"Once in a Great City: a Detroit Story" (Simon & Schuster), by David Maraniss
The city that remains synonymous with America's auto industry has a newer identity as an emblem of urban decay. Its decline is all the more tragic when one looks in the rearview mirror to see how Detroit seemed to be firing on all cylinders a half-century ago.
Detroit native David Maraniss recalls that time of vibrant optimism between the fall of 1962 to the spring of 1964 when the car business was booming, Motown's musical genius was exploding and the city had taken on a leading role in the nation's civil rights struggle. Everything seemed possible, including Detroit's selection as the site for the 1968 Summer Olympics.
The book has a more lofty focus than the city's much-analyzed decay and eventual bankruptcy. "I wanted to illuminate a moment in time when Detroit seemed to be glowing with promise, and to appreciate its vital contributions to American life," the author notes at the outset.
One high-stakes project that panned out was the T-5, the code name given to Ford's supersecret new car that would be named the Mustang. Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor at The Washington Post, takes the reader through the development, marketing and unveiling of the sporty, exciting and affordable vehicle with an appeal to young drivers that helped drive Detroit's car sales to record levels.
A similar success story emerged on the music scene during the early '60s as Berry Gordy Jr. built his recording studio into Hitsville USA, developing and showcasing talent such as Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder and the Temptations. The Motown sound captivated fans around the world, providing the sound track for those years when everything seemed possible.
As the civil rights struggle played out in the South, Detroit was in the forefront as black clergy, activists and organized labor mobilized to support the movement. Only nine weeks before his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C., the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered that same refrain while addressing more than 100,000 supporters after an historic march through downtown Detroit.
The author offers vivid profiles of key figures in the city's ascent, among them auto executive Henry Ford II; labor leader Walter Reuther; Mayor Jerome Cavanagh; Gordy, his amazing family and the stars of Motown.
City leaders were confident that Detroit would be elevated to world-class status by hosting the Summer Games, but that bubble burst when the International Olympic Committee shockingly chose Mexico City on the first ballot. Maraniss considers whether a Detroit Olympics might have forestalled the 1967 riots and eased the city's decline but concludes that questions about that hypothesis are "unanswerable but worth pondering."
The sad story of Detroit's fate over the past few decades is common knowledge, and the book is laced with inklings of developing problems that got much worse. But the author's purpose is not to detail the city's loss of middle-class jobs, the flight of white residents to the suburbs and the corruption at the highest levels of local government that contributed to the mess.
Instead, Maraniss celebrates what now seems like a golden age with endless possibilities, one that seemed poised to position Detroit in the pantheon of the nation's greatest cities. Sadly, it would not turn out that way.