Interview with David Maraniss, author of 'Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story'

By Carmen Harlan - Anchor


David Maraniss rattles off names of Detroit landmarks like Hudson's, Vernor's Ginger Ale, the Boblo Boat, and even learning to swim at the Fisher YMCA on the corner of Dexter and the West Grand Boulevard.

However, even he admits it wasn't any of those memories that brought him back to a city he once called home. No, it was a Super Bowl commercial that stirred something deep inside him he could not deny.

"I almost choked up watching it ... the deep memories. And also what Detroit meant to America, which is huge. So this book in a sense is an attempt to present that to a larger public. You know, not just cars and music -- the great soundtrack of my generation, Motown -- but also labor. Walter Reuther and the United Auto Workers were so strong and really helped bring the working class into the middle class," said Maraniss.

Avoiding the riots of 1967 and the racial tension that led up to it, Maraniss' literary journey in "Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story" takes us back to 1963, when the city of Detroit seemed to have everything going for it. But did we?

"So the sociologists at Wayne State University in 1963 said we're gonna lose a half million people every decade. They predicted exactly what was going to happen -- the depopulation of this city. And so many factors played into that. Partly it was the automakers moving out of the city, and not just physically moving their plants and offices but also sort of emotionally abandoning the city, and financially in some ways," said Maraniss. "It was urban renewal, which perhaps ha good intentions, but a lot of African Americans called it 'negro removal,' not urban renewal. It unsettled a lot of established neighborhoods in Detroit and put the freeways through, and those freeways allowed people to get out of the city."

Even if you think you know everything there is to know about Detroit, "Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story" offers another historical perspective, whether it is the city's contribution to the world of auto manufacturing, the music of Motown which provided a soundtrack for an entire generation of young Americans, how Detroit almost hosted the summer Olympics in 1968, or how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to deliver his "I Have A Dream" speech in Detroit before the historic March On Washington.

Maraniss is trying to be fair to everybody with his writing, but we had to ask him: Who did he piss off?

"(Chuckles) I love that question! And usually, you know, I do a lot of books, articles about presidents and politicians and if I haven't upset somebody then I haven't done my job right," he said.

Maraniss will be making some local appearances:

Oct. 19 in Ann Arbor -- see details here

Nov. 11 at the JCC in West Bloomfield -- see details here


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