Skip to Content

“Cars were selling at a record pace. Motown was rocking. Labor was strong. People were marching for freedom. The present was calling Detroit a “herald of hope.” It was a time of uncommon possibility and freedom when Detroit created wondrous and lasting things. But life can be luminescent when it is most vulnerable.”

Once in a Great City

A Detroit Story
  • Robert F. Kennedy Book Award
  • A Best Book of 2015 (The Economist)

Detroit in 1963 is on top of the world. The city’s leaders are among the most visionary in America: Grandson of the first Ford; Henry Ford II; Motown’s founder Berry Gordy; the Reverend C.L. Franklin and his daughter, the incredible Aretha; Governor George Romney, Mormon and Civil Rights advocate; car salesman Lee Iacocca; Police Commissioner George Edwards; Martin Luther King. The time was full of promise. The auto industry was selling more cars than ever before. Yet the shadows of collapse were evident even then. “Elegiac and richly detailed” (The New York Times), in Once in a Great City David Maraniss shows that before the devastating riot, before the decades of civic corruption and neglect, and white flight; before people trotted out the grab bag of rust belt infirmities and competition from abroad to explain Detroit’s collapse, one could see the signs of a city’s ruin. Detroit at its peak was threatened by its own design. It was being abandoned by the new world economy and by the transfer of American prosperity to the information and service industries. In 1963, as Maraniss captures it with power and affection, Detroit summed up America’s path to prosperity and jazz that was already past history. “Maraniss has written a book about the fall of Detroit, and done it, ingeniously, by writing about Detroit at its height….An encyclopedic account of Detroit in the early sixties, a kind of hymn to what really was a great city” (The New Yorker).

  • 464 pages
  • Simon & Schuster
  • Sep 2016
  • ISBN 9781476748399


Chapter One

The ninth of November 1962 was unseasonably pleasant in the Detroit area. It was an accommodating day for holiday activity at the Ford Rotunda, where a company of workmen were installing exhibits for the Christmas Fantasy scheduled to open just after Thanksgiving. Not far from a main lobby display of glistening next-model Ford Thunderbirds and Galaxies and Fairlanes and one-of-a-kind custom dream cars, craftsmen were constructing a life-size Nativity scene and a Santa’s North Pole workshop surrounded by looping tracks of miniature trains and bountiful bundles of toys. This quintessentially American harmonic convergence of religiosity and consumerism was expected to attract more than three-quarters of a million visitors before the season was out, and for a generation of children it would provide a lifetime memory—walking past the live reindeer Donner and Blitzen, up the long incline toward a merry band of hardworking elves, and finally reaching Santa Claus and his commodious lap.