Book Review: Once in a Great City by David Maraniss (4/5)

10 Apr

My library brings in an author each year and every few years, it’s a non-fiction writer and when that happens, the discussion usually focuses on Detroit and Michigan. David Maraniss’s ballad to the once-great (and now recovering) Detroit was this year’s selection. My book club discussion on it isn’t for a while, but I figured I’d get a head start on the audiobook so I didn’t have to rush it.

Cover image via Goodreads

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

Summary from Goodreads:

It’s 1963 and Detroit is on top of the world. The city’s leaders are among the most visionary in America: Grandson of the first Ford; Henry Ford II; influential labor leader Walter Reuther; Motown’s founder Berry Gordy; the Reverend C.L. Franklin and his daughter, the amazing Aretha; Governor George Romney, Mormon and Civil Rights advocate; super car salesman Lee Iacocca; Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, a Kennedy acolyte; Police Commissioner George Edwards; Martin Luther King. It was the American auto makers’ best year; the revolution in music and politics was underway. Reuther’s UAW had helped lift the middle class.

The time was full of promise. The auto industry was selling more cars than ever before and inventing the Mustang. Motown was capturing the world with its amazing artists. The progressive labor movement was rooted in Detroit with the UAW. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech there two months before he made it famous in the Washington march.

Once in a Great City shows that the shadows of collapse were evident even then. Before the devastating riot. Before the decades of civic corruption and neglect, and white flight. Before people trotted out the grab bag of rust belt infirmities—from harsh weather to high labor costs—and competition from abroad to explain Detroit’s collapse.

I’ve lived in Metro Detroit my whole life. Growing up in the 90s and 2000s, we didn’t go into the city. It was dangerous and there was nothing worth doing there unless you were going to a Tigers game and even then, you went straight to the game and straight home. Now that I’m in my 20s and the city is rebounding, I go a lot more. It’s great to see the city rebounding and I can see how it strives to be the city it was in the 60s (less some obvious racial problems). Maraniss has an obvious love for the city and it’s portrayed in this book and touches on all aspects of city life ranging from Motown to politics to automotive. I listened to this book while driving and hearing about the Mustang concept car kept at World HQ while driving on the Southfield past the Glass Castle (local name for that building) gave me shivers. Going to Wayne State for an event while hearing about students from campus was awesome. I felt like I was walking through this book while I read it. I felt like Woodward Ave would be closed as I approached it for the Walk to Freedom despite it happening over 50 years ago. Maraniss brought the city to a life I hope it can see again soon.

I loved how Maraniss portrayed the figures in this book. Reuther was probably my favorite. My parents were GM engineers and I grew up thinking of the UAW as devils so seeing their infamous leader portrayed so positively made me think a lot. Hearing about George Romney, whose son Mitt would run for President in 2012, seemed like a strange precursor to that election. It was really cool to hear about these people via interviews Maraniss conducted and get a feel for how they lived and what they saw.


I could feel Maraniss’s pride for his city in this book. Wherever I travel, I say I’m from Detroit and I get looks like I’m going to whip a pistol out of my back pocket and shoot the person in the face. It’s not like that! Detroit has a rough reputation and it’s fought that for years. Maraniss notes how it was fighting that during the time period he selected, a great time period for the city. It got worse after that and is only now starting to get better.

David Maraniss
Image via Simon and Schuster

I’d never heard about the Walk to Freedom and I really enjoyed that part of the story. Hearing about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking in Cobo Hall was really moving and hearing the positive things he said about the city gave me chills. I wish the city had been able to make more progress for racial equality without the violence that broke out a few years after the book ended. It seems the city was open to it, but also resisted the change that was really needed.

I wasn’t as interested in some of the plot lines, the Motown one for example. The Motown plotline didn’t seem to connect to the others the same way the rest of them intertwined and it made me lose interest in it very quickly. The civil rights one connected slightly, but it wasn’t strong enough to feel like it was all part of a cohesive story.

Having Maraniss narrated the story was great. He pronounced everything right! I’ve found that non-native narrators don’t always say local names correctly and as a Detroiter, this could have been very distracting. It was great to have a man who knew all the right names say them.

Detroit was a great city. It makes me sad to say that, but Maraniss is right. It was a great city that fell off the tracks and is trying to get back on. The years in this book were boom years for the Motor City and show what Detroit could be again. On a personal note, I heard a speech from the current mayor, Mike Duggan, on Friday and his hopes and dreams for Detroit reminded me of this book. I hope we will be there again soon.

Writer’s Takeaway: When choosing several plot lines, it’s important that they alight. The political landscape of Detroit and far-reaching connections of the auto executives helped most plot lines interact with similar characters and events but the Motown plot seemed forced. It’s a defining sound of Detroit and that era, but the Gordy’s weren’t political and the Jim Crow laws that touched the performers wasn’t touching them in Detroit. I think the book could have been stronger without it but it’s a good note for a writer.

I enjoyed this book and it made me optimistic about what my city can become again. Four out of Five stars.

This book fulfills the 1960-1979 time period in the When Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

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Related Post:
Review: Once in a Great City- A Detroit Story | Da Tech Guy Blog


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