Sunday, September 13, 2015

Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story by David Maraniss


My Detroit

In June of 1963 I was still ten years old when a van containing all my family's possessions moved across the open expanse of southern Ontario towards Detroit, MI. My family had sold the family business, a service and gas station in Tonawanda, NY, along with the only home I had ever known, a giant 1830s farm house surrounded by a Post-War Levittown community.

Detroit lured my Dad with hopes for a profitable job in the auto industry, with good benefits and a pension, a job without the physical stress of working outdoors in Buffalo winters.

My grandparents had moved to the Detroit suburbs in 1955 so I was familiar with the long, tedious car ride across Ontario, the dramatic and eerie drive through the Tunnel into Detroit, the sight of the impressive skyscrapers of the city, and the lights along the busy boulevard of Woodward Avenue.

Dad got a job at Chrysler in Highland Park that offered my family a working class lifestyle: school clothes from K-Mart, hamburgers at Peppy's, two cars, a home of our own. Medical insurance meant Mom could get the most up-to-date treatments at Henry Ford Hospital for her autoimmune disease.
Dad at work as an Experimental Mechanic at Chrysler
It was in Metro Detroit where I had many firsts: the tragic murder of President Kennedy, followed by those of  Rev. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; my first mock election when I learned about LBJ and the Great Society; my first interest in 'pop' music, listening to Motown on a transistor radio tuned to CKLW; my first visit to the Detroit Institute of Arts; the 1967 riots; body counts on the news during Vietnam. The first car I knew by sight was the Mustang. We took trips to Belle Isle to watch the freighters go by and see the electric eel at the Aquarium, and to the Detroit Historical Museum, Greenfield Village, the Cranbrook Science Museum, the Detroit Zoo. My first ball game was at Tiger's Stadium.

Dad died seven years ago. He knew he had been lucky to have worked during the Golden Years of the auto industry, a time when a grease-monkey with a high school education could get a Union job and work overtime and make a good salary. His pension allowed my widowed Dad to do whatever he wanted in retirement: buy a cabin, be on the go, eat out.

Dad left me my family's home; it was not even ten years old when my folks purchased it in 1972, a modern ranch on 'Snob Hill'. It was a far cry from the Tonawanda house his family had moved to in 1935 with no heat on the second floor or indoor plumbing.
the realtor's photo of the house in 1972
It was Detroit that made my family's American Dream possible.

Once In A Great City

David Maraniss saw a commercial during the Super Bowl that brought a wave of nostalgia. It inspired him to write Once In A Great City. He focuses on Detroit in 1963, just after the Cuban Missle Crisis, to fall of 1964. It was a time when Detroit was 'on top of the world' with visionary leadership, record breaking profits for the Big Three, and Motown's stars on the rise. It was where President John F. Kennedy first spoke of 'ask not', and where Rev. Martin Luther King first had a dream, and where President Lyndon B. Johnson first spoke about a war on poverty. It is also when legislation to open housing for all persons failed, when Africa American landmarks were being torn down for parking lots, and Malcolm X called for revolution.
Walk to Freedom June 1963
I loved how Maraniss gives a complete picture of the city, story arcs that fitt together like a jigsaw puzzle to make a Big Picture.

Grinnell Brotheres sold pianos on time, and Cass Tech had great music teachers. Migrants from the South seeking factory jobs brought a rich musical heritage with them. Music flourished in Detroit, jazz and blues and Mowtown.

I had not known about Detroit's bid for the 1968 Olympics, championed by President Kennedy championed. What would have happened if they had won the Olympic bid? Would the 1967 riot still have occurred or would the city have been proactive about solving racial problems? Would things have been different?

Maraniss unravels the underlying roots of Detroit's undoing, evident even at its apex. In a few years riots precipitated white flight. The Walk to Freedom down Woodward Ave. led by Dr. Martin Luther King was eclipsed by racial tension. Foreign cars put America's large gas guzzlers out of business. (Reuther had argued for smaller cars; no one listened.) A Wayne State University report had warned that suburban growth would bode ill for the city. African Americans could not find housing and jobs equal to their education, and their communities were dismantled for 'progress.' Warning signs were dwarfed by the hubris of success.

Maraniss celebrates the heritage that Detroit has given us: a heritage of upward mobility, Motown music, Civil Rights, the Mustang.
1965 Ford Mustang fastback in front the Ford Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair in New York.
This is an enlightening book. I felt nostalgia and recognition for a Detroit I hardly knew.

See Detroit, once a great city on Youtube here.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Once In A Great City
David Maraniss
Simon & Schuster
Publication Sept. 15, 2015
$32.50 hard cover
ISBN: 9781476748382