How Motor City Lost Its Mojo

Sorting through the myths and misapprehensions about Detroit’s fall from greatness, author David Maraniss crafts a splendid autopsy—and offers cause for hope—for his hometown.

Dwight Cendrowski/Alamy

There’s a new line of clothing with a message so punchy and so popular that it inspired a hit song by the rapper Eminem. The message—and song’s title—are written in bold capital letters on the front of these ubiquitous T-shirts and hoodies: DETROIT -VS- EVERYBODY.

This mantra is the perfect distillation of an emotion familiar to anyone who has spent time in Detroit: the unkillable local pride in a place that was once the engine that drove the American dream, only to be discarded by corporations, politicians, suburbanites, and a national media all too happy to write the city’s premature obituary.

Having spent the first 17 years of my life in the city during its last good times, just before everything fell through the floor, I was appalled not only by the way the city was ruined, but by the way that ruin was misrepresented and misunderstood. So naturally I was ready to embrace the us-against-the-world sentiment of DETROIT -VS- EVERYBODY. In fact, I’m wearing one of the T-shirts as I write this.

David Maraniss, a Detroit native, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and prolific author, is probably wearing one, too, judging by his splendid new non-fiction book, Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story.

Rather than trying to parse the numerous forces that ganged up to bring his hometown low, Maraniss has instead given us a snapshot of the city at its giddy peak, when everyone was too busy making money and great music and great cars to notice that the worm was already in the apple. The time of this snapshot is late 1962 to early 1964, and it was indeed a time of marvels in the Motor City: the Motown sound was coming together on West Grand Boulevard; the Ford Mustang was in the lead of galloping auto sales; civil rights activists were vocal and powerful, their cause supported both by black leaders and by the magnetic leader of the United Auto Workers union, Walter Reuther; and Martin Luther King Jr. came to town to lead the “Walk to Freedom” down Woodward Avenue, delivering a first draft of his “I Have a Dream” speech that would become immortal a few months later in Washington, D.C. To top it off, the city was led by a charismatic, progressive mayor, Jerome Cavanagh, who supported civil rights and was being touted as a possible successor to President John F. Kennedy.

“It was a time of uncommon possibility and freedom when Detroit created wondrous and lasting things,” Maraniss writes. “But life can be luminescent when it is most vulnerable. There was a precarious balance during those crucial months between composition and decomposition, what the world gained and what a great city lost. Even then, some part of Detroit was dying, and that is where the story begins.”

The part that was dying most ominously was the city’s population and, by extension, its tax base. After peaking at 1,849,568 in 1950, Detroit’s population had declined slightly to 1,670,144 by 1960, as new freeways, cheap land, and public policy began greasing the exodus to the suburbs. In 1963, Wayne State University issued a report that was, in Maraniss’s opinion, “of startling importance and haunting prescience.” The report predicted that the city would lose about one quarter of its population in the coming decade. Even more disturbing than the number of departees was their nature. Maraniss quotes from the Wayne State report: “Productive persons who pay taxes are moving out of the city, leaving behind the non-productive … Present population trends clearly demonstrate that the city is, by and large, being abandoned by all except those who suffer from relatively (severe) housing, educational, and general economic deprivations.” Well-off blacks were leaving along with well-off whites. Even at its peak, the city was becoming smaller, blacker, and poorer. The population today is under 700,000.

Maraniss seizes on this counter-intuitive gem—that in 1963 such an outwardly prosperous city was quietly dying from within. In doing so, he debunks the myths that have warped the Detroit narrative for the past half-century. He writes, “The report predicted a dire future long before it became popular to attribute Detroit’s fall to a grab bag of Rust Belt infirmities, from high labor costs to harsh weather, and before the city staggered from more blows of municipal corruption and incompetence. Before any of that, the forces of deterioration were already set in motion.”

One of this book’s great virtues is that it doesn’t just give us the big players. We do meet Motown founder Berry Gordy, Henry Ford II, Lee Iacocca, Reuther, JFK, Cavanagh, and King, but we also meet a kid who was playing hooky the day the beloved Ford Rotunda burned to the ground. We meet cops who worked the streets in 1963, civil rights activists, preachers, musicians, hookers, journalists, athletes, saloonkeepers, and gangsters. Maraniss even quotes the late Philip Levine, poet laureate of the Detroit proletariat.

An associate editor at the Washington Post and the author of six previous books about history, politics, and sports, Maraniss is a tireless and inventive interviewer, and his archival research is prodigious. He knows his subject cold. It all combines to turn this snapshot into a vivid, panoramic portrait of a city on the brink of a spectacular fall.

The portrait is not flawless, though. I think Maraniss is too soft on Berry Gordy, a musical and entrepreneurial genius who let his paternalistic streak turn a brilliant creation into just another Los Angeles record company. For a more hard-eyed take on Gordy and his company, read Nelson George’s devastating Where Did Our Love Go?. And while Maraniss generally does a fine job of choosing which stories to tell, he sometimes misfires, as in the long account of Detroit’s failed bid to land the 1968 summer Olympics, and Walter Reuther’s fruitless campaign to convince the Big Three automakers to make smaller cars. For me, these stories don’t add much. I wish he had talked to Iggy Pop instead.

But that’s a quibble. Once In a Great City has earned its place on the growing shelf of books by writers who truly get what happened to Detroit—the plays of Dominique Morisseau; Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place To Be; a compendium of the city’s voices called A Detroit Anthology, edited by Anna Clark; and Thomas J. Sugrue’s magisterial The Origins of the Urban Crisis, to name just a few.

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Like me and a lot of other people with ties to Detroit, Maraniss dares to believe that the city has hit bottom and is on its way back. “Beautiful things can grow in forgotten places when no one is looking,” he concludes, “and that is happening to some extent in Detroit.” I think he’s right. I hope he’s right.

Bill Morris is the author of the novels Motor City, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City Burning. His writing has appeared in Granta, the New York Times, the (London) Independent, the Washington Post Magazine, L.A. Weekly, and the online literary magazine The Millions. He lives in New York City.