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In the early 1960s, Detroit sat on top of the world. Cars rolled off the assembly lines at a record pace. Motown churned out hits, creating “the sound of young America.” And city leaders pushed an agenda of economic growth and racial equality. Motor City was a national symbol of energy and promise, where President Lyndon Johnson went to launch his Great Society. Yet, even then, says Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Maraniss, the cracks were beginning to emerge, foreshadows of the ruin to come. Maraniss captures the moment of radiance before the fall in “Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story.”
- David Maraniss Associate editor at the Washington Post; author of numerous books, including "When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi" and "First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton"
Read A Featured Excerpt
Excerpted from Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story by David Maraniss. Copyright © 2015 by David Maraniss. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Before Detroit became a symbol of urban decay, it represented something very different, hope, progress, the American dream. In a new book titled, "Once In A Great City," Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Maraniss takes us back to 1963 when Detroit was in its prime. Through this portrait of the Motor City, Maraniss illuminates what was lost and what can rise again.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me from the studios of New England Public Radio, author David Maraniss. And you are welcome to join us. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. David Maraniss, it's good to have you on the program again.
MR. DAVID MARANISSThank you, Diane. I'm always delighted to be on your show and I regret that I'm not actually in the studio with you.
REHMWell, so do I. And we are hoping at some point in the hour to at least get you on Skype, but we're having a little difficulty. We'll hope that happens at some point. David Maraniss, you actually spent the first six and a half years of your life in Detroit. So you have very deep, early memories.
MARANISSI do. My strongest early members are of Vernor's Ginger Ale, the strong ginger ale going up my nose, it was so strong, and of the Boblo boat out to the -- in the Detroit River and of Briggs Stadium, which was where the Tigers played then and living in a flat on Dexter watching the 1955 cars go by and having my older brother and sister quiz me on what the models were.
MARANISSSo, you know, I'm more associated with Washington D.C. and with Madison, Wisconsin, where I spent the rest of my childhood in college years, but Detroit was primordial. It was the first of my memories.
REHMSo is that what actually brought you then to write this book?
MARANISSYou know, the idea for it came to me in a rather odd way. I was in New York City in 2011 watching the Super Bowl on television and at half time, I wasn't paying too much attention to the TV, but I looked up and saw a freeway sign in a commercial and the freeway said Detroit. And I started paying attention. And then, all of these iconic images came on the screen, the Joe Louis fist, representing the great boxer, the wonderful Diego Rivera mural of working industry Detroit in their great art museum there, of people walking the streets of the city.
MARANISSAnd then, this hypnotic back beat came on on the commercial and you saw Eminem, Marshall Mather, who -- I'm not a big Eminem guy, but there he was in this car driving down the streets and getting out of the car and walking into the Fox Theater, this grand old theater with a black gospel choir on stage rising in song and Eminem turned to the camera and said, this is the Motor City. This is what we do.
MARANISSIt was a commercial for Chrysler, but it -- I choked up watching it. I had tears in my eyes and, of course, you know, they're just trying to sell cars, but it's meant something deeper to me and that's what got me thinking about Detroit, what it meant to me, but also what it meant and means to America.
REHMTalk about why you chose just 18 months in Detroit's history, why this particular time period from the fall of 1962 to the spring of 1964.
MARANISSWell, I'm a nonfiction narrative writer. I like to use the metaphor of setting up my oil rig and digging as deep as I can and I knew that to try to capture what Detroit was and also the shadows of unfortunately what was to come, I had to look at a specific time period and the -- to use the threads of the book that are music, Motown, the wonderful soundtrack of my generation that's still so incredibly popular, cars.
MARANISSSo Motown was 1959 to 1971, essentially, Detroit, but 1962 is when they went off on their first motor town review spreading that great music to the world. The 1962 auto show introduced the cars that would sell more than any in history and at the same time, in private rooms downtown, they were plotting the marketing of a new car that would become the Mustang, sort of the sexiest car of that decade.
MARANISSAnd then the other elements were labor, the United Auto Workers was really the heart and soul of the American Labor Movement during that period and it was based in Detroit, lead by Walter Reuther, one of the great, I think, under-recognized figures of 20th century American social history and civil rights. Detroit had the largest NAACP chapter in the country and Walter Reuther's union was also very progressive in helping bankroll the important civil rights movement of 1963.
