BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, September 2015
David Maraniss didn’t set out to write a ghost story, but Once in a Great City, his glimmering portrait of Detroit, has a lingering, melancholy quality that will leave the reader thoroughly haunted.
The story begins on November 9, 1962, a day of tragedies: The Ford Rotunda, an architectural masterpiece that was once one of the nation’s top five tourist attractions, burns to the ground. On the other side of town, the Detroit police ransack the Gotham, a landmark hotel memorialized in prose by Langston Hughes. The Gotham eventually becomes a parking lot, and the Ford Rotunda is never rebuilt.
These troubling opening passages seem to portend the storms that will crash upon the city, yet Maraniss doesn’t linger in the gloom. Instead, he regards them as cracks in an otherwise gorgeous facade, for Detroit in the early 1960s was a tremendous place to be. From the inventors of the Mustang to the producers of Motown Records, Detroit’s movers and shakers were extraordinary. Maraniss brings them to life in vivid flashes, recounting details like the story behind Motown producer Berry Gordy’s nickname, and the tenor of the voice of civil rights advocate Reverend C.L. Franklin, the father of Aretha Franklin.
Once in a Great City has it all: significant scenes, tremendously charismatic figures, even a starry soundtrack. (I challenge anyone to read this book without sneaking off to listen to old Motown favorites like “My Guy.”) Maraniss chronicles events from the fall of 1962 through the spring of 1964. Reading about the city in its heyday is like falling backward in time and running into someone whose youthful blush you’d completely forgotten. Detroit is that someone. She is bright and laughing, flickering before you like a specter from the past. I doubt I’ll forget her anytime soon.