What it’s about:
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.
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.