MARANISSSo all of the -- and labor was also bringing the working class into the middle class. So music, cars, labor, civil rights and the middle class are the central threads of the book and it was in that period that I could write about them all.
REHMYou know, I can actually hear the excitement in your voice as you talk about this.
MARANISSWell, I hope I'm not too excited, but I am. I mean, I feel a deep soulful connection to Detroit as an underdog city, as a city that became a symbol of ruin. And I wanted to remind America of what Detroit gave all of us. At the same time, I'm not writing, you know, a Pollyannaish book. You see all the shadows of what was to come. You see all the troubles of urban life. You see the mistakes that were made in various ways.
MARANISSSo I'm trying to present the gritty reality of it, but also present the enormous contributions that this one city gave to all of us.
REHMSurely one of the major figures of that area was Walter Reuther. Talk about him.
MARANISSWalter Reuther came to Detroit from Wheeling, West Virginia, in the '30s and started working in the auto plants there and rose his way up. He jokes that, at one point, one of the managers said, you're a smart young man. You're going to school. You could be a vice president of this company someday. And Reuther said, little did he know, because, of course, he went the other way and became a labor organizer and really helped organize the United Auto Workers Union.
MARANISSHe was a very progressive human being, along with his brothers, Roy and Victor. The Reuther brothers really made the United Auto Workers the most progressive or among the most progressive of the unions. Not far left -- and as a matter of fact, he had many fights with the Communists within the unions during the '40s and early '50s, but he was very liberal and progressive and believed in many things, including equality.
MARANISSHe was very strong on civil rights. And as I said, he helped -- his union helped support Martin Luther King during the key early era of the '60s, helping bail out members of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference and their followers from the jails in Birmingham that very summer of 1963, pressuring Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to push further in their civil rights bills and acts.
MARANISSHe had all of that going for him. He also was somewhat prescient about the problems of the industry with which his workers were involved. He was -- in the book, you see a point where he's trying to persuade the big three to build smaller cars and trying to get Lyndon Johnson, the president then, to help support this effort. He also was very keen on the dangers, as well as the promise, of technology and he saw the ways that it would change the industry and change labor and he was really trying to warn people about both the pluses and minuses of what was going on.
REHMDavid, remind us of just how strong the unions were during that era.
MARANISSWell, the peak of the unions was actually in the late '50s, but in '63, they were still very strong. Every Democratic candidate for president would start their campaigns in Detroit, in Cadillac Square, with Walter Reuther at their side, you know. That was the beginning of the campaigns. It was that important. It was -- in Detroit, it helped bring literally tens of thousands of working class people into the middle class. They could get their own single family homes.
MARANISSThey could buy little cottages up in Northern Michigan. They really could enjoy the American dream and that was labor's contribution in so many ways, involving healthcare and pensions and all of that, some of which became sort of demonized later. But at that point, it was United Auto Workers and labor at AFL-CIO that was really very much more powerful and the last several decades, year by year, their powers diminished.
REHMDo you have any idea, any recollection of how much those union workers were making on the line at that time?
MARANISSWell, they were making far more than what's the minimum wage today and it, you know, ranged depending on what your -- 1962, it was -- depending on overtime and so on, but they could make as much as 20 to $25,000 a year, which was a lot of money then.
MARANISSThey also had healthcare benefits and they had some protections from being overworked. That was one of the key questions during that period, about how much they had to stay on the line before they could get a break. But essentially, they were being protected by the union.
REHMDavid Maraniss, he's author of 11 books, including biographies of President Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Short break, right back.
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, David Maraniss is my guest. He's written a new book. It's titled, "Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story." And of course, David Maraniss is an associate editor at the Washington Post, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author of "First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton." But, today, we're talking about Detroit, what power that city had at one time and what has happened to it since. We've already talked about Walter Reuther, David Maraniss. But now let's talk about Henry Ford, II, known as the Deuce, and to what extent he became Walter Reuther's nemesis.
MARANISSYes. I would say nemesis and at times ally -- an interesting dynamic between the two. Henry Ford II, the Deuce, was the grandson of the founder of the Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford, his namesake. And he took over after his father, Edsel Ford -- named, you know, of which the famed lemon car was named, died...
REHMOh, I remember it well.
