Review: Detroit Was a Golden City Once -- and It Can Be Again

This review first appeared in The National Book Review, a journal of books and ideas.

By Lavea Brachman

Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story

By David Maraniss

Simon & Schuster 464 pp. $32.50

In August, New Orleans marked the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina - and the mood was upbeat. Thanks to thousands of volunteers, nearly $142 billion in congressional aid, and the hard work of local residents, New Orleans appears to be on the rebound. This story of cautious optimism raises a pointed question: if New Orleans can be turned around, why not St. Louis, Youngstown, Akron - or Detroit?

Of all these devastated Rust Belt cities, the one that has become synonymous with seemingly intractable urban decline is Detroit. Detroit is also the subject of Once in a Great City, Washington Post editor David Maraniss's exquisitely researched and sparkling tale of the Motor City at its height, in the early sixties, specifically the 18-month period from the fall of 1962 to 1964.

Maraniss's focus is Detroit's heyday - things were still quite good in 1964 - but there are gathering clouds in his story of the "great city." He uses Detroit as a lens through which to view the tumult of the sixties - and the great themes of race, class, economic change, social action, and American society on the precipice are all present. There are also, however, some important suggestions embedded in his story of how the struggling Detroit of today and cities like it can turn themselves around and reclaim their former greatness.

Maraniss's portrait of Detroit contains three intertwined stories - of the city's world-famous auto industry, of its equally famous music industry, and of its politics, which drove Detroit's rise and its significant place on the national stage. Maraniss tells these stories through larger-than-life personalities - and the biggest ones of the era were all there. John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Lyndon Johnson paraded through Detroit in this short time period and used it as a testing ground for new ideas and policies.

Maraniss also brings to life compelling local characters. We are introduced to Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. and Henry Ford II, along with public sector leaders like Detroit Police Department Commissioner George Edwards, Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh, and United Auto Workers head Walter Reuther. Some of these leaders actually possessed a vision for Detroit's future that defied social norms -- particularly in the area of race, which was rapidly becoming the central question Detroit had to deal with.

Much of the story, however, is not a happy one. Not surprisingly, given the place and time, urban decline is an underlying theme. It is a slow and steady drumbeat in the background of the story of a still-thriving city. And Maraniss exposes some of the tragic behind-the-scenes decisions the "city powers" made along the way that made thing worse, such as demolishing whole swaths of black Detroit to make way for highways - a move repeated over and over in other legacy American cities.

Maraniss also recounts the devastating impact of urban renewal (sometimes referred to, on the street, as "Negro renewal"). He tells heart-rending stories of individuals in pursuit of the American dream whose gas stations or small businesses were demolished, and congregations whose churches were relocated. With complete disregard for the fabric of functioning low and moderate income neighborhoods, communities were upended at the same time that larger economies, driven by the steel and auto industries, were booming.

Maraniss poignantly calls out a paradox at the heart of his story: that Detroit was "dying and thriving at the same time." One of the key lessons is the need for an urban agenda to be intentional about addressing deep-seated problems of urban decay in ways that benefit all residents, and all parts of a city and its metropolitan area - certainly a difficult task, but something Detroit utterly failed to do.

Today, as cities like Detroit strive to rise from the ashes, local leaders are showing that they have learned from the past. For one thing, their efforts to bring back neighborhoods are now often data-driven. Maraniss describes a fascinating, prescient study by Wayne State sociologists that predicted the population downturn and the concomitant decline in the tax base that in fact occurred in Detroit. It was superb social science research, but little was done with it.

Reading about it, I was reminded of the careful work being done today by a masterful community development corporation in Youngstown. It is using census data to select a school and its surrounding neighborhood, among all the schools and neighborhoods in the city, as ripe for stabilization and revival - and for targeted investment of resources.

This new approach to urban revitalization, which has been branded "microplanning," and other innovative strategies, are happening in many cities today because of the creativity and commitment of local citizens. These efforts, in which information is gathered, analyzed, and used to spur change, are inspiring examples of urban policies that are more intelligent and effective than in the past.

Another lesson learned is just how toxic institutional racism and disinvestment can be for a city. In his provocative book The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Post-War Detroit, published almost 20 years ago, Thomas Sugrue traced the seeds of Detroit's decline to the 1940s and 1950s, when the city was buffeted by an array of shocks to its system: deindustrialization, flight of investment and people to the suburbs (first whites and later the black middle class), and institutionalized housing and job discrimination.

Maraniss recalls that there were critical, but little-known, government efforts to reverse these policies. One was by the academically trained Detroit city council member Mel Ravitz, who sought to hold landlords responsible for problems in slum areas through rent confiscation. He also advanced the then-novel idea of metropolitan governance, to get around some of the problems caused by middle-class flight to the suburbs. Both of these policies are still floated today to address urban blight.

So, where is the good news in all of this? It is just possible that Detroit, the poster child of decline, could now be a paragon of recovery. Maraniss concludes his book with President Lyndon Johnson's announcement of the Great Society (in nearby Ann Arbor, Michigan) and what can only be described as the most explicit endorsement of an urban agenda in our nation's history. Johnson declared, "Our society will never be great until our cities are great," and called for a national commitment to make that happen.

The Great Society programs Johnson launched, such as the Model Cities initiative, were never fully implemented - in part because there was only a short window before the urban riots of 1967 and 1968, and other tensions, halted the momentum. From then on, the decline of Detroit - and other cities - was allowed to continue.

Today, no one expects the sort of infusion of federal money cities received in the 1960s - or that New Orleans has in the past decade - but cities like Detroit are finding other sources of support. Last year, the Ford Foundation committed over $125 million to help resolve Detroit's bankruptcy. And after many false starts, the private sector has leapt in and filled some gaps. A local billionaire's investments have been pivotal in attracting businesses to the city center and encouraging both start-ups and downtown living.

Non-profit leadership is helping to revitalize neighborhoods outside downtown through expansion of anchor institutions, like Wayne State University. And a consortium of public, private and philanthropic institutions--including the local billionaire, the Kresge Foundation and the Big Three auto companies--has committed over $100 million to, among other things, connect Detroit's downtown and midtown with a new light rail line.

Other cities, such as Cleveland and Pittsburgh, are seeing similar leadership from philanthropy and business. This is clearly good news, but we should not let the state and federal governments off the hook. Some of the important work to be done - including retraining former manufacturing workers, streamlining foreclosure efforts to help rebuild neighborhoods, and incentivizing rehabilitation of contaminated vacant properties (so-called brownfields) - needs active government involvement.

There is one other source of support that has been headed cities' way. Earlier this year billboards appeared in Brooklyn and Manhattan featuring Detroit -- "Detroit: Now Hiring," "Detroit, Just West of Bushwick,"and "Detroit, Be Left Alone." It cannot hurt that helping cities like Detroit to recover has suddenly become cool.

While Detroit is a long way from true recovery, parts of it are on the upswing. We are now at a pivotal point when forces are coming together that can bring about urban revival - but leaders must ensure we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. That means, above all, that the resurgence must not marginalize longtime residents, and that the renaissance must not only be by and for the creative class - the people those Detroit billboards are aimed at - and other elites.

One thing history instructs - and Maraniss's fine book reminds us - is that the seeds of renewal must be egalitarian, or a vicious cycle of decline could start all over again.

Lavea Brachman is Executive Director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center, a think tank and advocacy group based in Columbus, Ohio. A former a non-resident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, she recently co-authored "Regenerating America's Legacy Cities" and speaks and writes nationally on the state of legacy cities, their value, and the challenges they face.

Follow Lavea on Twitter at @laveabrachman