Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story, by David Maraniss (Simon & Schuster, 464 pp., $32.50)

In 2015, Detroit is a byword for urban collapse, but its current fate has been predicted for decades. Time magazine began sounding the alarm about the city’s future as early as 1960, and Jane Jacobs warned of Detroit’s weaknesses in her 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Perhaps earlier warnings weren’t heeded in part because the city didn’t sputter all at once. Indeed, in 1963, Detroit had emerged from a recession and was selling more cars than ever.

In his new book, Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story, Pulitzer Prize winner David Maraniss takes a fascinating and engrossing look at the Motor City during this fateful year. Under Henry Ford II (“the Deuce”) and hard-charging salesman Lee Iacocca, the Ford Motor Company was set to unveil its revolutionary Mustang. The civil rights struggle was creating tensions in Detroit and elsewhere, but Mayor Jerome Cavanagh was committed to addressing discrimination and reforming the police. Detroit was about to transform the American musical landscape with Motown Records, whose roster of superstar artists included Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye. The United States Olympic Committee even nominated Detroit as the American representative to host the 1968 summer Olympics, though it lost out to Mexico City. On the more dubious side, the mafia had a powerful presence in the Motor City, where colorful mob boss Tony Jack Giacalone rode around town in his garish “Party Bus” painted blue and silver, the colors of the NFL’s Detroit Lions.

Maraniss’s portrait of Detroit’s black community is rich and three-dimensional. He shows black Detroiters in all their humanity, refusing simply to render them as victims. Certainly, Detroit blacks suffered serious discrimination, especially in housing and employment. Violence or the threat of it kept prospective black residents out of white neighborhoods. But Maraniss goes beyond a simplistic narrative of discrimination, and he doesn’t gloss over examples of corruption, greed, and self-seeking in the black community. For example, Detroit’s premier black-owned hotel, the Gotham, which served as the social center of its black establishment, was raided and trashed by the police; the raid proved that the hotel was the center of the city’s number racket. Maraniss is candid about the moral failings of Reverend C. L. Franklin (Aretha’s father), pastor of Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church; about Motown Records president Berry Gordy, Jr.’s later decision to abandon Detroit for Los Angeles; and even about Reverend Martin Luther King’s tough bargaining with Gordy when it comes to collecting royalties on a Motown album of his “I Have a Dream” speech. Maraniss depicts whites, such as Henry Ford II and Michigan governor George Romney, in similarly vivid colors. Maraniss’s Detroit is full of characters and rich urban life, and brings them to life with voluminous detail.

One exception to these nuanced portrayals is United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther, whom Maraniss portrays as an unambiguous hero. Maraniss likewise declines to link the UAW to the auto industry’s eventual downfall. He repeatedly highlights violence directed against the UAW—and Reuther—while ignoring the long history of union violence. Yet, while Maraniss levies no criticism, his narrative clearly portrays the UAW as a political entity deeply entwined with the Democratic Party. Reuther was more interested in politics and social activism than in auto-industry matters, even using union money to support politicians and causes many of his dues-paying members opposed. Though he was prescient about the implications of factory automation, foreign competition, and the need for fuel efficiency, Reuther’s strategy for confronting these forces came straight out of the union playbook—demands for higher wages and greater job protections—and wound up undermining his industry.

Maraniss’s copious research provides plenty to make readers on the left and the right uncomfortable. He suggests, for example, that Detroit’s famed musical culture came about in part because the city’s many single-family homes made it easy for black families to own pianos. New York progressives looking to quibble might cite their own city’s musical heritage arising from high-density apartment living. Maraniss also shows how Detroit’s urban renewal—called “Negro removal” by some—was a progressive policy popular during the Kennedy administration and carried out in Detroit under the leadership of Democratic mayor Jerry Cavanagh.

Perhaps unsure of what lessons to draw, Maraniss offers no explanation for Detroit’s fall. Once in a Great City opens with the 1962 destruction of the Ford Rotunda—a popular tourist attraction—during an accidental fire, a metaphor, it seems, for the city’s fate. Does he believe that Detroit’s collapse was merely the result of bad luck? Maybe the real lesson is that even a great city—one capable of shaping our cultural, political, and economic landscape, as Detroit once was—can fail. The Motown and the Mustang weren’t enough. It’s a sobering message for other cities complacent about their present-day success.


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