Review: ‘Once in a Great City’ by David Maraniss

Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story. David Maraniss. Simon & Schuster. 464 pages. $32.50.
Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story. David Maraniss. Simon & Schuster. 464 pages. $32.50.

Trivia question for you: Early in the summer of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. unveiled his “I have a dream” speech during what was then the largest civil rights march in American history. What city hosted that march?

If you guessed Washington, you’d be wrong.

More than two months before King gave the most famous speech of his career in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, he’d told the nation he had a dream during a June Sunday in Detroit, after a march organized by Aretha Franklin’s father. Jerome Cavanagh, Detroit’s Irish-Catholic mayor, welcomed King with open arms and joined the march.

The story of that march is among the dozens of sepia-toned snapshots tucked into David Maraniss’ Once in a Great City, in which this wide-ranging journalist — who was born in Detroit and whose many books include a justly celebrated biography of Vince Lombardi — chronicles what was happening in Detroit from late 1962 through early 1964.

As Maraniss makes clear, there was a lot to like. In 1963, Detroit’s Big Three automakers were enjoying their best sales year ever. Detroit was the U.S. Olympic Committee’s choice to host the 1968 summer Olympics. And Detroit’s Motown landed 10 singles in the Billboard Top 10 and another eight in the Top 20. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson would call Detroit “a herald of hope.”

But as Maraniss writes in his introduction, “life can be luminescent when it is most vulnerable.”

Exactly 20 years before King’s 1963 march, Detroit’s June 1943 race riots injured or killed close to 500 people. Less than two weeks after King’s 1963 march, a white police officer shot and killed a fleeing black prostitute, scuttling efforts by a progressive police chief to improve Detroit’s race relations.

Segregation within Detroit was enforced by white neighborhood associations which Maraniss likens to “paramilitary organizations.” And in October 1963, Detroit’s almost all-white city council voted down open-housing legislation. Meanwhile, newly built freeways gutted black neighborhoods and accelerated the rate of white flight. Detroit’s tax base began to shrink, triggering the death spiral that would result in the city’s bankruptcy 50 years later.

This is a depressingly familiar story, captured in many books about Detroit. What makes Maraniss’ book so compelling is suggested by his title: Even as he foreshadows the troubles to come, Maraniss also vividly and lovingly captures the long-vanished glow of that heady time when Detroit truly was a great city.

Maraniss offers sketches of Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca, who throughout 1963 was preparing the launch of the Mustang, a car that would soon gallop into Detroit auto legend — even as 1963 also became the first year in which more than half the cars made in the world were manufactured outside the United States.

Portraits of Mayor Cavanagh and Republican governor George Romney — father of Mitt — recall a time when leaders from different political parties regularly collaborated on a variety of issues. Maraniss is particularly riveting when unfolding their joint, almost successful effort to bring the Olympics to Detroit.

Best of all, there are numerous stories and vignettes involving Berry Gordy and his Motown stars in the year when a rising company became an industry giant.

Explaining how the Motown miracle happened, Maraniss notes the city’s gospel and blues heritage. But he also points out that Detroit was once home to the country’s largest retail music emporium, a large black working class with disposable income, a solid stock of single-family housing into which pianos could easily be moved and an excellent public education system, with strong music teachers and programs.

Like Motown itself, they’re all now gone. But they won’t be forgotten, thanks to moving books like this one, which commemorates the great city that once was and underscoring all we lose when we allow such cities to die.

Mike Fischer reviewed this book for Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.