MARANISSYes. Died a premature death and young Henry II took over in the 1940s. And he had a lot to overcome. His grandfather had been perhaps a marketing and automotive genius but he had enormous flaws. He was a terrible anti-Semite. The Ford Motor Company and Ford really represented sort of an anti-immigrant, anti-Jewish, anti-urban strain in American life. Henry Ford II, the first thing he had to do was try to overcome that through making it clear that he was not anti-Semitic himself. And also the Ford Motor Company had the most difficult relationship with the labor unions. And again, the Deuce worked with Walter Reuther to try to ease some of those tensions.
MARANISSThe famous Treaty of Detroit in around 1950, in that era, really made the way for labor peace and set up the whole notion of unions being involved in health care and pensions and so forth for the industry. But there were inevitably tensions between Reuther and Ford, as they had different motivations and goals and they were two very dynamic figures. Henry Ford II was very flamboyant. He was leaving his first wife during the period of my book and went running off with an Italian jet-setter.
MARANISSHe once issued the phrase: Never explain -- never complain, never explain, when he was caught in a car with a mistress. He had a lot going on in his personal life. But he also was a very -- he helped bring Ford into the modern era, away from the Model-T era.
REHMNow, what was Ford paying its workers at the time Walter Reuther was pushing for better conditions, better health benefits and all the rest for other workers -- labor union workers in Detroit?
MARANISSWell, going back a little further before that, Ford was known for the $5-a-day -- which was a lot of money back in the period of the '20s and early '30s, which helped fuel the great migration to Detroit. The great migration is attribute -- you know, generally speaking, it's African Americans coming up from Mississippi and Georgia and Alabama to the big cities of the North. And in Detroit, it was because the Ford Motor Company was really paying more than anybody else and hiring more African-American workers.
MARANISSAlso, whites were coming from Appalachia, which created some of the -- the racial-tension dynamics of Detroit, which played out in 1943 with what was at the time the worst race riot in American history -- a fight over housing and jobs between those Southern whites and the blacks coming up with those jobs. By 1962, it depended entirely on what your job was, generally speaking, the African Americans had the most difficult jobs in the foundry. But they would all be getting, again, well above the minimum wage, up to $12 to $15 an hour.
REHMOne of the events you focus on, David, is Detroit's walk to freedom led by the Reverend C. L. Franklin. Talk about that
MARANISSReverend C. L. Franklin was the minister of the New Bethel Baptist Church, which was the most popular church in Detroit. He had a few daughters, one of whom happened to be named Aretha...
MARANISS...the great singer.
MARANISSFrank -- the Reverend was a very flamboyant preacher. He was beloved by the street people and scorned to some extent by his fellow Baptist ministers who thought he was too flamboyant, too colorful. At one point he was so popular around the nation because of his amazing sermons, that he would travel like a circuit preacher by plane to cities, especially in the South, and 8,000 or 10,000 people would show up in an arena...
MARANISS...and they'd shout out sermons they wanted to hear from him. They knew the sermons because they'd heard them on the radio or they'd even been recorded by Chess Record Company. So they'd should out: Preach the eagle stirreth its nest. And Franklin would deliver a sermon just like someone calling out for Aretha to sing "Respect" or something. But, in any case, he was not really heavily involved in civil rights until 1963 when he decided -- he had known Martin Luther King, he was a friend of Mahalia Jackson's, he had seen the troubles that were going on in the South, or the difficulties that the S.C., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was facing in Birmingham.
MARANISSMedgar Evers had been assassinated in Mississippi, another civil rights leader. So Franklin decided to form an organization that would sponsor a rally in Detroit in support of the Southern Civil Rights Movement.
MARANISSThere were some people -- some African Americans and other progressives in Detroit who thought he was the wrong person to do it, little bit of tension and squabbling along the way, but it happened. And he brought Martin Luther King to Detroit on June 23, 1963. 150,000 people marched down the street -- down Woodward Avenue, the main thoroughfare of Detroit...
MARANISS...the largest civil rights crowd to that point in history. They went to -- gathered to the COBO Hall Arena, as many as could get inside, jam-packed with 15,000 to 17,000 people, another several tens of thousands outside listening on loudspeakers. And there, on that day, two months before the march on Washington, Martin Luther King delivered the first major variation or iteration of the I Have A Dream speech. He said it in Detroit first.
REHMAnd, David, was it a totally peaceful coming together?
MARANISSIt absolutely was.
