Book Review: "Once In A Great City : A Detroit Story"

Once in a Great City: A Detroit StoryOnce in a Great City: A Detroit Story by David Maraniss

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book about Detroit at both its strongest and its most vulnerable. Detroit is my city; I grew up in its suburbs and have lived there all my life except for my 20s. And so, this book has a personal resonance for me.

Maraniss, also a native Detroiter, focuses his book on the period between late 1962 and early 1964. The book has a lot to say and reveal--at least to me--about such local figures as Henry Ford II ("The Deuce"), Lee Iacocca, Berry Gordy Jr., Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, Governor George Romney, Walter Reuther, and the Reverend C.L. Frankin (father of Aretha), as well as national figures such as Martin Luther King, Lyndon Johnson, and John F. Kennedy. The book is stuffed with politics, labor, the Motown sound, mobsters, sports stars, religious leaders, and all the movers and shakers of the time.

I turned 8 years old in 1963, and remember so many of these names and places, but through a child's eyes. I grew up hearing these names on the news, or around the dinner table--my father was a newspaperman who loved to talk about his work and current events--but after reading this book I finally understand who some of these people really were; they're no longer just names.

I found two aspects of the book particularly fascinating: the rise of Motown records, and the secrecy and planning that went on for years before the unveiling of the famous Ford Mustang. Naturally, there is much about race in this book, because it is at the core of the city's story. From my white suburban childhood, I remember well the adults around me being adamant about keeping the blacks out, and now I have read about the other side of that coin, people denied jobs, housing and education based simply on race. There is also much about cars, of course. My brother, nine years older then me, was a big "car guy", and because of him, I remember his enthusiasm and excitement about cars like the Mustang and Camaro.

On a personal level, perhaps the most poignant scene in the book was the description of the fire at the Ford Rotunda, an extremely popular tourist destination of the time,featuring cars, displays, and a huge Christmas bash which included live reindeer. I vividly remember going to what might have been the last Christmas event held before the place burned to the ground in November of 1962. I went with my parents and brother, and my brother bought me a little futuristic car. How could any of us have possibly known what the future would bring to the Rotunda, to the auto industry, or to the once vibrant and powerful city of Detroit? What a bittersweet read.

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Sioux Roslawski said…
Shay--Four out of five stars from you is impressive. It sounds like it's a good book, and on top of that, you can connect to the place and the events so well.
hedgewitch said…
Yes, childhood memories are often very simplified and reflect more the aura of our elders' knowledge than our own. I'm sure this book was like walking through a well-conducted tour of the past for you. I had a similar sensation when I read Mike Royko's "Boss" about Richard J Daley.(Royko was a Chicago newspaperman and solid blue-collar advocate.) Those times were really no better than now, though it's so easy to gild them with nostalgia. We forget so much---it's good to have books like this to remind us.

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