MY TURN: Book takes look at a 'Great City' in years gone by

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

Earlier this summer, best-selling author David Maraniss returned to his Detroit area roots, appearing at the Community House in Birmingham to discuss “Once in a Great City,” his 2015 book that chronicles the Motor City during an eventful 18-month period in the early 1960s.

His presentation offered a fascinating trip back in time for those who filled the Community House that night, focusing on some of the high points in Detroit’s history just years before it exploded in rioting that would claim 43 lives and leave a lasting stain on its reputation.

Maraniss, an associate editor with The Washington Post, was born on the west side of Detroit in 1949, living there until age 7 in a historically Jewish neighborhood that was “becoming more and more integrated during that time,” he said. His father, a Brooklyn native who earned a scholarship from the University of Michigan, would land a job with The Detroit Times, a once thriving paper that was sold to the owners of The Detroit News in 1960. His mother grew up in Ann Arbor, meeting her future husband at the U-M.

As a Detroit native, Maraniss was drawn back to his “hometown” in 2011 as he watched the Super Bowl and an auto ad featuring rap artist Eminem hawking the new Chrysler 200. The ad’s “Imported from Detroit” tag line proved to be a hit in more ways than one, enticing the best-selling author to take a closer look at his former city.

“That ad – that look at Detroit – stirred a range of emotions in me,” Maraniss told the audience. “It brought back a flood of memories, some good, some bad, that I needed to explore further in the form of a book.”

The time frame of the book, the autumn of 1962 to the spring of 1964, was rich with subjects and subject matter for Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize winner who has authored books on Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Vince Lombardi, and the 1960 Rome Olympics.

Detroit, at the time, was humming as an industrial powerhouse, thanks in large part to the Big Three automakers driven by the likes of Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca along with labor leader Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, who even then offered a cautionary tale about the impact of technology and automation on the workforce.

Then, of course, the time period also saw the rise of Motown, which Maraniss said offered “the soundtrack of my life,” thanks in large part to Berry Gordy’s role in making stars of Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, and more.

“Fortunately, Detroit and Motown will be forever linked,” Maraniss said of the record label and recording company that eventually relocated to Los Angeles and was sold to MCA in 1988. “Even more so for me, Berry Gordy was one of the few subjects from that era in the early 1960s who is still alive and, accordingly, was someone I could interview for the book.”

The civil rights movement also was kicking into high gear at the time, showcasing the oratorical and leadership talents of an American Baptist minister who on June 23, 1963 in Detroit would deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech, a precursor to the more famous version he would give weeks later in Washington, D.C.

“Before I began my research on the book, I wasn’t aware that Martin Luther King Jr. had given his ‘I Have a Dream” speech in Detroit first at the Walk to Freedom,” Maraniss recalled. “I’m not sure how many people know that fact outside the confines of Detroit.”

Similarly, few outside Detroit probably knew about the popularity of the massive Ford Rotunda, the Albert Kahn designed structure in Dearborn that once was one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States.

“If you can believe it, the Ford Rotunda in the 1950s attracted more visitors than the Statue of Liberty,” Marannis said of the massive structure that was destroyed by fire in November 1962. “It was big stuff back then.”

As was Detroit’s bid for the 1968 Summer Olympics, an ill-fated attempt that Marannis pondered as a “what if” moment for the city.

Detroit, thanks to the tireless efforts of a University of Michigan product, was a finalist for the 1964 and 1968 Olympics. After finishing a distant second to Tokyo as the 1964 Olympic host, Detroit was considered the favorite for the 1968 Summer Games when the voting rolled around in the fall of 1963, according to Marannis.

Its competition included Lyon, Buenos Aires, and Mexico City, and while Detroit lacked some of the beauty and glamour of the other cities, Olympic observers reportedly were impressed with the existing athletic venues and the community/business support for the 1968 bid.

The man behind the Detroit effort was a native son, Frederick Matthaei, who formed the Detroit Olympic Committee in 1936, the year that the Summer Games would become a hideous propagandist tool of Nazi Germany.

A product of Detroit Western High School, Matthaei was born in 1892, the son of German immigrants. Following high school, he briefly attended Michigan State University before transferring to U-M, where his name will be etched forever among the school’s most influential and generous alumni.

The city’s bid was bolstered by several political heavyweights, as then President John F. Kennedy and Michigan Governor George Romney threw their support behind the effort with JFK telling the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that Detroit would give “the warmest and most cordial welcome in the U.S.”

But in the fall of 1963, just weeks before a presidential assassination would rock the nation, the IOC snuffed out dreams of an Olympic flame in Detroit, voting 30-14 to award the bid to long-shot Mexico City. It was a stunning setback for Detroit, which two years later would make another attempt to secure the Summer Games, the 1972 version that would be awarded to Munich.

For Matthaei, it was his final Olympic blow, ending his hopes of encircling the city in the five Olympic rings that symbolically bind a world together.

Now, if offered the chance to rewrite Detroit’s history, one wonders if a Summer Olympics would have been a magic elixir for a city on the verge of decline. It’s a “what if” question that is destined to beg a definitive answer for those caught in the swirl of a once great city.
 

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