MARANISSWhen I looked at the police reports and the newspaper accounts of it, they said the police arrested two drunks and one pickpocket and a few kids got lost and that was it. There was a major concern then about what might happen...
MARANISS...with sort of rally.
MARANISSBut one thing I forgot to point out is that Detroit had a very progressive administration at that point. The Mayor Jerome Cavanagh and the Police Chief George Edwards, who are both major characters in my book, were essentially brought in to try to resolve the racial tensions of the city. Cavanagh won the election in 1961 largely because of the black vote. There had been a lot of tension in the years before that of the way police were treating people in the black community -- something, unfortunately we still hear about today. But, in any case, that's why they were there.
MARANISSSo that when King arrived at the airport in Detroit that day, he was greeted by the police chief, who said, you will find no police dogs going after you here. And he escorted -- he marched with King...
MARANISS...as did the mayor, as did Walter Reuther. So it was a very peaceful and moving demonstration that day.
REHMYou know, I want to take you back just a bit, because I think there are those who may not -- and I include myself -- who may not understand why Detroit itself became the hub of this automobile-creating universe.
MARANISSWell, it's -- it really is just partly happenstance, that Henry Ford grew up in Dearborn. He was born on a farm there. And, you know, as much as anyone, he was instrumental in the rise of the automobile. He wasn't the inventor, but he was the creator in a sense. The Olds, you know, the Oldsmobile -- Olds came out of Detroit. The Dodge brothers came out of the Detroit. It was one of those, you know...
MARANISS...I'm fascinated by the whole idea -- the concept of why there are creative bursts of energy in certain places at certain times.
MARANISSSo it was geography. It was the river there. It was the proximity to transport -- to other forms of rail transportation and shipping transportation and the steel industry, you know, in Youngstown and in Pittsburgh and in Gary, Ind., all of which were sort of -- Detroit could become a hub for. So all of that together, along with the people, created it.
MARANISSAnd if you don't mind, if I could sort of change that question a little bit to Motown. That's the one I focus on in terms of why creative bursts of energy happen in certain places. And my investigation of why all of those incredible figures came out of Detroit at that period, you know, we've listened already in your intro to Mary Wells singing "My Guy," and Smokey Robinson singing, "Ooo Baby Baby."
MARANISSI mean, you know, they were just two of this incredible collection that included Little Stevie Wonder and the Supremes and the Temptations and The Four Tops and the Marvelettes and Martha and the Vandellas and Marvin Gaye -- all of them coming out of -- you know, Marvin Gaye, born in Washington, D.C., by the way and grew up there, but came to Detroit at a very early age as a drummer -- but all of them essentially focused -- the others all born in Detroit, and why did that happen? And I can answer the question, if you want me to...
MARANISSI'm sorry. But, so there are several factors and some of them I just found utterly fascinating. One, of course, is the great migration and the oral traditions of the South -- of African Americans from the South, bringing it up to Detroit with the, you know, expression through music and song, and blues and jazz that they brought with them as well.
MARANISSAnother factor is that Detroit had a working middle class with people with disposable income and so they could buy single-family houses. Detroit was a huge geographic area, 28 miles across. And unlike Manhattan or many other urban areas, it was mostly single-family houses, which allowed the people to have pianos in their homes, easily moved in. And there was a great piano company in Detroit, Grinnell Brothers, which was the biggest makers of pianos in that period and also distributor. And they were very egalitarian. And people could get pianos on layaway and different plans and bring them into their houses, so that every musician I talked to talked about a piano in their house.
MARANISSBerry Gordy had a grand piano. Martha Reeves and Smokey Robinson had pianos. They all did.
MARANISSAnd then the final factor, which I really hadn't thought about but made the most impression on me, was public school music teachers. Every musician, again, that I talked about remembered their elementary school music teacher, their junior high music teacher and their senior high music teacher, and talked about the influence that had on them in loving music. Martha Reeves, when I interviewed her, talked about her music teacher in high school and how he loved classical music and really rooted all those young, African-American singers in classical music first. And while I was interviewing her, she broke into a song of an aria.
MARANISSYou know? It was sort of thrilling for me to have that tape recorded.
REHMAbsolutely. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." But, David, on page 92 of your book -- do you have it in front of you?
MARANISSI can -- I do. And I'll get to 92.
