‘Once in a Great City’ takes on triumphs, failures of Detroit - The Buffalo News
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‘Once in a Great City’ takes on triumphs, failures of Detroit

Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story

By David Maraniss

Simon & Schuster

464 pages, $32.50

By Colin Dabkowski

As Detroit goes, so goes America.

And man, was it firing on all cylinders in 1963, the pivotal and painful year during which the bulk of David Maraniss’ “Once in a Great City,” his masterful new narrative about a great American city, plays out.

The city’s car companies and their old-school corporate leaders were celebrating another year of record sales. The labor movement, embodied by the work of United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther, was strong. Detroit was embracing its role as a major funder and proponent of the burgeoning civil rights movement. And Motown, Berry Gordy’s homegrown musical enterprise that would soon rise to international prominence, was just getting started in a complex of houses on West Grand Boulevard.

But like all great empires past and present, industrial and political, the signs of Detroit’s decline were visible in the shadows of its rising monuments. And Maraniss, the Pulitzer-winning journalist and consummate chronicler of American politics and presidents, draws on his deep well of historical knowledge, formidable reporting skills and an almost musical writing style to explore the city’s triumphs and failures in equal measure.

From the first page, Maraniss puts you onto the bustling streets of the Motor City, where many of architect Albert Kahn’s buildings serve as neat narrative backdrops for the stories that will unfold like intricate pieces of origami through the rest of the book.

He begins with the Ford Rotunda, which symbolizes the power and ingenuity of the Ford Motor Co., which burned down in 1962 – perhaps the first sign of the conflagrations to come. He moves on to the Gotham Hotel, nexus of power for the city’s black community but also for its mercurial mob bosses, two subjects he later explores in riveting detail.

We move on to Ford’s Lincoln-Mercury assembly, where a young Berry Gordy took short breaks to work on his first songs, developing, as Maraniss wrote, “the piano of his imagination.” Then it’s off to West Grand Boulevard, where Motown was born; to Ford’s River Rouge Plant, source of so much of the city’s wealth and its historic labor movement; to Cobo Arena, where Martin Luther King delivered the first draft of the most famous speech of the 20th century; and to the exclusive suburban enclaves of executives from Ford and its advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, who together played a role in hollowing out the very city they helped to create.

Though Maraniss attacks his disparate subjects with equal vigor and intelligence, it’s clear his heart lies in the rhythms and melodies of Motown. Every few chapters, he adds a few beautiful strokes to his evolving portrait of Gordy and his growing empire. Like Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and many of the other figures whose young careers Maraniss chronicles, his prose in these sections sings.

“The boulevard was at its broadest there,” Maraniss writes, “a half football field across to the far curb, with the flat, wide-open feel of much of Detroit’s vast west side, a landscape that could evoke a sense of quotidian drowsiness if not for the jolts of creativity crackling out of that stretch of houses.”

If Motown is the heart and soul of the book, then Detroit’s central role in civil rights movement is its central nervous system. In interviews with living members of the movement and deep dives into newspaper and other first-hand accounts of the day, Maraniss gives a full and fascinating accounting of the city’s African-American community and its struggles to form a united front behind a historic visit from Martin Luther King and its aftermath.

Maraniss takes us with King, Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, labor leader Reuther and legendary preacher C.L. Franklin (father of Aretha) on the 1963 “Walk to Freedom” down Woodward Avenue.

“What does a march signify in the larger scheme of things?” Maraniss asks. “In retrospect, the Walk to Freedom on that fine June Day can seem hollow, considering all that was to happen in and to Detroit in the following years, from the 1967 riot to the decline and fall toward bankruptcy a half century later. But a moment like that collapses time and represents its own reality, apart form the day to day, transcending the harsh judgment of literal and practical perspectives.”

Likewise, “Once in a Great City” collapses 18 of the most interesting months in Detroit’s history into an addictive narrative, which both draws on history and points toward the future without being in any way didactic. To break things up, he also tosses in plenty of entertaining digressions into the dealings of mob boss Tony Giacalone and the secretive buildup to the launch of Lee Iacocca’s Ford Mustang. And as you might expect from a political expert, the book is perforated with nods to Detroit’s role in the lives of presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, each of whom considered the city and its leaders central to their civil rights, economic and labor policies.

Like his more sensationalistic fellow journalist Charlie LeDuff, whose darker “Detroit: An American Autopsy” is meant to be read as a microcosm of America’s decline, Maraniss approaches his story with full awareness of its national implications.

He knows that Detroit’s story is America’s story, that it’s failures and hopes are microcosmic versions of the nation’s. Never has that argument seemed clearer than in “Once in a Great City,” a book that does a great honor to the city that inspired it.

Colin Dabkowski is The News’ arts critic.

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