Once in a Great City: A Detroit Storyby David Maraniss
“Elegiac and richly detailed...[Maraniss] succeeds with authoritative, adrenaline-laced flair...evocative.” —Michiko Kakutani for The New York Times
As David Maraniss captures it with power and affection, Detroit summed up America’s path to music and prosperity that was/b>/i>/b>
* Winner - Robert F. Kennedy Book Award (2016) *
“Elegiac and richly detailed...[Maraniss] succeeds with authoritative, adrenaline-laced flair...evocative.” —Michiko Kakutani for The New York Times
As David Maraniss captures it with power and affection, Detroit summed up America’s path to music and prosperity that was already past history.
It’s 1963 and Detroit is on top of the world. The city’s leaders are among the most visionary in America: Grandson of the first Ford; Henry Ford II; influential labor leader Walter Reuther; Motown’s founder Berry Gordy; the Reverend C.L. Franklin and his daughter, the amazing Aretha; Governor George Romney, Mormon and Civil Rights advocate; super car salesman Lee Iacocca; Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, a Kennedy acolyte; Police Commissioner George Edwards; Martin Luther King. It was the American auto makers’ best year; the revolution in music and politics was underway. Reuther’s UAW had helped lift the middle class.
The time was full of promise. The auto industry was selling more cars than ever before and inventing the Mustang. Motown was capturing the world with its amazing artists. The progressive labor movement was rooted in Detroit with the UAW. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech there two months before he made it famous in the Washington march.
Once in a Great City shows that the shadows of collapse were evident even then. Before the devastating riot. Before the decades of civic corruption and neglect, and white flight. Before people trotted out the grab bag of rust belt infirmities—from harsh weather to high labor costs—and competition from abroad to explain Detroit’s collapse, one could see the signs of a city’s ruin. Detroit at its peak was threatened by its own design. It was being abandoned by the new world. Yet so much of what Detroit gave America lasts.
Using a combination of historical eyewitness reports and sketches of larger-than-life figures, Pulitzer-winning reporter Maraniss (Barack Obama: The Story) draws a sprawling portrait of Detroit at a pivotal moment when it was “dying and thriving at the same time.” Given its current turmoil, it is easy to forget the Detroit that once was. Between the fall of 1962 and the spring of 1964, Detroit was at its peak. It was a front-runner in the bid for the 1968 Summer Olympics; its local civil rights leaders organized the Walk to Freedom, where Martin Luther King Jr. workshopped his famous “I Have a Dream” speech; Ford Motor Co. released the Mustang; Berry Gordy was honing the soon-to-be famous “Motown sound” on West Grand Boulevard; and Walter Reuther, head of UAW, was guiding labor towards progressive reform. But even in this golden age, all was not well in Detroit. Discriminatory housing practices, intended to prevent minorities from entering the toniest neighborhoods, were exacerbating existing racial tensions, and the city’s organized crime could not be cleaned up despite the police commissioner’s best efforts. But for all his exhaustive research and evocative scene-setting, Maraniss never seems to find the zeitgeist of the historical moment he covers, the essential spirit that lifted up but ultimately ruined the Motor City. Maps & photos. Agent: Rafe Sagalyn, ICM/Sagalyn. (Sept.)