REHM...the middle of the page, which begins: Composition and decomposition.
REHMWould you read from that for us?
MARANISSAbsolutely. Composition and decomposition, Detroit dying and thriving at the same time. Seven weeks earlier, Mayor Jerome Cavanagh had christened the year 1963 with the mayor's traditional New Year's Day greeting to Detroiters. The Free Press ran it on January 1, front page. 1962 has been a good year for most of us in Detroit. Fewer people are out of work. Business, in general, is on the upturn. And our auto plants are busy turning out quality cars that have made Detroit famous throughout the world. The improved economic picture is only a part of the renaissance, which has marked 1962 as the year of Detroit's rebirth.
REHMSo it says, though they anticipated that good things were ahead, everything was fine.
MARANISSWell, they were optimistic. They didn't see what was ahead of them. But during that same period, sociologists at Wayne State University were studying the demographics of Detroit and predicting the depopulation that was already start -- underway, and predicted that a half million people would leave Detroit every decade from then on. So the shadows were there. The auto industry was starting to move out of Detroit. The freeways of Detroit made it easier for people to escape to the suburbs. The urban renewal had unsettled the traditional black community in Detroit and the Chrysler Freeway was built where Hastings Street had been -- the center of the cultural black Detroit.
MARANISSHousing discrimination was a central issue in the city then and an open-housing bill was being defeated that year. So all of these elements were coming together to create the problems that would lead eventually, sadly, to the riots or rebellion of 1967 and many of the other problems that were to come.
REHMYou know what is interesting, we have a comment on our website from special forces vet who says: Detroit seems to have largely proven Daniel Moynihan's prescience in his circa 1964 paper, "Great Society Brings Down Great City." At least we still have a lot of great music. We're going to take a short break here. When we come back, we've got lots of callers, your email. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd of course you were just listening to the music of Stevie Wonder and "Fingertips, Part 2." David Maraniss is my guest today. We're talking about his new book. It's titled "Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story." Goodness, lots of emails, lots of phone calls. Let's go to the phones right now, 800-433-8850. And let's start in Detroit, Michigan. James, you're on the air.
JAMESThanks for taking my call, Diane.
JAMESI've been a Detroit resident now for about 10 years, coming from Southern Ohio. So I've been able to kind of view things objectively. I think the story of Detroit is a micro version of the story of America and in its transition from what it once was to what it is now. A thing to remember is a lot of times, especially as it pertains to African-Americans, the African-Americans were pretty much brought here for a reason, not just because of the good $5 a day from Henry Ford to -- that would be a very strong workforce and loyal workforce into the unions. And that was the reason Ford was the last shop to unionize.
JAMESAnother contribution of the industry is George Washington Carver had a lot to do with the development of the Ford Motor Plant in that, you know, that's where the plant gets its name from in that, you know, you wouldn't think something that was created of bolts and steel and metal be associated with something that came out of the ground. But the city of Inkster, for example, was created by Henry Ford for his black employees. That's why it's called Inkster. And that's kind of like the whole attitude in Southeast Michigan and Michigan period, and it's a very segregated area, and that's what seeds up to what we have, what we knew was the riots.
REHMAll right, and you've raised lots of good points. David, do you want to comment?
MARANISSWell, the comment I would make is that I agree with the first statement he made, that Detroit in many ways is a microcosm of America, and I think that for better and worse, so many of the promises and ills of America have played out in Detroit, and racial -- racism and racial tensions in Detroit are an enormous factor that the city has, you know, dealt with from the 1920s forward through the first riot of 1943 to the second disturbance in 1967 and that is something that the city is still working on.
MARANISSAnd so even today when people talk about the renaissance of Detroit and what's, you know, we'll talk about that more later probably, but about what's happening exactly there today and the investments downtown and the young people coming to Midtown and sort of the new energy of the city, my feeling is that the true renaissance can't happen until the black working class that was so important to the creation of Detroit is brought along with it.
REHMAnd here's a comment on our website from LHB, who says, imagine if Detroit had taken all that wealth and invested it in a permanent fund. They could have sustained their economy for a very long time, but greed got in their way. Do you agree, David?
MARANISSWell, I agree in general that greed gets in the way of a lot of things in the world, you know, just in humankind, unfortunately, and it's easy to look back and say what if. I do know that the -- even if you're just talking about the Big Three automakers, they made short-term decisions, including leaving the city behind, which they now regret. Many of the executives of the Big Three talk about, you know, how important the urban center is to sort of the thriving existence of Detroit and of the industry itself in ways that are larger than just profits.
