I was in Detroit the past couple of days and had a conversation with author David Maraniss, who’s got a new book out about Detroit from late 1962 to spring of ’64, when the city seemed like it had never been stronger. Ford, GM and Chrysler were selling cars to beat the band. Motown was becoming nationally known. And Detroit was a center of the civil rights movement. Yet, at the same time, it had already started falling apart. Maraniss was born in Detroit, lived there until he was 6 1/2, so when we set up the interview, we thought we’d do it in front of the house he lived as a kid, right at the corner of Clairmount and Dexter. Except it’s not there anymore. The same thing that’s happening in much of that city.
On why it took so long to write the book:
Well I have to become obsessed with something to write a book about it, and devote three years of my life to it. I had been writing about politics and sports, and it was bubbling up inside of me probably. And then it was the right time. It just felt right. I was in New York City watching the 2011 Super Bowl on TV, and at half time this incredible commercial came on with Eminem driving through the streets on Detroit, and of course it was just trying to sell Chryslers, but it sold me on something different. I mean I teared up watching it. My wife said, “You sucker, what’re you falling for that for?” But it started making me think about, “Why Detroit?” I was born here, my earliest strong memories are in this neighborhood. I think that I wanted to honor Detroit. Of course it meant something personal to me, but I think it’s such an American story. I think that, at the time I started writing it, it was before the bankruptcy, it was when Detroit was regarded as the city of ruins. But I wanted to remind people, along with the shadows of the troubles, what Detroit gave America.
On what Detroit represented:
Well, think about what America stands for, and you know, the American Dream. It was in Detroit that Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech before he did it in Washington. It was in Detroit where the United Auto Workers, this powerful union, really helped bring up the American working middle class, which is representative of the American Dream. So, in so many different ways I think that Detroit represented the best of America, and then the sort of failings of this country, not just the city, but the nation in dealing with its urban dilemma.
Author David Maraniss spent the first six years of his life in a house on Dexter Avenue in Detroit. The house has suffered the same fate as many in this neighborhood — it’s been destroyed. (Tommy Andres/Marketplace)
On the city dying from inside:
Yes, it was luminescent but it was a dying light in some ways. This book takes place before the 1967 riots, before the municipal corruption that became so well known in later decades, before the major city labor contracts and pensions, and those are what some people blame the demise of Detroit on. And yet structurally, you could see this perfect storm already being built of urban renewal, changing the racial dynamics of the city, of racial tension building, of a one-company town with the auto industry already moving out of Detroit in so many different ways, of the freeways, you know the city that built cars built these freeways that helped people get out of town. All of this combining in a way that, in 1963 in the middle of my book, sociologists at Wayne State University predict exactly what was going to happen. They said that the city would lose a half million people in the next decade and it would continue from there, and sadly that’s what happened.
David Maraniss and Kai Ryssdal stand in front of the house where Berry Gordy started Motown Records. (Tommy Andres/Marketplace)
On the people who made Detroit:
Well it depends on what people think of Detroit. If they think of the Detroit of Ruins, I don’t think so. If they think of what Detroit gave America in terms of music, and cars, and civil rights, and labor, yes those are the people. Walter Ruther, who led the United Auto Workers, I think is one of the most important figures of the twentieth century who has been neglected to some degree. What he did in terms of bringing up the working middle class. Another character in the book is Aretha Franklin’s father, Reveren C. L. Franklin, who organized the civil rights march that brought Dr. King to Detroit. A very charismatic, flamboyant character. You can’t underestimate Barry Gordy and what Motown means to the soundtrack of this country. And then you have Henry Ford the Second, the deuce, who was leading Ford Motor Company during that period. And him and Lee Iacocca helping create the Mustang. So, I think all of those things are what people can remember about Detroit whether that’s what they think of first now is another question.
On the piano’s contribution to Detroit:
That was a thrilling moment when I sort of was trying to figure out why are there creative bursts in certain places at certain times. What made Motown magic in Detroit? Now of course you had Barry Gordy, this great entrepreneur and skillful student of great music. But what else was there? Well you had the oral tradition of Southern, African Americans coming up to Detroit and their songs, and the church and so on. But one thing I discovered was that Detroit is a vast geographic place, 28 miles across, with all of these, then single-family homes. And a great piano company, Grinnell Brothers Piano, that provided homes to so many working class people that had disposable income. And those pianos, the churches, the oral tradition and great music teachers and the Detroit Public Schools, all helped this creative burst that created Motown.