* Winner - Robert F. Kennedy Book Award *
In his new book, social historian Maraniss (They Marched Into Sunlight) asks: What happened to Detroit? In well-researched material that includes exclusive interviews with notable figures, the author concentrates his analysis on the "golden years" of Detroit in the early 1960s; an era that saw the rise of Motown and the domination of the Ford Motor Company's triumphant Mustang but was also a time of social unrest and racial conflict. He uses elements often associated with Detroit—music, athletics, motors, and race relations—to illustrate that even at the city's highest points, the inability to address the social issues dividing black and white, rich and poor, would ultimately be its undoing. Maraniss draws connections between Detroit's struggles, successes, and doubts to those same issues on the larger, national, scale, keeping the discussion in perspective. In celebration of what Detroit represented, this book is equally a study of what was lost and is written with an attractive wistfulness that pulls the reader in. The narrative's tone of reminiscence makes it entertainingly informative. VERDICT A colorful, detailed history of the rise and ultimate decline of Detroit that will appeal to sociologists, historians, music lovers, and car fans alike. [See Prepub Alert, 3/30/15.]—Elizabeth Zeitz, Otterbein Univ. Lib., Westerville, OH
Hot times in a raucous city. Biographer and Washington Post associate editor Maraniss (Barack Obama: The Story, 2013, etc.) spent only his first six and a half years in Detroit, so he was surprised when he "choked up" after seeing a car commercial extolling the Motor City. That affection inspired this fast-paced, sprawling, copiously detailed look at 18 months—from 1962 to 1964—in the city's past. During that time, big things happened in Detroit. Motown burst onto the music scene after the Motortown Revue left the city on a nationwide tour. Ford developed a new car, kept secret except from the prestigious J. Walter Thompson advertising agency; unveiled at the New York World's Fair in 1964, the Mustang became an instant, bestselling hit. Detroit fought fiercely for the 1968 Olympics, but despite support from native son Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee, Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, and Governor George Romney, Detroit lost to Mexico City. Detroit was embroiled in the civil rights movement, as well, with Cavanagh and union head Walter Reuther among many leaders taking a strong stand for racial equality. Reuther even rounded up money to bail out demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, and he never wavered in his commitment to freedom and justice. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered an early version of his "I have a dream" speech at the city's much-publicized Walk to Freedom, in which Reuther, Cavanagh, and 100,000 others marched; it was, said one participant, "a model of peaceful protest and racial cooperation" during a time of national unrest. Although overstuffed with facts (for example, that Cavanagh "kept four extra suits, thirteen striped ties," and abundant shirts in his office for a quick change), and sometimes breaching the city's boundaries to become a history of the whole country, Maraniss' brawny narrative evokes a city still "vibrantly alive" and striving for a renaissance. An illuminating history of a golden era in a city desperately seeking to reclaim the glory.
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Once in a Great City
THE NINTH OF NOVEMBER 1962 was unseasonably pleasant in the Detroit area. It was an accommodating day for holiday activity at the Ford Rotunda, where a company of workmen were installing exhibits for the Christmas Fantasy scheduled to open just after Thanksgiving. Not far from a main lobby display of glistening next-model Ford Thunderbirds and Galaxies and Fairlanes and one-of-a-kind custom dream cars, craftsmen were constructing a life-size Nativity scene and a Santa’s North Pole workshop surrounded by looping tracks of miniature trains and bountiful bundles of toys. This quintessentially American harmonic convergence of religiosity and consumerism was expected to attract more than three-quarters of a million visitors before the season was out, and for a generation of children it would provide a lifetime memory—walking past the live reindeer Donner and Blitzen, up the long incline toward a merry band of hardworking elves, and finally reaching Santa Claus and his commodious lap.
The Ford Rotunda was circular in an automotive manufacturing kind of way. It was shaped like an enormous set of grooved transmission gears, one fitting neatly inside the next, rising first 80 then 90 then 100 then 110 feet, to the equivalent of ten stories. Virtually windowless, with its steel frame and exterior sheath of Indiana limestone, this unusual structure was the creation of Albert Kahn, the prolific architect of Detroit’s industrial age. Kahn had designed it for the Century of Progress exposition in Chicago, where Ford’s 1934 exhibit hall chronicled the history of transportation from the horse-drawn carriage to the latest Ford V-8. When that Depression-era fair shuttered, workers dismantled the Rotunda and moved it from the south side shore of Lake Michigan to Dearborn, on the southwest rim of Detroit, where it was reconstructed to serve as a showroom and visitors center across from what was then Ford Motor Company’s world headquarters. Later two wings were added, one to hold Ford’s archives and the other for a theater.
In the fullness of the postwar fifties, with the rise of suburbs and two-car garages and urban freeways and the long-distance federal interstate system, millions of Americans paid homage to Detroit’s grand motor palace. For a time, the top five tourist attractions in the United States were Niagara Falls, the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, the Smithsonian Institution, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Ford Rotunda. The Rotunda drew more visitors than Yellowstone, Mount Vernon, the Statue of Liberty, or the Washington Monument. Or so the Ford publicists claimed. Chances are you have not heard of it.
To appreciate what the Rotunda and its environs signified then to Detroiters, a guide would be useful, and for this occasion Robert C. Ankony fills the role. Ankony (who went on to become an army paratrooper and narcotics squad officer, eventually earning a PhD in sociology from Wayne State University) was fourteen in November 1962, a chronic juvenile delinquent who specialized in torching garages. Desperate to avoid drudgery and boredom, he knew the Rotunda the way a disaffected boy might know it. Along with the Penobscot Building, the tallest skyscraper downtown, the Rotunda was among his favorite places to hang out when he played hooky, something he did as often as possible, including on that late fall Friday morning.
