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Can Detroit get its groove back?

Interview: Ines PohlJanuary 8, 2016

From Motown to the civil rights movement, Detroit has left a mark on US history, but since slipped into decay. Pulitzer Prize-winner David Maraniss tells DW how the city lost its way - and how it can get its edge back.

Detroit skyline, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Detroit is not only known for its realization of the American Dream, but also for feelings of loss and fear, writes Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss in "Once a Great City: A Detroit Story." The US city in Michigan is synonymous with great musicians from Stevie Wonder to Eminem, and is known for some of the most influential moments in civil rights history. However, Detroit is also the city with the highest crime rate in the country. It has become a symbol for the extraordinary downfall of a formerly rich and blossoming metropolis.

The North American International Auto Show will be held in Detroit from January 11-24.

DW: David Maraniss, you write that Detroit not only lifted up the middle class but also gave it a song. What do you mean by that?

David Maraniss: I meant that both literally and figuratively. The literal part is that Motown came out of Detroit, which I consider the joyous soundtrack of our generation: Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, Mary Wells - they're all from Detroit in the 1960s.

And figuratively?

Detroit - through the strength, in particular, of the labor movement there, represented by the United Auto Workers and Walter Reuther, its progressive president, helped lift the American working class into the middle class with steady jobs, decent housing, good health care, and hope for the future [sic].

David Maraniss, Copyright: Lucian Perkins
David MaranissImage: Lucian Perkins

This seems to be history.

Yes. Now many of those jobs are gone, lost to technology because of the corporate shortsightedness of Detroit's Big Three automakers, General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. Work and jobs got transferred to cheaper overseas forces, and due to poor management and corrupt structures, Detroit lost the competition against Japan, South Korea, Germany, and elsewhere.

Besides the big Auto Show NAIAS, which will open its doors on January 11, what role does the car industry still play for the average people in Detroit?

Detroit is still defined by its automobile culture, but if the city is to come back, and it is starting to show signs of that, it will be a very different Detroit - less reliant on the car industry, which is a good thing. Part of its downfall can be attributed to it being a "one company town" - too reliant on the car industry.

That was very different in the moment of history which you focused on in your book, "Once a Great City: A Detroit Story."

What prompted me to write "Once in a Great City" was the feeling that Detroit had become such a symbol of urban ruin that people were forgetting all of the extremely important things that Detroit gave America and the world - socially, culturally and economically. Detroit gave America its cars, it gave America and the world a beautiful song through Motown, it gave the people a strong labor movement through the United Auto Workers, and it played a crucial role in the civil rights movement that liberated the oppressed African-Americans of this nation.

Book cover: David Maraniss' "Once in a Great City," Copyright: Simon & Schuster
Image: Simon & Schuster

Can you give us an example?

During the critical civil rights year of 1963, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading protests throughout the South, the UAW and other progressive leaders in Detroit were providing strong support in terms of people, ideas, and platforms but also serving as a sort of financial bank for the movement. When King and other demonstrators were jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, for instance, it was money from Detroit that bailed them out of lockup.

It was no coincidence that what at that time was the largest civil rights rally in American history was held in Detroit on June 23, 1963, when Dr. King joined more than 100,000 people walking down Woodward Avenue in peaceful assembly down to Cobo Hall on the banks of the Detroit River, where he delivered the first large public iteration of the most famous speech in 20th-century American history - "I Have a Dream."

He said it in Detroit two months before it became immortal at the March on Washington that August.

What can the current situation in Detroit teach us about the state of the United States?

Enimen in the film "8 Mile," Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/UIP
The 2002 film "8 Mile" traces rapper Enimen's rise to fame - and paints a bleak picture of DetroitImage: picture-alliance/dpa/UIP

Detroit is still struggling mightily, although it is emerging from bankruptcy now with some hope. Its public schools are still substandard, there are vast swaths of the city with abandoned, dilapidated, and foreclosed-upon homes, the poverty rate is staggering, and there is much to be done. America in many respects, especially the Republican Party, largely is interested only in demonizing cities and the people who live in them. With the exception of a few mayors and governors, including, one must say, the governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, who cares about Detroit.

Yet at the same time more and more young people are moving into cities like Detroit and being joined by empty-nest, upper-middle-class adults, and they are starting to be revived. But a full renaissance cannot be realized until the working class people who built Detroit can find jobs and decent housing and education again.

David Maraniss is an associate editor at The Washington Post. He is the winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting and has been a Pulitzer finalist twice for his journalism and again for "They Marched into Sunlight," a book about Vietnam and the 1960s. He is also the author of bestselling works on Bill Clinton, Vince Lombardi, and Roberto Clemente, Maraniss is a fellow of the Society of American Historians. He and his wife, Linda, live in Washington, DC, and Madison, Wisconsin.