Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story by David Maraniss (review)
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Reviewed by
David Maraniss, Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016. 441pp. $32.50.

The enduring images of Detroit, Michigan, from the 1960s are those of the major riot that erupted in that epicenter of the industrial Midwest in the summer of 1967. David Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize winner and among the most accomplished writers of non-fiction in the United States, begins his Detroit story a few years before that, in the city in which he was born and lived his first six years. October of 1962 was a time of great promise for Detroit and the nation as a whole. President John F. Kennedy, who won Michigan electoral votes in 1960 with an overwhelming margin in Detroit, visited the city just before the Cuban Missile crisis burst. The Detroit that Kennedy saw was at a peak, a city of 1.7 million, and experiencing an astonishing season of creativity and possibility. Ford Motor Company was preparing to roll out its newest car, the Mustang, the advent of Motown records was underway, the city boasted an apparently thriving working class, its dynamic young Mayor, Jerome Cavanagh, was a close ally of Kennedy and a supporter of the civil rights movement as it reached its apex. All of this promise was buoyed by a rising economic tide that promised to lift all boats.

Detroit in the early 1960s (the book chronicles the months from October of 1962 to May of 1964) boasted some of the nation’s most dynamic personalities. Marannis, a talented biographer whose subjects include Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and sports legends Vince Lombardi and Roberto Clemente, [End Page 167] brings to life such vivid and disparate personalities as Henry Ford II, grandson and namesake of the founder of the Ford Motor Company, and his sometimes rival and occasional partner, Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers and one of the most powerful labor leaders in the nation. Other notable Detroit characters in these pages are Barry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, along with Diana (born Diane) Ross and Aretha Franklin, the daughter of charismatic Baptist preacher, C. L. Franklin. Indeed, Marannis emphasizes the rise of Motown, starting with the nationwide tour of its young stars in October of 1962.

He presents Motown as emblematic of the energy, creativity and even racial progress that made Detroit hum. Two months before his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, King delivered a similar address at Detroit’s Cobo Hall following a “Walk to Freedom” that included Mayor Cavanagh, Walter Reuther, and C. L. Franklin. No wonder Maraniss titled the chapter of this inspiring story as “Detroit Dreamed First.”

Another strength of Once in a Great City is Maraniss’s use of detail. He explains, for example, how Detroit’s pool of musical talent was developed through a strong music program in the city’s schools and by a local piano company whose products fit snugly into the many single family homes in Detroit. Elsewhere, Marannis describes the daily, chauffeured commutes of car company executives from their estates in the city’s exclusive suburbs to their offices and appointments downtown. As Maraniss has it “For those who accepted the order of things, all still seemed golden in the summer of 1963” (205).

Having succeeded in establishing his Detroit as an especially vital part of not only the industrial/Great Lakes Midwest but of the nation, Marannis’s book is no exercise in nostalgia. He confronts some of the signs of the trouble to come for Detroit, referring several times to findings by sociologists, made public in February of 1963, who claimed that the data they collected boded ill for the city’s future. These researchers argued that “Productive persons who pay taxes are moving out of the city, leaving behind the non-productive” (89). As Maraniss explains, the authors of the report pointed out that blacks and whites alike with the means to do so would be moving out of the city in the coming decade, a forecast that became all too true. Even in that year of genuine optimism, 1963, Detroit was already slipping...


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