Bookshelf: My Mini-Course on Detroit

When I decided to move to southeastern Michigan—a place I had never been before—I realized I needed to learn more about the region, especially its history. I live in Ann Arbor, but there aren’t too many books written about Ann Arbor (I checked). Detroit, on the other hand, has long been an object of authorial attention, and even more so in recent years. Only about 45 minutes away from Ann Arbor, it’s the center of gravity in this part of the state, and I expect I’ll be there regularly. So over the past couple of months I’ve embarked on something of a mini-course on Detroit for myself.

I didn’t choose the first three books for my mini-course in any systematic way; one I already owned, one I had planned to read at some point anyway, and the third I came across while browsing the tables at Strand. Although Detroit is over 300 years old, the books I read are all set between 1960 and the present, so obviously I got only a narrow, fairly contemporary, slice of the story. I did learn a bit about the city’s very early years by listening to an episode of Liz Covart’s Ben Franklin’s World podcast, in which she interviews historian Catherine Cangany about her book, Frontier Seaport: Detroit’s Transformation into an Atlantic Entrepôt, and I’ve added Cangany’s work to my list of things to read.

maraniss-coverThe book that kicked off my mini-course chronologically was Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story, by Washington Post editor David Maraniss, who was born in Detroit but grew up elsewhere. Maraniss focuses on a mere 18 months in the city’s past—from the fall of 1962 to the spring of 1964—that, in retrospect, can be seen as a kind of tipping point. Detroit’s slide into decline is commonly dated to the riots of 1967, which sparked an exodus of white families to the suburbs. Before that summer, or so the story goes, Detroit was a city on the rise.

But Maraniss demonstrates that even amid the prosperity of the early 1960s—the city flush with auto manufacturing, Motown music, a serious bid for the 1968 Olympic Games, a friendly administration in the Kennedy White House—the seeds of decline had already been planted. In early 1963, sociologists at Wayne State University issued a largely overlooked report projecting that Detroit would lose nearly a quarter of its population by 1970, a loss caused not by racial tensions or white flight but the simple fact that people wanted to live in the suburbs, and the automobiles anchoring Detroit’s economy had made suburban lives possible. The 1967 riots did much to push the city over a precipice, population-wise, but they didn’t cause the problems in the first place; cars and rising middle-class incomes did. The industry that had powered Detroit’s 20th-century rise would also facilitate the city’s decline.

Maraniss paints a vibrant picture of Detroit in the early 1960s, populating Once in a Great City with the larger-than-life characters who occupied center stage during those years: automaker Henry Ford II, Motown founder Berry Gordy, civil-rights leader C.L. Franklin (Aretha’s father), mayor Jerome Cavanagh. Weaving together so many disparate stories—city politics, pop culture, civil rights, economics—is a tall order, and Maraniss isn’t entirely successful; I know there’s a thread in there about the Mafia, as well, but it wasn’t thick enough for me to follow. I surely would have gotten more depth about these various stories if I’d read a separate book about each one, but for a general overview about Detroit during its peak, Once in a Great City seems a solid place to start.

leduff-coverThere may be no greater contrast than the Detroit of Once in a Great City and the metropolis as seen through the cynical eyes of journalist Charlie LeDuff, author of my next selection, Detroit: An American Autopsy. LeDuff is a Detroit native who won a Pulitzer Prize writing for The New York Times before returning to his hometown in 2008 to report on its struggles.

And there are struggles. An American Autopsy is a dark read, filled from cover to cover with corruption, incompetence, crime, indifference, job loss, bankruptcy, drugs, and death. Death of people, death of hope, death of a city. There’s no uplifting, optimistic ending here. LeDuff’s pain and anger at what the city has become—although, as he notes early on, “I can honestly say it was never that good in the first place”—course through every chapter, their rawness almost too much to bear. I can’t say I enjoyed this incredibly dark book, and I found LeDuff far too enamored with his own sense of himself as a gonzo journalist and rebel. (In the cover photo, he’s wearing his trademark star-spangled cowboy boots; in the text he mentions driving a decommissioned Checker cab. We get it, Charlie. You’re a “character” who doesn’t play by the rules.) But I do think An American Autopsy is worth reading for its steady, unflinching examination of the city and its problems.

haimerl-coverThe final book on the syllabus of my Detroit mini-course is the one I had planned to read even before I knew I was moving to Michigan, Detroit Hustle: A Memoir of Life, Love, and Home, by finance journalist Amy Haimerl. (I heard about the book via this interview with Haimerl at The Billfold; she was also profiled at the New York Times.) Haimerl’s memoir is the story of how she and her husband, Karl, left behind Brooklyn’s escalating rents to buy a house in Detroit for $35,000—and then spent $400,000 to make it habitable.

LeDuff would probably dismiss Haimerl and Karl as gentrifiers, outsiders who want to save Detroit but don’t know the city’s soul. Haimerl acknowledges that she worries about this herself; she’s seen how her rural Colorado hometown has changed over the decades with an influx of Texans and Californians who come for the area’s cheap real estate and bring artisan coffee and big-box stores with them. She strives to accept Detroit on its own terms, support local businesses, and play some small part in the city’s recovery, without presuming to know what’s best for it. It’s a tough balance to strike.

HGTV junkie that I am, my only disappointment with Haimerl’s book was the scarcity of down-and-dirty renovation details. She and Karl, knowing their own shortcomings, hired contractors for the job rather than stumble blindly through the renovations on their own. Given that the house had no electricity or plumbing and required entirely new floors, doors, windows, roof, kitchen, etc., it was certainly a job best left to professionals.

Professionals, however, like to get paid, and this is the chief conflict in Detroit Hustle—and indeed, in all of Detroit, where getting a mortgage or homeowner’s insurance or a fair appraisal is a tall order. Haimerl and her husband have white-collar jobs; they liquidated their retirement funds to pay cash for the house and get started on renovations, thinking that a construction loan would provide the rest. But they can’t find anyone willing to grant them a loan: their house needs too much work, and it won’t be worth as much at the end as it cost to fix it up. Only by borrowing from family members, living on credit cards, and running a tab with their contractors can the couple survive financially until they find a bank able to give them a cash-out refinance mortgage after the renovations are completed. Even after that, they are still in debt—the very definition of “house-poor.” Still, Haimerl clearly wouldn’t go back and do things differently: Detroit, with all its problems and shortcomings, has drawn her in.

Detroit, like all cities—but maybe more than most others—is too big and complicated to get to know through books. But like any nerdy historian, I like to do research; I want to know the context before I start exploring firsthand. Some of that context I have to go back decades to find, while other elements of it are more recent. Everything I read or hear or see adds another tile to the mosaic growing in my mind. I want to know more, so if you have a Detroit recommendation—book, movie, podcast, place to go, thing to do, item to eat—please leave a comment below.

All book links above have been generated through the Amazon Associates program: if you follow the link and purchase the book, I will receive a small commission. Thanks for your support! ~Maura

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