Review: ‘Great City’ an insightful look at ’63 Detroit

Joe LaPointe
Special to The Detroit News

When Detroit’s Baby Boomers reminisce, they often conjure Bob-Lo boats, Vernors floats and Santa Claus in the Thanksgiving parade at the big, old, vanished Hudson’s department store on Woodward.

In his new book “Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story” (Simon & Schuster, 2015), author David Maraniss avoids such sentimentality and nostalgia and delivers something better. Combining hindsight and insight with deep-dive research, Maraniss provides a clear-eyed flashback to a once-powerful manufacturing metropolis intoxicated by cheap gasoline, swaggering hubris and blue-sky confidence.

His focus is 1963 plus a few months on either side of that calendar year. Walter Reuther is the progressive angel of big labor. Jerome Cavanagh runs the town as an optimistic, Kennedy-esque mayor determined to improve racial relations.

Henry Ford II is about to unveil the sporty new “Mustang” amid booming automobile sales. City leaders hope to land the 1968 Olympics. What could possibly go wrong?

A hint comes from the Michigan Chronicle, Detroit’s African-American weekly. Writing about divisions in upper-tier leadership of the local civil rights movement, then-columnist and editorial writer Ofield Dukes notes “ . . . The noose of prejudice is around the neck of the lower class Negro.”

It’s an efficient way for Maraniss to forecast the Riot / Rebellion of 1967. Although many think that violence began Detroit’s demise, Maraniss — a Detroit native — finds a chilly prophecy in a Wayne State University study from 1963: that Detroit’s 1960 population of almost 1.7 million would decline by at least one quarter by 1970.

“Productive persons who pay taxes are moving out of the city, leaving behind the non-productive,” the report says. “... Present population trends clearly demonstrate that the city is, by and large, being abandoned ...”

Much of “Once in a Great City” is about black life, with many upbeat notes about Motown, Berry Gordy’s burgeoning musical empire. Along with tales of his business savvy and gossip about the stars are exquisite details about the making of the music. (Did you know “My Guy” by Mary Wells opens with a borrowed instrumental lick from “Canadian Sunset?”)

In wider scope, Maraniss is thorough about the Rev. C.L. Franklin’s 1963 march down Woodward which ended at Cobo Arena with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King delivering an early version of his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Maraniss also sees festering sores in the white community: the “points” system that Grosse Pointe Realtors used to banish the unworthy; the “Big Four” cop cars that terrorized many blacks and some whites; and the mingling of underworld characters with some Detroit Lions.

As an early framing devices, he uses two events from the same day in late 1962: The fiery destruction of the Ford Rotunda and the gambling raid at the Gotham Hotel in the dying Black Bottom/Paradise Valley neighborhood, being obliterated by “urban renewal” and new expressways.

Maraniss examines modern history in the dogged manner of David Halberstam and Robert Caro. Between the lines, he leaves an unwritten thought for both today’s optimists and pessimists.

If things could go change so much in just 50 years, what might the next half-century bring?

‘Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story’

Simon & Schuster