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The Way it Was

Dec 23, 2015

Well, the holidays are upon us, and my guess is that you may need some last minute present and that you also might be guilty of reading books, even when you don’t have to.

So I want to tell you about the best book I’ve read this year, one you can easily find at any bookstore: David Maraniss’s Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story, published by Simon and Schuster. Maraniss is a Pulitzer-Prize winning Washington Post writer.

I’ve enjoyed his work for years, but never realized he was born in Detroit, and lived here as a child.

Now, there have been a flood of Detroit books in the market recently, many of which I found pretty contemptible. Most are either ego trips for their authors, romantic visions or nostalgic reveries that ignore large portions of reality, or ruin porn picture books.

This book is anything but. It is a fascinating work of history that reads like a novel, and while set more than half a century ago, does more to make it clear what this city was, is, and what happened to it than most of what I’ve read.

Once in a Great City covers roughly eighteen pivotal months of Detroit and Michigan history, from the fall of 1962, to the spring of 1964. It begins with the accidental destruction by fire of a legendary Detroit icon, the Ford Rotunda, where I was taken to see Santa as a child.

That is paired, however, with the less-than-accidental destruction of a legendary institution in the black community, the Hotel Gotham, where black stars stayed and out of which gamblers ran numbers rackets.

This was seen as the beginning of a new golden era in Detroit history. When the book begins, Detroit was making a serious bid for the Summer Olympics.

Jerry Cavanagh, Detroit’s dynamic, charismatic and Kennedyesque new mayor was still in his mid-thirties, but was getting on the cover of national magazines and seemed to be a cinch for a national career. That was also true for George Romney, Michigan’s new outside-the-box governor.

But Once in a Great City is not primarily about politics, but life, and one major theme in this book is the sensational explosion of Motown.

Motown, and black Detroit, and the story of how Martin Luther King first gave a version of his "I have a dream" speech here. If you thought you knew about Marvin Gaye and Berry Gordy, Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin, you’ll see that you didn’t.

The auto industry is also here, shown in the amazing story of the birth and rise of the Ford Mustang, shepherded by new business star whose name, they said, rhymed with “try a coca.”

But virtually unnoticed was a Wayne State University study that first fall that predicted with uncanny accuracy what would happen in the years to come. Long before the great riot or Coleman Young, the seeds of destruction were in place.

Whether Detroit can again fulfill its motto and rise from the ashes, this book doesn’t tell. But my advice is this. Whether or not you get it as a present, get another copy for yourself.

Then as soon as you can, hide, and read it. You won’t be sorry that you did.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.