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What Detroit’s golden years gave America

October 5, 2015 at 6:15 PM EDT
Detroit once seemed a city that stood on the threshold of unlimited possibilities. Washington Post and Detroit native David Maraniss examines that creative and booming metropolis of 50 years ago in his new book, "Once in a Great City." Maraniss joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss that golden era and the signs of troubled times to come.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: the latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

In the early 1960s, it was a city that stood on the threshold of unlimited possibilities, but it wasn’t to be. Today, some two years after Detroit declared bankruptcy, it is slowly recovering from decades of decline.

Washington Post editor and Detroit native David Maraniss looks at the Motor City of 50 years ago in his new book, “Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story.”

Jeffrey Brown talked to him recently at the National Book Festival here in Washington.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, “Once in a Great City,” you are taking us back to a great moment, right, maybe like the heights, right, of…

DAVID MARANISS, Author, “Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story”: Well, it’s a moment — the book takes place between 1962 and 1964, when Motown was booming, when the Mustang was being conceived, when cars were selling more than ever before, when Walter Reuther and the labor movement were at their peak.

The working people of Detroit were reaching the middle class. There was so much luminescence about the city then, but it was a luminescence that was also a dying light.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, before you get to the dying light, the luminescence, what was Detroit at that moment? Because it’s so easy to forget when you — given what we look at now.

DAVID MARANISS: It had 1.7 million people. Now it’s down to 700,000.

It had — the Big Three was building more cars than ever before. It had a creative spirit. The book — one of the threads of the book is creation, creativity, destruction, decay. And you see them sort of intertwined. And it was very creative at that point. You could invent yourself in Detroit 50 years ago.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, Motown famously invented itself and then many wonderful and famous musicians.

DAVID MARANISS: Totally, yes, which is one of the key threads of the book, Berry Gordy and his family.

I give a lot of due to his sisters actually. The whole Gordy family created Motown. And all of this local talent, it’s just stunning to think about Smokey Robinson Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, the Supremes, Martha Reeves, Mary Wells. All these great musicians grew up near each other, and Aretha Franklin, who wasn’t Motown, but was there.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you have all the personalities on the creative side and then you have personalities on the business side, particularly in the auto industry.

DAVID MARANISS: Yes, Henry Ford II, the Deuce, HF2, an incredibly colorful character, and then his sometimes enemy, sometimes ally Walter Reuther of the UAW, which was at its powerful peak then.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, another very large personality, right? Yes.


JEFFREY BROWN: You’re writing saying that the seeds of the problems to come were already there.

DAVID MARANISS: One of the important things to understand is, when people think about the decay of Detroit, a lot of people tend to blame it on three things, the riots in 1967, the municipal corruption that followed, and the pension problems that ensued.

But you could see the structural problems before that. In 1963, some great sociologists at Wayne State predicted exactly what was going to happen. Productive people are going to leave the city. It was a perfect storm of racial problems, housing unfairness, urban renewal, and the structural problem of a one-company town. And all of that together just created this problem that could see in 1963.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did it happen quickly?

DAVID MARANISS: No, it didn’t. It happened over a decade, more people leaving every year, the city’s structure changing, obviously, the auto industry expanding all over the world and leaving Detroit behind.

Some very crucial decisions were happening then, but it took decades for the full decay of Detroit and now finally perhaps its renaissance.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, before I ask you about that, I want to ask you about the creativity part.


JEFFREY BROWN: Because if the creativity was all there in 1962-‘4, and it was, what happened to that?

DAVID MARANISS: Right. Right. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because one can sort of see the structural problems.

DAVID MARANISS: Well, let me give you one example of the creativity that meant the most.

I was trying to figure out, why did Motown happen? Now, part of it is Berry Gordy’s individual genius. Another part is it was that it was a huge geographic city with single-family homes and a great piano company that could get pianos into those working-class homes. The people there could afford the pianos because they had jobs. And Detroit had great public school teachers, music teachers. They had music at every school.

So, every Motown person I interviewed, whether it was Martha Reeves to the Funk Brothers’ people, would say, I remember my elementary schoolteacher.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the piano at home.

DAVID MARANISS: And the piano at home.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because that used to be the ideal of a middle-class existence, right?

DAVID MARANISS: Yes, exactly.

So, all of that — as the jobs leave, as the school system shrinks, as music gets pushed out of the schools, that created too many…


Now, I read that, speaking of music, Eminem somehow inspired the book. Explain.

DAVID MARANISS: Yes, it’s a very odd thing.

I was born in Detroit, because I’m a Green Bay Packers fan because I have spent most of my time in Wisconsin.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. I’m not sure I will ask you to explain that, how that worked.

DAVID MARANISS: The 2011 Super Bowl, Packers are playing, I’m watching the game in New York City at a bar.

And, at halftime, I’m not paying too much attention, until on the screen I see a commercial that has the Detroit Freeway sign, and then this hypnotic beat starts, and you see Diego Rivera Detroit industry mural and the Joe Louis Fist, and Eminem getting out of the car, walking into the Fox Theatre, and say, this is the Motor City. This is what we do.


DAVID MARANISS: I teared up. Why? It’s just a commercial. As my wife told me very clearly, you know, Detroit is dying, they’re selling cars, and you’re getting emotional.

But that struck a chord with me about Detroit in a very powerful way. Made me think, I don’t want to buy a Chrysler, but I do want to write about the city from which I came, the city of my birth, and what it gave America.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you used earlier this R-word, renaissance. But is renaissance fair enough? Do you see — what do you see happening now?

DAVID MARANISS: Well, it’s bifurcated.

Yes, in one sense, about young — it’s a great place to go if you’re young and want to create. There’s vast swathes of emptiness, of those 28 miles of Detroit, you know, and you can go through miles of it where three out of every 10 houses are gone, too of them are abandoned, that very strong working class, white and black. There’s a much harder time coming back.

So, in one sense, you do see it reinventing itself. But it’s a different Detroit. And until it deals with those real structural problems of the people who were there 50 years ago building America, then you can never truly call it a full renaissance.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you hopeful, though, after…


DAVID MARANISS: I’m always hopeful, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. All right.

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

Thank you very much.

DAVID MARANISS: Thank you, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nice to talk to you.