“The Highway” is what Ankony and his friends called the area where they lived in the southwest corner of Detroit. The highway was West Vernor, a thoroughfare that ran east through the neighborhood toward Michigan Central Station, the grand old beaux arts train depot, and west into adjacent Dearborn toward Ford’s massive River Rouge Complex, another Albert Kahn creation and the epicenter of Ford’s manufacturing might. In Detroit Industry, the legendary twenty-seven-panel murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts painted by Diego Rivera and commissioned by Edsel Ford, the founder’s son, among the few distinguishable portraits within the scenes of muscular Ford machines and workers is that of Kahn, wearing wire-rim glasses and work overalls. Ankony experienced Detroit industry with all of his senses: the smoke and dust and smells drifted downwind in the direction of his family’s house two miles away on Woodmere at the edge of Patton Park. His mother, Ruth, who could see the smokestacks from her rear window, hosed the factory soot off her front porch every day. What others considered a noxious odor the Ankonys and their neighbors would describe as the smell of home.
On the morning of November 9, young Bob reported to Wilson Junior High, found another boy who was his frequent collaborator in truancy, and hatched plans for the day. After homeroom, they pushed through the double doors with the horizontal brass panic bars, ran across the school grounds and over a two-foot metal fence, scooted down the back alley, and were free, making their way to West Vernor and out toward Ford country.
It was a survival course on the streets, enlivened by the thrill of avoiding the cops. Slater’s bakery for day-old doughnuts, claw-shaped with date fillings, three cents apiece. Scrounging curbs and garbage cans for empty soda bottles and turning them in for two cents each. If they had enough pennies, maybe go for a dog at the Coney Island on Vernor. Rounding the curve where Vernor turned to Dix, past the Dearborn Mosque and the Arab storefronts of east Dearborn. (Ankony’s parents were Lebanese and French; he grew up being called a camel jockey and “little A-rab.”) Fooling around at the massive slag piles near Eagle Pass. Dipping down into the tunnel leading toward the Rouge, leaning over a walkway railing and urinating on cars passing below, then up past the factory bars, Salamie’s and Johnny’s, and filching lunches in white cardboard boxes from the ledge of a sandwich shop catering to autoworkers on shift change. Skirting the historic overpass at Miller Road near Rouge’s Gate 4, where on an afternoon in late May 1937 Walter Reuther and his fellow union organizers were beaten by Ford security goons, a violent encounter that Ankony’s father, who grew up only blocks away, told his family he had witnessed. Gazing in awe at the Rouge plant’s fearsomely majestic industrial landscape from the bridge at Rotunda Road, then on to the Rotunda itself, where workmen were everywhere, not only inside installing the Christmas displays but also outside repairing the roof.
To Ankony, the Rotunda was a wonderland. No worries about truant officers; every day brought school groups, so few would take notice of two stray boys. With other visitors, including on that day a school group from South Bend, they took in the new car displays and a movie about Henry Ford, then blended in with the crowd for a factory tour that left by bus from the side of the Rotunda over to the Rouge plant, then the largest industrial complex in the United States. Ankony had toured the Rouge often, yet the flow of molten metal, the intricacies of the engine plant, the mechanized perfection of the assembly, all the different-colored car parts coming down the line and matching up, the wonder of raw material going in and a finished product coming out, the reality of scenes depicted in Rivera’s murals, thrilled him anew every time. The Rouge itself energized him even as Rivera’s famed murals frightened him. The art, more than the place itself, reminded him of the gray, mechanized life of a factory worker “in those dark dungeons” that seemed expected of a working-class Detroit boy and that he so much yearned to avoid.
When the Rouge tour ended in early afternoon, Ankony and his pal had had enough of Ford for the day and left for a shoplifting spree at the nearby Montgomery Ward store at the corner of Schaefer Road and Michigan Avenue, across the street from Dearborn’s city hall. They were in the basement sporting goods department, checking out ammo and firearms, when they heard a siren outside, then another, a cacophony of wailing fire trucks and screeching police cars. The boys scrambled up and out and saw smoke billowing in the distance. Fire!—and they didn’t start it. Fire in the direction of the Rotunda. They raced toward it.