MARANISSAnd so in so many ways you'll see -- you know, I would -- instead of greed I would talk about looking at the short-term instead of the long-term benefit for the most people.
REHMAll right, and David, we now have you up on Skype.
MARANISSOh great, hello.
REHMAnd I'm so glad to see you.
MARANISSGood to -- you, too. I'm sorry it took so long.
REHMAll right, let's go to Bill in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. You're on the air.
BILLDavid, I just want to compliment you. You're a national treasure, and David Maraniss, having grown up in Detroit, like you, the -- I'm going to read the book as fast as I can. I have a question. I left, we moved away to Upstate New York in 1961, and I was curious about the role of the public policymakers in the collar counties like Brooks Patterson in Oakland County, who seems to have facilitated white flight in the mid- to late '60s. Do you have any comments on that?
MARANISSIt's a little past the purview of my book, but my general comment is they did not just facilitate it, they, you know, they talk openly about the -- they demonize the city of Detroit, which again is counterproductive. It might help bring industry and people to their particular county, but so much of life is so segmented and narrow, and it's only later that you realize how important it is to have everything be strong.
MARANISSAnd so I think definitely that the white flight had a lot of reasons. It was going on before the riots of '67. It intensified during the era of Coleman Young's mayorship for a lot of different reasons and is really something that the city has had, that the whole area has had to deal with. You see this ring around Detroit of true wealth, and people in those places, you know, in Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham and Royal Oak and Grosse Pointe. When you ask them where they're from, they'll say Detroit. They're not from Detroit unless they embrace Detroit.
REHMReally, really interesting, and yet again a bit beyond the purview of the book but nevertheless part of the whole question of what happened to Detroit is that it was chosen to host the 1968 Olympics. How did that happen, and why was that important to include?
MARANISSYes, it actually is in the book because the decision was made in 1963, and Detroit had been very -- they had several figures who were very active in the Olympic movement, including -- well, Avery Brundage was born in Detroit, who was the president of the International Olympic Committee then. But within Detroit, there was a lot of athletic power, and they had been the nominee to be the -- well, the U.S. selection for the Olympics four times before they went again for the 1968 effort.
MARANISSAnd they thought they were going to get it. There was a lot of optimism about Detroit, and it was a world-class city. They made a very strong presentation to the International Olympic Committee. Actually, they were a little bit undermined by Los Angeles, which also wanted it, and when Detroit was chosen over L.A. as the U.S. representative, some people in Los Angeles were still lobbying against Detroit, undercutting them, which is a story in the book.
MARANISSBut nonetheless, Detroit thought they would get it. In the end, because of world dynamics, because of the third world getting more votes and the Soviet bloc in the U.S. at the heat of the Cold War, losing votes there, it went to Mexico City instead. But the question that fascinates me is counterfactual history. I don't deal with it much but the what if question. What if Detroit had gotten the Olympics in 1968?
MARANISSFirst of all, think about 1968, you know, the year of black power, when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in Mexico City, and there was an attempt to boycott the Olympics by African-American -- some athletes and leaders.
REHMAnd the riots at the Democratic convention.
MARANISSAbsolutely but also the riots of 1967 in Detroit. So the question is would those have happened. Would the leadership of Detroit been more sensitive to the problems of African-Americans in Detroit, what was bubbling up, all of the frustrations? Would that have been somehow not resolved but at least dealt with more effectively so that those riots wouldn't have happened?
REHMAnd David, here's one more what-if question. What if GM management had put Walter Reuther on its board? His recommendation that the company build a small car to compete with the Beatle was ignored.
MARANISSWell, it was, that's another little story in my book. Walter Reuther was somewhat prescient about the coming of -- there had been a few small cars built in 1959 and '60 and '61, the Falcon and some others. But Detroit was turning away from that again by '63 and having more chrome and aluminum in the cars than ever before and building the big cars and looking for more powerful.
MARANISSAnd Walter Reuther was saying this is a mistake, we have to -- we have to figure out how to build smaller cars to stay competitive and to keep the jobs. And -- but GM was never going to put them on the board. You know, it was still too much of a divide, and I don't think he would've taken it anyway, although he was trying to get some form of activity that resembled the arsenal of democracy during World War II when business and labor and government were working together to create the munitions plants and the air plants and so on that helped United States win World War II. Reuther was saying we have the same problems facing us internally, we have to figure out how to work together.
