David Maraniss’ new book “Once in a Great City” looks at the city of Detroit at its apex in the 1960s, a thrumming, thriving city that was about to experience one of the greatest declines of any urban area in America.

Share story

‘Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story’

by David Maraniss

Simon & Schuster, 409 pp., $32.50

A fall cannot be measured without knowing the height once attained. David Maraniss’ new book is the story of the heights once attained by the city of Detroit.

In “Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story,” Maraniss calls the present Michigan metropolis a “city of decay.” But rather than dwelling on the deterioration of the city or why it came to this sorry state, Maraniss celebrates the city of his birth, looking back on a time when all seemed right, when auto factories hummed, Motown cranked out hits and Detroit marched at the forefront of the civil-rights movement.

To Maraniss, the peak of greatness came in the 18 months between the autumn of 1962 and the spring of 1964. This was before the race riots of 1967, which left 43 dead and a burnt-out core of a city from 483 fires.

It was before the Big Three auto companies moved factories and jobs away. Before almost two thirds of the population left town. Before the city declared bankruptcy in 2013 and before Berry Gordy Jr. uprooted the eponymous Motown and tried to keep it alive in Los Angeles.

Maraniss says he’ll leave to others the analysis of why the city had such a precipitous decline. After reading the detailed and startling contrast he draws between then and now, it’s impossible not to wish he had delved more deeply into the reasons why. With the command of the facts he has, with his articulate writing and with his 120 interviews and exploration in 15 historical archives, it’s hard to imagine anyone more qualified to draw conclusions on what brought down Detroit.

He does point out that the warning flags had already been raised in 1963. A study by sociologists at Wayne State University forecast the city population would drop by a third in the next seven years and keep falling, with both whites and blacks who could afford to move — and pay taxes — taking advantage of Detroit’s freeways to head for the suburbs, leaving behind those who “suffer from relatively great housing, educational and general economic deprivations.”

The book makes clear the immense role Detroit played in national affairs in the early 1960s, something mostly overlooked now when the Motor City more often shows up online as the subject of “ruin porn,” pictures of trashed and foreclosed houses, abandoned public buildings and empty streets.

But Detroit, the “Arsenal of Democracy” in World War II, fueled the economic engine of the nation in the 1960s. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. tried out his “I Have a Dream” speech here nine weeks before the August 1963 March on Washington.

Both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson sought the advice of Walter Reuther, leader of the United Auto Workers. He influenced national labor policy as well as civil rights before his rank and file wandered off to segregationist George Wallace.

LBJ’s visit to Michigan on May 22, 1964, is the last date in Maraniss’ look at Detroit’s time of greatness. While there, Johnson rolled out his vision of the Great Society, encompassing abundance, racial equality, an end to poverty and “a place where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.”

In the speech, LBJ looked ahead to 2014, accurately predicting the huge growth of the country’s urban areas and the challenges they faced, saying, “Our society will never be great until our cities are great.”

LBJ offered no conclusion on whether that goal would be met. Detroit may have fallen the farthest from reaching this goal, but any smugness on the part of other cities, many of them still growing and still struggling with urban problems, would be ill-advised when taking into account the example of this great city and the heights it once attained.