Durable Growth

Detroit: Reading list

Detroit skyline (from Dreamstime)

Detroit skyline (from Dreamstime)

In my previous post, I wrote about my personal draft history of the fall of Detroit.  I also noted that I’d established and partially completed a Detroit reading list before traveling to CNU 24 in the Motor City.  Today, I’ll give pocket reviews of the books read, partially read, and still to be read.

“Detroit: An American Autopsy” by Charlie LeDuff: I started here because this was the key point I wanted to study.  Why had Detroit died, or at least gone into a profound and startling decline?  After all, that is what “autopsy” means, right?

Well, apparently not to LeDuff or his editor.  Although imminently readable, the book is about the dysfunction within Detroit after the fall.  The images are often haunting and the book remains worth reading, but it’s more a study of decomposition than an autopsy.

“A Detroit Anthology” edited by Anna Clark: Like any anthology, this volume has high points and low points.  But some of the high points will long remain in my memory, affecting my view of Detroit.  Perhaps the most poignant was a memoir by a young African-American girl who made the gradual acquaintance of a white boy, new to her neighborhood and of roughly her age.

Their growing friendship wasn’t demonstrative, but quietly comfortable until the day the boy arrived, apparently newly educated on race relations, deliberately urinated on her porch, and disappeared from her life.

There is much of Detroit and of life in that story.

“Once a Great City: A Detroit Story” by David Maraniss: Perhaps it’s because I’m partial to well-told popular histories, but this is the book that I’d recommend above the others, at least thus far.

Maraniss tells the story of Detroit in a single year, 1963, although he slightly stretches his margins to include the loss by fire of the principal Detroit tourist attraction in fall 1962 and the arrival of LBJ in spring 1964, enroute to giving his “Great Society” speech at the University of Michigan.

The image is the of manufacturing power and political importance of Detroit in 1963, a year in which the city came within a few votes of securing the 1968 Summer Olympics, contrasted with the cracks that were beginning to appear, especially to those who know how the story will end.  If there was a movie genre of urbanist horror, in which a placid city is about to be bloodily murdered by a monster the audience knows to be lurking in the closet, Detroit in 1963 would be a great plot.

To me, the most significant transitional moment was a civil rights march organized in the summer of 1963 by a coalition initiated by Reverend C.L. Franklin, father of Aretha.  The march was intended as a contrast to the civil rights marches in the South that summer that often ended in confrontation.

Franklin insisted on the inclusion of whites who had been supportive of the civil rights movement, particularly Walther Reuther, the president of the United Auto Workers, who had provided the funds to release Martin Luther King, Jr. from the Birmingham jail earlier in the year.  Reuther eventually walked close to King in the march.

In the gathering after the fully peaceful march, King gave the first draft of his “I Have a Dream” speech, a speech that was recorded by Motown founder Berry Gordy.

There is much of Detroit’s history that intersected on the day of the march.

But the peacefulness of the march masked underlying problems.  In the months after the march, Franklin was gradually displaced from his leadership role by those less willing to recognized non-black friends like Reuther.  Meanwhile, Franklin’s congregation had only recently found a home after their long-time church was demolished to make way for a freeway, a common occurrence in the Detroit of the 1960s.  And four years later, Detroit erupted in race riots that many describe as the moment that Detroit began its slide.

“Once a Great City” is highly recommended.

“Lost Detroit: Stories behind the Motor City’s Majestic Ruins” by Dan Austin: I know that ruin porn is offensive to many, particularly those whose lives were derailed by the same forces that created the ruins.

But “Lost Detroit” really isn’t ruin porn.  For one, the photos aren’t as good as the best ruin porn.  More importantly, the book isn’t about the artistic interest of the ruins but about the stories before the ruins, the histories of the buildings that were lost to the dysfunction that claimed Detroit.

Having already read “Once a Great City”, some of the buildings felt like old friends.  Cass Tech, the first college prep high school in Detroit and a success story for many years, was one.  Having read of the prominent place Cass Tech held in 1963 Detroit, alma mater to Diana Ross among many others, it was difficult to see the state of dishevelment to which it had been reduced before its demolition.

“Detroit: A Biography” by Scott Martelle: The author uses “biography” rather than “history” to allow himself the freedom to pick out a particular thread from the full city history.  The thread Martelle chooses is race relations.  He does a reasonable job and I agree with many of his conclusions, but I give the edge to “Once a Great City” as being less obvious in its effort to narrow its focus and more able to capture the full panoply of the city.

“The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Post-War Detroit” by Thomas Sugrue: The most erudite of the books on my reading list, the book comes highly recommended but intimidating.  A hundred pages of notes at the end of volume never portend a comfortable read.  It will accompany me to Detroit, where I hope to at least make a dent.

“The Virgin Suicides” by Jeffrey Eugenides: Having found value elsewhere from the reading of fiction closely tied to a city, I asked readers for a Detroit recommendation as I assembled my reading list.  A long-time follower recommended “The Virgin Suicides”.  Having often been given good advice by the reader, I secured a copy and broke it open after buckling my seatbelt on the airplane.

Even with the reading I’ve consumed, the reading I will consume, and the time I’m spending in Detroit, the city remains a fascinating tale on many levels.   If anyone has further reading recommendations to make, please do so.

Next time I write, I’ll share some links about Detroit.  There are many good ones out there.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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