REHMAll right, let's take a call from Birmingham, Michigan. Hi there, Jack, go right ahead.
JACKHi, Diane, I was elected to office at the same time that Jerome Cavanagh was nominated to run for mayor against Mariani, and I was -- I knew all the people that are being discussed in the book. But, you know, the question that I have, of course I feel like I am a Detroiter, I don't care what some people might believe, but having been born, raised, educated and representing Detroit for years, I don't think that that suddenly makes me a non-Detroiter, even if I don't live in the city, which has not been characteristic of -- which actually has been a characteristic that's been going on for years.
JACKBut going back to the 1950s, the height of Detroit and from my perspective was the celebration of the 250th birthday of the city. At that time in 1951, Detroit's population was well over two million people, I think probably somewhere between 2.2 and 2.3, and that was before any of the elements that began to draw people out. And primarily the two forces that gave rise to that was the development of the shopping malls outside the city and the expressway system that was designed to take people from the city and move them into areas that had never been populated before.
JACKOne of your previous speakers seemed to think that Brooks Patterson was the head of the county, Oakland, in the '60s, and he was not. But anyway, the point I'm making is that the change in populations already started by 1961, and of course the subsequent events of the belief that the city was progressing was all a part of an extraordinary degree of self-delusion on the part of the leadership. 1
REHMAll right, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. David, what about the creation of the shopping malls and the expressway?
MARANISSWell, I think in that regard he's absolutely right, and I write in the book about Eastland and Westland and all the shopping malls that were sort of forming a ring around the city as Hudson's department store was beginning its slow decline, the tallest department store in the world in downtown Detroit, the symbol of the downtown's strength.
MARANISSAnd also the freeways. I mentioned both of those in trying to describe sort of the way that Detroit was dying from its own design. So I think in those regards he's right. He's also right that the population decline had started in the 1950s, in the late '50s, and so many of those elements were already there. I certainly didn't mean to imply that anyone who doesn't live in the city of Detroit cannot call themselves a Detroiter. What I was trying to say is that if you do call yourself a Detroiter then you should stick up for the city of Detroit.
REHMNow David, you close the book with Lyndon Johnson's commencement address to the University of Michigan in 1964, and that was his first mention of the Great Society. Why did you choose to end the book that way?
MARANISSWell, he lands in Detroit. Lyndon Johnson had been invited to be the main speaker at the 1962 Detroit Auto Show, which is where -- one of the places my book begins. He didn't get there because the Cuban Missile Crisis broke out that same day, the same day of the Detroit Auto Show and of Motor Town's first review leaving Detroit to carry Motown to the world. So on May 22, 1964, Johnson comes back, he lands at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, declares the city the herald of hope for America and for America's economy, then takes a helicopter to Ann Arbor and delivers the Great Society address.
MARANISSIt's a wistful moment. You know, we know, all of the readers, we know what's to come, but Motor Town's first review and Jerome -- Mayor Cavanagh and all of the people of Detroit don't really know what's to come. And so it's a way of leaving the last shadow over the story.
REHMSo you must have visited a great number of your childhood neighborhoods. What did that do to you, for you?
MARANISSOh, boy, that's been very fascinating. Just last week I was -- I was back in Detroit, and one of your NPR colleagues, Kai Ryssdal, was interviewing me in front of the flat where we lived in 1955. It was gone. It was rubble. It was just torn down. That street, four of the eight houses on the street were torn down, and two others were abandoned. Earlier I had visited the elementary school that I attended, Winterhalter School, it was called then. It's now Hope Academy. And it was -- it now has 650-some students, is very overpopulated. It's a charter school. In some ways it's -- you know, I think 90 percent of the young people who attend that school are below the poverty line and getting school lunches, and it's struggling very much so.
MARANISSYou know, another aspect of all urban cities, all cities but particularly Detroit, is that the comeback has to somehow figure out how to improve the school systems.
MARANISSWhich seems almost in...
REHMWe'll have to leave it there, I'm afraid, David. It was great to talk with you. The book is titled "Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story" by David Maraniss. Congrats, David, thanks for being on. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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