical talent that fueled the Motown sound, which remains one of the aspects of American culture that is most embraced by the rest of the world. (Sorry, Richard Spencer.) When Maraniss was describing the songs that came out, I found myself humming along.
Yet, even in 1963, there were portents of what was to come. Already the city was beginning to lose residents, losing 200,000 between 1960 and 1964. Maraniss suggests that much of this was caused by urban renewal projects, which built freeways through downtown, destroying solid African-American neighborhoods, and enabling whites to move to the suburbs and still easily commute into the city for work. Maraniss argues that the movement of whites into the suburbs created a pool of vacant housing in those neighborhoods; the destruction of the thriving black communities forced African-Americans into those previously white neighborhoods, which, in turn, led to more outmigration by whites, fueled in large part by unscrupulous "blockbusting" realtors.
A lot of conservatives reviewing books on Detroit complain about the emphasis on racism in Detroit's decline. And, while this is beyond the kin of the book, I'm comfortable in saying that there were many other factors besides racism that led to the Detroit we know today. Nevertheless, there was plenty of pure racism in Detroit. In 1963, Detroit had a liberal mayor (Jerome Cavanagh) and the governor of Michigan was George Romney (Mitt's father). George Romney was a Republican of a kind that would beggar belief today; he probably would not be allowed into a Republican convention. Both the mayor and governor were more liberal than a large proportion of their constituents. At the time, many neighborhoods in Detroit had covenants, either official or informal, that either prohibited or restricted selling houses to minorities. Of course, this was especially applied to African-Americans. In 1963, the Detroit City Council considered a bill to outlaw restrictive covenants (w.hich were later outlawed by the US Supreme Court). Because of pressure from whites (and Maraniss quotes several of the letters to the City Council), the Council rejected the bill. (He also cites a statement in a different context by Rush Limbaugh's father to the effect that their home town of Cape Girardeau, Missouri never had a black resident and never would. Like father, like son, I guess).
Still, it's a largely upbeat picture of Detroit in 1963, shadowed, of course, by the knowledge of what is to come. I found the discussion of the car industry and the completely different cultural context most interesting. Maraniss focuses primarily on Ford and, especially, on Henry Ford II, the original Henry Ford's grandson. He was quite a character or a cad depending on your point of view. It's actually pretty amusing reading about how the auto executives lived and how the various neighborhoods were segregated according to how high up people were. Presidents and CEOs of the companies lived in one neighborhood; the even tonier neighborhoods were reserved for people like the Fords. It was a very stratified society; they certainly would not live with the Hoi Polloi. Young women in this set still had elaborate "coming out" parties which, in 1963 had a much different meaning than it does now. It seems quaint and sort of innocent reading about it today.
The one mistake I think Maraniss made is that he started venturing off into stories that were only tangentially related to Detroit. For example, he spends a lot of time discussing how the team trying to land the Olympics for Detroit went to Switzerland to present to the International Olympic Committee. Fine, but he spends too much time talking about details of the trip that really had nothing to do with Detroit.
Ultimately, this is a sad story because, as I noted, there is always a foreshadowing of what is to come. The arrogance of the Big 3 and its refusal to accept that the public was starting to want smaller cars eventually decimated the American car industry and Detroit itself. Detroit still has a significant car industry (and the concomitant suppliers and contractors to the industry)but much of it is outside of Detroit. The city is slowly recovering I suppose but whatever it becomes it will not be like the Detroit of 1963.
And yes, I saw it change almost overnight during the 1967 riots (and yes, they were riots). I watched my father's heart break at the crushing blow to the city he deeply loved and cared about. In a few days time, those disturbances seemingly wiped out all the progress and the immensely successful and renowned work he and many others did to make Detroit a "Model City".
And yet as Mr. Maraniss says so insightfully, all of the writing was on the wall. Detroit's trend downwards was ever so subtle yet it had begun 10 years before the time period he chose to write about. While it was not evident to anyone but the scholar at the time, some of the bricks in the Detroit's foundation were beginning to come out. After all, why was the city selected as a "Model City", the subject of a President's grand vision for revitalized urban life and the recipient of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds to accomplish that unless there is/was some inherent decay already in existence. Money certainly wasn't what the sick patient needed.
To me, it is obvious that Mr. Maraniss wrote about a city that had meant something to him in one way as a native son and as another as an expatriate and adult, able to have stepped aside and seen the larger picture. And yet, while his book can be viewed as a harbinger or lesson for others to live by, it can also be viewed as a city that has not and will not die. I think of his portrayal of Detroit during this time as similar to Florence during the Renaissance when from all corners appear the most diverse and singular men and women, injecting their lives into and placing their stamp upon a local place, its results being long-lasting and with far-reaching effects. We are still seeing those effects in many, many examples today. And GREAT cities don't just go away. And it is unfair to say that Detroit was this or was that, as if the past is the only definition of a living thing. Everything changes. We are here to learn from the past. No, Detroit is not what it was when I was the son of the Mayor but it is still alive and getting better all the time with the same solid commitment and determination from its citizens as it has had at any other time. The methodology might be different but the purpose is still the same. Its greatness is what keeps people's hands in the mix; the effort to preserve what can be preserved, restore what can be restored and build what can be built. Do I miss the old Detroit of David Maraniss's book? Of course. And even more so after reading his exquisitely researched, exhaustive character studies and incredibly loving and entertaining book that captures two of the most ground-shaking years of 20th century Detroit.
Ideally, an author writes about what he or she loves. Once completed, the books or poems become their children. Personally, I felt much his personal involvement and even love behind Mr. Maraniss's story. This gives the book part of its vitality. His zeal for his subject is evident and his unmatchable skills as a writer and story teller have helped propel Detroit back into the chatter. No bad can come of this. Cities once "GREAT" never die. Yes, they get a lot of symbolic dirt thrown over their prematurely buried caskets and people want to hang the crepe LONG before the ceremony has begun. But as Detroit did not see its transition from GREAT to deeply troubled occur in weeks, months or a few years, so it will not see its current rebirth occur in one fell swoop. Change is only noticeable to those who have a perch on a high vantage point and years to have passed by from which to assess. Ah yes, then, the less scholarly Monday Morning Quarterbacking begins by people who in most cases were not even involved, present or even alive. The image of Detroit excites this behavior like no other city in the United States does. But as long as the chatter is going, the City is alive. Having been provided with an urban blueprint such as David Maraniss gives us, we should take all the good in it and through away the bad. To use a metaphor, Maraniss's outstanding research and writing has provided us with the cliff notes. He's done the heavy lifting for us. Florence is great, yet its impact ended over 400 years ago. Rome is still great, although it fell in the 500's. Athens is another example. There are many more. Like those "dead" cities, they are still great. And whether one can compare any or all of this fact to Detroit, Mr. Maraniss's powerful rendering of its amazing history in these monumental years between 1962-1964, make me feel that no other city has a past more enviable than Detroit's. It is Detroit's GREAT past that serves as a major component of its present success. As in years gone by Detroit the former "Model City", can and is using the lessons from the past to create something unique again-something unique as the years from 1962-1964 were. We have David Maraniss to thank for clearing our vision so as not to step into the same holes again. We have been reminded of our storied past and been provided with the trajectory. It is up to us. Maraniss has given us a wonderful romp and yet where necessary, a harsh (it's for your own good) bed-side script that we can efficaciously use with respect to Detroit or any other ailing city.