A pair of stories on the front page of the Sept. 16 Detroit News, which I picked up during a change of planes in Detroit's vast airport while enroute to my wife's hometown in Wisconsin, offered ironic evidence that the Motor City may have taken the first steps on the long road to recovery.
The first story was an interview with Detroit native David Maraniss about his new book, Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story. Maraniss explained how he was inspired to write the book by a Chrysler commercial while watching the 2011 Super Bowl. The theme of the commercial was "imported from Detroit" and featured rapper Eminem and scenes of an earlier Detroit before it became one of America's greatest urban disasters.
"Something about the images of the Fox Theater and the black gospel choir stirred something deep inside me," said Maraniss, 66, who was only seven when his family moved away. "I wasn't even thinking about Detroit at that moment. Once it struck that chord, I thought I should think more about why it did. That's when I starting thinking about writing the book."
His book focuses on eighteen months from the fall of 1962 to the spring of 1964, when the auto industry was booming, Motown ruled the music world, Martin Luther King Jr. marched for civil rights with the UAW chief Walter Reuther, and Lyndon Johnson gave his "Great Society" speech at nearby Ann Arbor.
Detroit appeared on the upswing but it was only an illusion. "I started out wanting to honor Detroit with what was going on with the creative energy and Motown and civil rights and Walter Reuther, but unavoidably I saw the shadows," Maraniss said.
While those shadows are an undercurrent to the book's narrative, they don't lead to Detroit's 21st century bankruptcy with one of six homes vacant. "Maraniss is more interested in the complex sociology of the city, with its auto industry wealth and racial divisions, its musical creativity and ethnic enclaves," the interviewer writes.
And although Maraniss could feel "a bit more energy" in Detroit during his many visits to do research, he concludes that the city's "structural problems remain enormous, if not intractable, and the recovery can never be called a success unless there are jobs and houses for the backbone of the city, the working middle class."
That's why the newspaper's second story, which reported that Chrysler's new owner, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, had reached a tentative agreement with the United Auto Workers addressing the divisive issue of the union's two-tier pay system and its demands for healthcare. Both UAW and Fiat Chrysler officials said the proposed deal is balanced and would help keep both sides competitive.
Clearly, Detroit is a long way from a return to its glory days, but the two stories offer hope for Detroit and America's many other struggling urban areas.