There are so many books about Detroit. There are the books about its hardships (Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: an American autopsy). There are those about the people trying to change it for the better (Mark Binelli’s Detroit City is the Place to Be). And of course, there is the “ruin porn,” an unfortunate term, but the photographs are interesting nonetheless (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s The Ruins of Detroit). But David Maraniss’ most recent book, Once in a Great City: a Detroit Story, goes back—way back—to when Detroit was an influential economic and cultural powerhouse—the year 1963.
So what was going on in 1963? The Big Three car companies are selling more cars than ever and Ford is just about to release the Mustang. Martin Luther King Jr. participates in the Walk to Freedom drawing over 100,000 marchers demanding equal wages, employment opportunities, and access to housing. He caps the event with the first version of the “I Have a Dream” speech a few months before the March on Washington. Motown is sweeping the charts with Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness” and Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heatwave.” And Detroit is a major contender to host the 1968 Summer Games.
But there are small wounds beginning to fester. 1960 is the first census year that Detroit sees a decrease in population. Urban renewal is tearing down neighborhoods (mostly African American communities) in exchange for highways. 1964 sees strikes at Ford, GM, and American Motors by the United Auto Workers. And the Walk to Freedom is protesting severe discrimination in Detroit. Maraniss weaves all of these things together in his narrative, providing a great sense of the city in the early 1960’s. He also picks a pivotal moment for the city. Like many northern cities in the era, this is a decade when politicians, business leaders, and residents make decisions that lead their city to sink or swim.