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Tuesday, June 6, 2017

“Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story”, by David Maraniss

464 pages, Simon & Schuster, ISBN-13: 978-1476748399

In Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story David Maraniss does what no other author can: puts the Detroit story into a global perspective that is educational, informative and fun to any reader anywhere. The book covers the time period roughly from late 1962 to late 1964 (with the emphasis being on 1963), a time when America (and Detroit) was truly on top of the world…although cracks were just 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 Olympics 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.

The auto industry, besides being the arbiter of the world, helped to create a solid middle class across the country but especially in Detroit and amongst African-Americans 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 (with each song described in the book I found myself subconsciously humming along).

Yet even in 1963 there were portents of what was to come. Already the city was beginning to lose residents, up to 200,000 between 1960 and 1964. Maraniss suggests that much of this was caused by urban renewal projects which built freeways through a once-vibrant downtown and destroying a slew of solid African-American neighborhoods while simultaneously 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 ‘burbs 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.

There were many other factors besides racism that led to the Detroit we know today, and racism has to be included amongst the culprits. In 1963, Detroit had a Democrat Mayor (Jerome Cavanagh) and Michigan had a Republican Governor (George Romney; Mitt’s father) who were both more liberal than large proportions of their respective constituents. At this time many neighborhoods in Detroit had covenants, either official or informal, that either prohibited or restricted selling houses to minorities; this was especially applied to African-Americans. In 1963, the Detroit City Council considered a bill to outlaw restrictive covenants (which were later outlawed by the US Supreme Court) but because of pressure from whites the Council rejected the bill.

Still, it’s a largely upbeat picture of Detroit in 1963, shadowed, of course, by the foreknowledge 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 cad – depending on your point of view). It’s actually pretty interesting to read about how the auto executives lived and how the various neighborhoods were segregated according to how high up people were: executives and CEOs of the companies lived in one neighborhood, while 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 makes is in 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 tragedy because, as noted above, there is always a foreshadowing of what is to come. The arrogance of the Big Three and their 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 and, indeed, the US. The city is slowly recovering, I suppose, but whatever it becomes it will not be like the Detroit of 1963.

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