A makeshift church sits between houses on Taylor Street in Central Detroit. (Tommy Andres/Marketplace)
Read an excerpt from “Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story” below.
In a sense this book had been in the works since the summer of 1949, when I was born at Women’s Hospital in Detroit, but the inspiration came on Super Bowl Sunday in early February 2011 as I watched the title game at a bar in midtown Manhattan. At halftime, with the Green Bay Packers on their way to victory, I was caught in the swirl of emotions of an anxious fan and barely paying attention to the studio commentary and commercials. Then I looked up at the screen to see a green freeway sign that said DE- TROIT. A series of images flashed by in rhythm to a pulsing sound track. Wintry landscape. Smokestacks. Abandoned factories. World-class archi- tecture. The Joe Louis Fist. The Diego Rivera mural Detroit Industry. Ice skaters gliding, runners in hooded sweatshirts pounding onward, deter- mined to keep going. The giant sculpture The Spirit of Detroit. A narrator, his voice confidently embracing the scene: Now we’re from America. But this isn’t New York City, or the Windy City, or Sin City, and it certainly isn’t the Emerald City.
The camera swooped inside a Chrysler 200, leathered warm and black, and there was Marshall Mathers, the singer known as Eminem, cruising down Woodward Avenue in his hometown, city of my birth, the back beat hypnotic as he approached the Fox Theater and stepped from the sedan and past the golden marquee and walked down the aisle toward a black gospel choir, robed in red and black, their voices rising high and hopeful into the darkness from the floodlit stage. Then silence, and Eminem point- ing at the camera: This is the Motor City. This is what we do.
By the time it was over, I was choked up. It took my wife to point out the obvious: this was a commercial, playing on emotion, selling something, image more than reality, and Detroit was a mess, its people struggling. All inarguably true, yet I also realized that my response was real and had been triggered by something deeper than propaganda. I had lived in Detroit for the first six and a half years of my life. My earliest memories were there, in our flat on Dexter Avenue and house near Winterhalter School, where I learned to read and write in an integrated classroom. Hudson’s department store, the Boblo boat, Belle Isle, Briggs Stadium, Vernors ginger ale, the Rouge pool, the Fisher Y, the Ford Rotunda out by the highway on the way to our grandparents’ house in Ann Arbor—these were the primordial places and things of my early consciousness. I’ve spent the rest of my life elsewhere, most of it in the college towns of Madison and Austin and in Washington, D.C., so I’d never thought of myself as a Detroiter. But Detroit came first, and the Chrysler commercial, whatever its intent, got me think- ing in another direction.
I had no interest in buying the car; I wanted to write about the city. Detroit’s decay was already in the news, and its eventual bankruptcy was predictable, but its vulnerable condition was something others could ana- lyze. If the Detroit of today had become a symbol of urban deterioration, it seemed important not to forget its history and a legacy that offered so many reasons to pull for its recovery. The story of Detroit was not just about the life and times of one city. The automobile, music, labor, civil rights, the middle class—so much of what defines our society and culture can be traced to Detroit, either made there or tested there or strengthened there. I wanted to illuminate a moment in time when Detroit seemed to be glowing with promise, and to appreciate its vital contributions to American life. To tell the story, I chose to go back not to the fifties, when my family lived there, but once again to the sixties, a decade I’ve explored in various ways in many of my books. It was not intentional, but as I was finishing, I came to think of Once in a Great City as the middle text in a sixties trilogy, filling the gap in time and theme between Rome 1960, about the sports and politics of the Summer Olympics, and They Marched into Sunlight, dealing with the Vietnam war and the antiwar movement in 1967.
The city itself is the main character in this urban biography, though its populace includes many larger-than-life figures—from car guy Henry Ford II to labor leader Walter Reuther; from music mogul Berry Gordy Jr. to the Reverend C. L. Franklin, the spectacular Aretha’s father—who take Detroit’s stage one after another and eventually fill it.
The chronology here covers eighteen months, from the fall of 1962 to the spring of 1964. Cars were selling at a record pace. Motown was rocking. Labor was strong. People were marching for freedom. The president was calling Detroit a “herald of hope.” It was a time of uncommon possibility and freedom when Detroit created wondrous and lasting things. But life can be luminescent when it is most vulnerable. There was a precarious bal- ance during those crucial months between composition and decomposi- tion, what the world gained and what a great city lost. Even then, some part of Detroit was dying, and that is where the story begins.
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