Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Maraniss, who has written biographies of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Roberto Clemente and Vince Lombardi, now takes on the story of the city of Detroit — but only in its prime.

If Detroit were a human being, the years Maraniss focuses on would be its early middle age — 18 months from the autumn of 1962 to the spring of 1964. That’s when the city saw itself, he writes, as “the center of the modern world.” It was revered for so much: a record pace of auto sales, compelling new Motown music, mutually beneficial labor relations that helped build America’s middle class and a fledgling civil rights movement at a time “when there was not a single car dealership in the United States with black ownership.”

Maraniss, a Detroit native, describes being compelled toward this project after watching Chrysler’s iconic 2011 Super Bowl commercial, in which Eminem intoned, “This is the Motor City. This is what we do.” Says Maraniss: “I was choked up.” He lived less than seven years in Detroit but came to realize how much of “what defines our society and culture can be traced to Detroit, either made there or tested there or strengthened there. I wanted to illuminate a moment in time when Detroit seemed to be glowing with promise.”

He certainly has. I, too, am a native Detroiter and found myself nodding in recognition throughout this book, remembering and learning on every densely detailed page. For example, boxer Joe Louis was a breakfast regular at the Gotham Hotel, “the cultural and social epicenter of black Detroit.” What did the Brown Bomber eat? A steak and five scrambled eggs with ketchup.

In 375 pages of narrative (the rest is footnotes), I found just one blatant error: It’s E. Jefferson Avenue, not street, that lines Detroit’s riverfront.

Detroit’s drama unfolded on a stage populated by personalities Maraniss captures as big and bold, including United Auto Workers chief Walter Reuther, “a twelve-cylinder political engine” and “one of [the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s] essential white allies in the civil rights movement.” Henry Ford II, the auto inventor’s grandson, known as the Deuce, is described as “impeccably dressed yet with a touch of the peasant, with his manicured nails and beer gut and carefree proclivities, his frat-boy party demeanor and head full of secrets.”

Berry Gordy Jr. got an $800 loan from his family to start Motown. Mayor Jerry ­Cavanaugh, an Irish Catholic, was a Kennedy wannabe. The Rev. C.L. Franklin, father of singer Aretha, organized a massive Walk for Freedom. In fact, MLK would rehearse in Detroit “the most famous refrain of his life” in downtown Detroit, 66 days before his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C.

Yet signs of Detroit’s imminent decline existed: in tension among black leaders over peace vs. confrontation, in the growth of overseas auto production of small cars and Detroit’s insistence on building mighty ones and in academic forecasts of upper-middle-class flight, published four years before the devastating 1967 riots that amateur historians wrongly blame for Detroit’s subsequent plight.

A tribute such as this book couldn’t come at a better time. Down and out for the past couple of decades, falling to less than half its 1950 population, the city is scrambling again. Investment is booming; building and rebuilding are everywhere, and young people are pinning their hopes and dreams on a place suddenly cool, tough as ever and unbelievably cheap. For them, it’s a great city still.

 

Susan Ager, a former columnist for the Detroit Free Press, is at susan@susanager.com.