I didn’t expect the book “Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story” by award-winning author David Maraniss to hit so close to my heart. But it did.
It seems both the author and I share a soft spot for the city of our birth, as well as a deep respect for its place in history.
Born at St. John’s Hospital on the east side of Detroit, I grew up in nearby East Detroit, the city that changed its name to Eastpointe in 1992, mostly so no one would associate it with Detroit. (You can read an amusing thread on the name change by clicking here.)
Though I didn’t grow up in Detroit proper, I was raised on stories of the city told by my mother. She was born in a house on Detroit’s Pulford Street to Italian immigrants who lived in the city without ever owning an automobile. That was the time before Detroit went from Arsenal of Democracy to Motor City, when — drunk on federal highway dollars — the powers that be ripped out the city’s streetcars and hacked swaths through primarily African-American neighborhoods to create today’s knot of freeways.
“It was enormous unintended consequences,” Maraniss said about the construction of Detroit’s expressways. “The lack of mass transportation made it difficult for people to live in the city, and the freeways made it easy for others to leave for the suburbs.”
It was also before the time frame covered by Maraniss’ book, which spans the fall of 1962 to the spring of 1964. It’s the time before the world realized that Detroit’s steep ascent, based nearly wholly on its industrial and manufacturing might, was not sustainable. In that span of less than two years, Detroit mourned the death of a president, celebrated the births of the Mustang and Motown, profited from the might of Detroit’s labor movement, and witnessed the dress rehearsal of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Like me, Maraniss was born in Detroit. His family moved away when he was about 7, but he still has family roots in the area. He went on to become an associate editor at The Washington Post, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and the best-selling author of “First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton”; “Rome 1960: The Olympics that Stirred the World”; “Barack Obama: The Story”; “Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero”; “They Marched into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967”; and “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi.”
Maraniss was moved to write this book after taking in the powerful 2011 Chrysler Super Bowl ad featuring Eminem.
I was lucky enough to interview Maraniss about his book. When I asked him what he saw for the city’s future, he replied that he was “skeptical, but not cynical.”
“Detroit’s on the upswing,” he said. “It’s moving from the American symbol of a city of ruin to a city of hope.”
In the five years it took him to write “Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story,” Maraniss has seen positive changes. He describes Detroit as becoming, in a sense, “New Brooklyn,” attracting foodies, techies, artists and musicians with inexpensive housing and the opportunity to create their lives.
“There’s a lot of freedom in Detroit,” Maraniss said. “After something hits bottom, there’s nowhere else to go but up.”
Detroit’s climb back to the top isn’t going to be an easy one.
“There are still vast parts of Detroit that are empty, in deep trouble, that need help,” Maraniss said, “and some of those problems seem intractable in a sense.”
Maraniss remains hopeful the city will continue to rise from its ashes, and he looks to millennials to lead the way.
“That’s the group that can replenish Detroit, but the question is when those young people get married and have children, will they stay in the city or not?
“Every time I come back, it’s a bit more optimistic,” he said.
You can meet author David Maraniss when he stops to talk about “Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story” as part of the Michigan Notable Books Tour from 2-3 p.m. Sunday at The Lyon Theater at 126 E. Lake St. in downtown South Lyon.
You can check out Maraniss’ website by clicking here. It’s chock full of cool stuff about his latest book, including a Spotify playlist of Motown music.
Michigan Notable Books is designed to promote reading and raise awareness of Michigan’s literary heritage. The program annually selects 20 of the most outstanding books published in that year – titles that are reflective of Michigan’s diverse ethnic, historical, literary and cultural experience.