Roof repairmen since midmorning had been taking advantage of the fifty-degree weather to waterproof the Rotunda’s geodesic dome panels. Using propane heaters, they had been warming a transparent sealant so that it would spray more easily. At around 1 p.m., a heater ignited sealant vapors, sparking a small fire, and though workmen tried to douse the flames with extinguishers they could not keep pace and the fire spread. The South Bend school group had just left the building. Another tour for thirty-five visitors was soon to begin. There was a skeleton staff of eighteen office workers inside; many Rotunda employees were at lunch. A parking lot guard noticed the flames and radioed inside. Alarm bells were sounded, the building was evacuated, the roof repairmen crab-walked to a hatch and scrambled down an inside stairwell, and the Dearborn and Ford fire departments were summoned, their sirens piercing the autumn air, alerting, among others, two truant boys in the Monkey Ward’s basement.
By the time firefighters reached the Rotunda, the entire roof, made of highly combustible plastic and fiberglass, was ablaze. Two aerial trucks circled around to the rear driveway. From the other side, firefighters and volunteers stretched hoses from Schaefer Road and moved forward cautiously. It was too hot, and the water pressure too limited, to douse the fire with sprays up and over the 110 feet to the roof. The structure’s steel frame began to buckle. At 1:56, fire captains ordered their men away from the building, just in time. Robert Dawson, who worked in the Lincoln-Mercury building across the street, looked over and saw a “ball of fire” on the roof but at first no flames below. “Suddenly the roof crashed through. Everything inside turned to flame. Smoke began sifting through the limestone walls. Then, starting at the north corner, the walls crumbled. It was as though you had stacked dominoes and pushed them over.” The fire had reached the Christmas displays, fresh and potent kindling, and raged out of control, bright flames now shooting fifty feet into the sky. The entire building collapsed in a shuddering roar, a whirlwind of hurtling limestone and concrete and dust.
Meet the Author
Born in Detroit, David Maraniss is an associate editor at The Washington Post. Maraniss is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and bestselling author of Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story; First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton; Rome 1960: The Olympics that Stirred the World; Barack Obama: The Story; Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero; They Marched into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967; and When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi, which was hailed by Sports Illustrated as “maybe the best sports biography ever published.” He lives in Washington, DC, and Madison, Wisconsin.
- Washington, D.C., and Madison, Wisconsin
- Date of Birth:
- August 6, 1949
- Place of Birth:
- Detroit, Michigan
- University of Wisconsin
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Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, David Maraniss, was affected by the Chrysler commercial that aired during the 2011 Super Bowl. Even though he had only lived in Motor City for seven years, he was so inspired by Eminem's lyrics, "This is the Motor City. This is what we do." that he chose to write his next book about his sometimes revered and sometimes maligned home town. Once in a Great City is 385 pages of interwoven tales and facts that gives readers the overall impression of Detroit from the autumn of 1962 to the spring of 1964. Maraniss wanted to shine a light on Detroit in its glory before race riots, declining population, and loss of manufacturing jobs decimated Detroit. In Once in a Great City, cars like the Thunderbird, Mustang and Barracuda were coveted and the country was grooving to Motown tunes from Little Stevie and Smokey Robinson. I'm a Californian, and aside from knowing that Detroit was a big car town, I knew little of its history. For me, Once in a Great City was an intriguing source of recent history. Maraniss' book is not an all-encompassing history of Detroit; the book gives readers a flavor of some of the stand out people and events from a short but iconic span of time. Like a quilter's pieced together fabrics, Maraniss' overlaid portraits of politicians, musicians and auto executives makes an interesting and intimate tale that reflects the cultural and political issues that were heating up. Some random facts I found interesting: Berry Gordy Jr. started Motown with an $800 loan from his family. MLK rehearsed his "I Have a Dream" speech in Detroit before revising it to the iconic version given in Washington D.C. Aretha Franklin's father, Rev. C.L. Franklin organized a Walk for Freedom. Little Stevie (Steve Wonder) was a stage hog. Ray Charles and Smokey Robinson's relationship Detroit launched two unsuccessful bids to host the Olympics. The UAW, JFK, Romney, and Ford also have significant and interesting roles in this book. Maraniss covers so many diverse subjects, and the segue between each story was smooth. From the meat packers and gambling football teams on party buses to violent labor groups, police shootings and gambling rings at the Gotham Hotel, Once in a Great City is packed with people and events that eventually influenced the nation both socially and politically.