Once in a Great City

By David Maraniss

(Simon & Schuster, $32.50, 464 pages)

Who is this author?

The last time I wrote about David Maraniss for Under the Covers, in 2012, I said:

“David Maraniss is a journalist’s journalist. By that I mean he is a much respected, diligent researcher, graceful writer and astute interpreter of current events and past occurrences, making it clear how they have affected the lives of the famous people who have been the subjects of his acclaimed biographies. An associate editor at The Washington Post, Maraniss has written bestsellers about Bill Clinton, coach Vince Lombardi, Vietnam and the ‘60s, baseball star Roberto Clemente and the 1960 Rome Olympics. How good is he? Well, Maraniss won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Clinton, was part of a Post team that won the 2007 Pulitzer for coverage of the Virginia Tech tragedy and has been a Pulitzer finalist three other times. He’s based in Washington, D.C., and Madison, Wisconsin.”

All of that is still true, and now, in Once in a Great City, Maraniss applies his biographical skills not to an individual but to a whole city, Detroit, showing how it has fallen on hard socio-economic times.

What is this book about?

Fifty or so years ago, Detroit was booming: the auto industry was turning out and selling more cars than ever before and the Motown sound had captured the music industry. Its famous names were illustrious at home and across the country: auto magnates Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca, labor leader Walter Reuther; Motown founder Berry Gordy; the Rev. C.L. Franklin and his daughter, Aretha; Gov. George Romney, and for a time, Martin Luther King Jr., who previewed his iconic I Have A Dream speech there before he gave it in Washington. But the seeds of trouble already had been sown, before the rioting and corruption and neglect and departure of many white citizens and bad weather and labor costs conspired to kick Detroit off its lofty perch. Maraniss reminds us of what the city had, what it lost (and what it kept) and what the Detroit story may portend for other American cities.

Why you’ll like it:

Maraniss, who was born in Detroit, uses his considerable storytelling skills to delineate the rise and fall of what was once a great city, presenting the tale through portraits of its people. That method brings the social and historical facts alive and holds the reader’s interest. And for residents of the Hartford area, another city that once was on top of the world and now is struggling to survive, it offers insights and a cautionary tale about what happens when industries shrink or vanish, corruption infects government and the social fabric is shredded. This is a powerful, attention-demanding book.

What others are saying:

DeadlineDETROIT.com says: “Maraniss . . . who lived on the west side before his family moved to Madison, Wisconsin, when he was 6, is a skillful storyteller, and his interpretation of events in Detroit a half century ago is well founded. . . . Maraniss will only add to his reputation with Once in a Great City. It’s a good read if your interest is only to visit Detroit’s remarkable recent past. It’s even a better read if you are interested in the city’s extraordinary devolution. In either case, it’s a story that is haunting, thought-provoking and, in the end, sad.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Hot times in a raucous city. Biographer and Washington Post associate editor Maraniss spent only his first six and a half years in Detroit, so he was surprised when he “choked up” after seeing a car commercial extolling the Motor City. That affection inspired this fast-paced, sprawling, copiously detailed look at 18 months—from 1962 to 1964—in the city’s past. During that time, big things happened in Detroit. Motown burst onto the music scene after the Motortown Revue left the city on a nationwide tour. Ford developed a new car, kept secret except from the prestigious J. Walter Thompson advertising agency; unveiled at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, the Mustang became an instant, bestselling hit. Detroit fought fiercely for the 1968 Olympics, but despite support from native son Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee, Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, and Governor George Romney, Detroit lost to Mexico City. Detroit was embroiled in the civil rights movement, as well, with Cavanagh and union head Walter Reuther among many leaders taking a strong stand for racial equality. Reuther even rounded up money to bail out demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, and he never wavered in his commitment to freedom and justice. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered an early version of his “I have a dream” speech at the city’s much-publicized Walk to Freedom, in which Reuther, Cavanagh, and 100,000 others marched; it was, said one participant, “a model of peaceful protest and racial cooperation” during a time of national unrest. Although overstuffed with facts . . . and sometimes breaching the city’s boundaries to become a history of the whole country, Maraniss’ brawny narrative evokes a city still “vibrantly alive” and striving for a renaissance. An illuminating history of a golden era in a city desperately seeking to reclaim the glory.”

“Elegiac and richly detailed . . . Maraniss . . . conjures those boom years of his former hometown with novelistic ardor. Using overlapping portraits of Detroiters (from politicians to musicians to auto execs), he creates a mosaiclike picture of the city that has the sort of intimacy and tactile emotion that Larry McMurtry brought to his depictions of the Old West, and the gritty sweep of David Simon’s HBO series “The Wire.” . . . People’s experiences intersect or collide or resonate with one another, and Mr. Maraniss uses them as windows on the larger cultural and political changes convulsing the nation in the ‘60s . . . [Maraniss] succeeds with authoritative, adrenaline-laced flair. . . The result is a buoyant Frederick Lewis Allen-like social history that’s animated by an infectious soundtrack and lots of tactile details, and injected with a keen understanding of larger historical forces at work – both in Detroit and America at large. . . . Maraniss’s evocative book provides a wistful look back at an era when those cracks were only just beginning to show, and the city still seemed a place of “uncommon possibility” and was creating “wondrous and lasting things,” writes Michiko Kakutani for The New York Times.

Publishers Weekly says: “Using a combination of historical eyewitness reports and sketches of larger-than-life figures, Pulitzer-winning reporter Maraniss (Barack Obama: The Story) draws a sprawling portrait of Detroit at a pivotal moment when it was “dying and thriving at the same time.” Given its current turmoil, it is easy to forget the Detroit that once was. . . . But even in this golden age, all was not well in Detroit. Discriminatory housing practices, intended to prevent minorities from entering the toniest neighborhoods, were exacerbating existing racial tensions, and the city’s organized crime could not be cleaned up despite the police commissioner’s best efforts. But for all his exhaustive research and evocative scene-setting, Maraniss never seems to find the zeitgeist of the historical moment he covers, the essential spirit that lifted up but ultimately ruined the Motor City.”

Says The Washington Post:  “Captivating . . . Maraniss hears the joyous sound of a city suddenly, improbably filled with hope. . . . Maraniss asks himself what in the city has lasted, a question that often haunts former Detroiters. The songs, he decides. Not the reforms, not the dream of racial justice, not the promise of a Great Society, but the wonderfully exuberant songs that came pouring out of Berry Gordy’s studio. That’s the tragedy at the core of this gracious, generous book. All that remains of the hopeful moment Maraniss so effectively describes is a soundtrack. And that isn’t nearly enough.”

When is it available?                       

It’s available in our city at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Park branch.

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