Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story

  • By David Maraniss
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 464 pp.
  • Reviewed by Monica Hogan
  • November 11, 2015

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author takes an elegiac look at the Motown of the 1960s.

You don’t have to come from Detroit to find its mid-20th-century history compelling, but it doesn’t hurt. Lucky for author David Maraniss and his book, Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story, plenty of expats are eager to rehash what’s happened to their hometown. Once In a Great City celebrates Detroit’s heyday, between 1962 and 1964, and lets larger-than-life personalities promote their music, industrial output, and civic ideals.

In November 1962, Motown Records sent Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and other artists to spread its new sound on the label’s first cross-country tour. In 1963, the domestic auto industry sold more vehicles than ever before. At the height of the Mad Men era, Ford Motor Company was the biggest client of the biggest ad agency in the world and, together, they launched the now-classic Mustang in 1964. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Martin Luther King Jr. visited Detroit in the early 1960s to introduce the Peace Corps, plans for the Great Society, and a visionary dream.

One might grow restless as Maraniss moves among these myriad topics, but he does a good job of highlighting their connections. For example, Motown founder Berry Gordy mass-produced a recording of the “I Have a Dream” speech King gave in Detroit in June 1963 (before the reverend updated it in Washington). The following year, the Supremes filmed a music video at a Ford assembly line to promote the Mustang’s launch. Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, supported civil rights marches in Detroit and Washington.

Motor City unity manifested once again in October 1963, when a coalition of civic leaders, including Detroit’s Democratic mayor, Jerome Cavanagh, and George Romney, Republican governor of Michigan, traveled to Germany in a bid to bring the 1968 Summer Olympics to the shores of the Detroit River and the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club on nearby Lake St. Clair.

In so many ways, 1963 showcases Detroit at its finest, but a trip down memory lane takes a turn for the elegiac once the reader remembers the book is a work of nonfiction. It is 1963, after all; things cannot end well.

It’s hard to remain captivated by the era’s promise while knowing Kennedy — a political ally of Cavanagh’s, as well as a fellow Irish Catholic — will be shot and killed before the year ends. The country will go on to suffer other blows within half a decade, as Malcolm X, King, and Kennedy’s brother Robert are also assassinated.

Furthermore, 43 people will die in the Detroit riots of 1967, among America’s deadliest. Over the following half-century, white flight and massive auto industry lay-offs will decimate the local economy, leading the Motor City to file the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history in 2013.

Maraniss doesn’t turn a blind eye to the problems that precipitated the city’s decline. He foreshadows the downfall to come, starting in November 1962 with the burning of the Ford Rotunda tourist attraction and the same-day raid of the prominent black-owned Gotham Hotel, which was badly damaged and never re-opened.

Entire black neighborhoods were torn down in the name of urban renewal, making way for hospitals, parking lots, and the freeways that accelerated an exodus from the city. Maraniss cites a 1963 report from Wayne State University warning the city would lose half a million residents by the end of that decade.

Critics of Detroit’s decline decry its shortsightedness, but there was no lack of good intentions among leaders of the day. In 1961, newly elected Mayor Cavanagh appointed a police commissioner devoted to racial justice, but George Edwards left two years later to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals.

The United Auto Workers’ Reuther foresaw the impact automation would have on factory jobs, but his influence only went so far. Government and industry officials would not embrace his calls to waive antitrust laws so U.S. automakers could form a joint venture to design smaller cars and fight imports from Germany and Japan.

Maraniss also shares stories of several untimely deaths: Cavanagh from a heart attack in 1979, Reuther in a plane crash in 1970, and singer Aretha Franklin’s father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, a prominent civil rights activist who helped organize the Detroit Walk for Freedom, from a gunshot wound by a home invader in 1979.

In an October 14, 2015, interview with WAMU radio host Kojo Nnamdi, Between the World and Me author Ta-Nehisi Coates suggested that much of the work that drives social progress is slow, incremental, and unnoticed. “Most of our struggle in the history of this country is just dropping water into the glass. And only a few are actually around to see the glass tip.”

Back in the early 60s, civic leaders added their drops in the glass with large and small attempts to confront racial inequity, police brutality, housing discrimination, and labor rights. Northern liberals and moderates prided themselves on the contrast between their progressive efforts and the violence in the Jim Crow South.

But racial tensions confounded Detroit, too, and after its city council failed to pass an open-housing bill in 1963, protestors said the city did not merit the 1968 Olympics. Maraniss asks whether things might have been different had Detroit won the Games. With the whole world watching, “expectations would have been greater,” and city officials might have worked harder to prevent or de-escalate the 1967 riots, he writes.

Once In a Great City raises plenty of questions about what happens when a people divided are unable, despite their best intentions, to pull together. You don’t have to come from Detroit or the baby-boom generation to appreciate the implications such questions have for other U.S. cities today.

Monica Hogan has worked as a journalist in New York, Philadelphia, and suburban Washington, DC. She is currently polishing a novel set in baby-boom-era Detroit because, like millions of Detroit natives, she can’t forget the Motor City.

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