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Once in a Great City

Pulitzer-Prize winner David Maraniss explores Detroit’s past and present

By James Martinez

Page 16

Prior to his keynote address at the 2016 Detroit Policy Conference, the Detroiter caught up with David Maraniss of the Washington Post to discuss his book “Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story.” The book focuses primarily on 1963, and highlights the course of events in that pivotal year as the iconic city enjoyed the peak of its 20th century success and influence leading up to the city’s infamous decline.

(Note: portions of the interview have been shortened or edited for clarity)

What has been the reaction from the rest of the country to the book?

There was a feeling that some people had that it would just be a regional book. But in fact, Detroit is much bigger than that. It represents a lot to the country and to the whole world. So I found a really strong positive reaction everywhere I went, from Los Angeles to Nashville to Chicago and New York. And I was interviewed by German magazines and newspapers from other places. I think Detroit was moving from a symbol of ruin to a symbol of hope in some way and people were interested in that transformation.

How writing it impact your overall view of Detroit?

The book takes place, most of it, more than 50 years ago. I saw a little bit of echoes of what’s going on today fifty years ago. I think that, for instance, race has always been the American dilemma and you can see it in Detroit then, and see it across the country the last couple of years.

Even though I was born in Detroit, I was only there the first seven years of my life. The whole process of writing this book deepened my affection for the place in ways I wasn’t even expecting. Sort of solidified the long and not forgotten, but almost buried feelings I had for Detroit.

There are no shortage of influential and great leaders as your book points out, and many of them were optimistic about the city. How is it that the fate of the city took such a starkly different path from that optimism in 1963?

Some of it was forces beyond Detroit’s control. The transformation of manufacturing jobs to the rest of the country and overseas. Some of it, it could have controlled. The auto industry could have seen more clearly then how important the city of Detroit was to its own future and health and not sort of abandoned it emotionally and financially. The sort of block-busting of that era and the racial tensions, some of that was common to cities across the country. Some of the urban renewal of that era served counter and actually accelerated white flight and the abandonment of the city in many ways. And then some of it was just bad leadership over the next several decades.

Were the leaders unaware, oblivious, head in the sand, in denial?

Some of it was beyond their control, but rather than saying they had their head in the sand, I’d use the metaphor that they were blinded by their own success and they thought it would continue and only grow and they didn’t really see what was coming because they thought they were doing well. It is often hardest to see trouble ahead when you’re not in trouble in that moment. So, they thought the newer and better, revitalized Detroit was what was in the future, when it was just the opposite.

Today is another time of great optimism today. What are the key lessons for Detroit to take away?

One is diversifying. In that sense, Detroit is much less reliant on one industry than it was in that era. I think another is to the best that leadership can, (ensure) that no one is left behind. That means honoring the infrastructure that every human being deserves. I think that Flint is a bigger lesson than that right now than Detroit, although Detroit schools are going through some of those issues at this point. Those are very difficult, larger sociological problems, but nonetheless you can’t really say a city is booming or in a renaissance if there are still a majority of people who are suffering. That’s not to say that what’s going on in Detroit isn’t positive, because I think it is. And I think that people realize the need to connect the positive events that are happening downtown and midtown with the rest of the city, and I think that’s essential.

The book ends by questioning if Detroit can come back. What’s your assessment on Detroit’s progress in making a full comeback a reality?

As a journalist I am always skeptical but positive. That’s sort of where I’m at. I’m skeptical, but I think Detroit is making most of the right steps to make that possible. I think from the mayor on down there are a lot of people committed to trying to making that happen and understanding the issues that need to be dealt with.

There were so many iconic figures in the book, who did you find most compelling or fascinating?

Oh boy (laughs) I don’t I would choose. Reverend Franklin was incredibly colorful. Walter Reuther was one of the under-recognized figures in 20th century American life. Berry Gordy, with Motown is a fabulous story. I think those three probably caught me the most. Of course, Henry Ford is as colorful as Reverend Franklin in some ways.

You mentioned race as the great American dilemma and we’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of 1967 riots and there’s talk about how to not have that happen again. What type of conversation does Detroit have to have around the 50th anniversary of 1967?

Again I don’t talk about it as giving advice. But I think talking about how to prevent it is the wrong way to look at it. In other words that is a negative approach to just wanting to stop something from happening, as opposed to thinking about why it happened, which is a different way of looking at. I think the answers are pretty obvious, but they are difficult to deal with. The only way to do it is with consistent hard work and a willingness of the entire community to see it as something worth doing, and that takes leadership.