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Once In A Great City: A Detroit Story

3.76  ·  Rating details ·  1,517 ratings  ·  277 reviews
As David Maraniss captures it with power and affection, Detroit summed up America’s path to music and prosperity that was already past history.

It’s 1963 and Detroit 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; influential labor leader Walter Reuther; Motown’s founder Berry Gordy; the Reverend
Hardcover, First Edition (U.S.), 464 pages
Published September 15th 2015 by Simon & Schuster, Inc. (first published September 2015)
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Book 2 for 2016.

What did I know about the city of Detroit before I started reading this? Well, I was aware that it went bust a few years ago and as a result had to declare bankruptcy. Not a very fun thing for a major U. S. city to have to do, right? Well, in "Once in a Great City: a Detroit story" perennial best-selling author David Maraniss' new work, Detroit comes off as being a true magnet for the country and a sort of proving ground for new cars, new styles of music, one of the incubators fo
Steven Z.
Jan 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing
David Maraniss’ ONCE IN A GREAT CITY: A DETROIT STORY is almost a love story or at the very least an ode to a city that has slowly fallen from the heights it had reached in the 1950s. Maraniss focuses on the 1962-1964 period when the city was about to confront white flight to suburbia, the loss of manufacturing jobs, and the ever present issue of racism. Maraniss who is an excellent writer whose works include sports biographies of Vince Lombardi and Roberto Clemente, the foremost study of Bill C ...more
Aug 14, 2015 rated it liked it
At first, I was pretty interested in this book, but as I kept reading, it really wasn't as much about Detroit as I thought it would be. It's like if anyone who lived in Detroit did anything, it was included. Why was I reading about the assignation of JFK and Martin Luther King? Those did not take place in Detroit. And the March on Washington? Sure King did his "I have a dream" speech first in Detroit, but why am I reading all about the March. Why am I reading about the Cold War? Why am I reading ...more
Aug 26, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites, netgalley
David Maraniss saw a commercial during the Super Bowl that brought a wave of nostalgia. It inspired him to write Once In A Great City. He focuses on Detroit in 1963, just after the Cuban Missle Crisis, to fall of 1964. It was a time when Detroit was 'on top of the world' with visionary leadership, record breaking profits for the Big Three, and Motown's stars on the rise. It was where President John F. Kennedy first spoke of 'ask not', and where Rev. Martin Luther King first had a dream, and wher ...more
Sep 01, 2015 rated it it was ok
I read the rave reviews about this book, but I found it to be considerably overrated. While interesting, it is hardly the sweeping portrait of Detroit in the 1960s that it is represented to be. It is actually very narrowly focused on a few areas and a few people, mostly community leaders or celebrities. So it presents a few slivers of 1960s Detroit. The focus is on Ford Motor Company (top executives only), organized labor (Walter Reuther), Motown music and civil rights struggles of the era. Ther ...more
Linda Robinson
Jun 05, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Detroit is where I was born, where I worked, played and loved. Before the freeways (that wiped from the map Paradise Valley, Black Bottom and the rich cultural mix of 1950s' D) you were in Detroit or you were a farmer somewhere out in the rural north, west. Maraniss chose 4 elements in a confined timescape. Fall of 1962 to Spring 1964: the beginnings of Motown; civil rights; the Mustang and thus, labor and the Big 3. The people involved were historically mighty. Reverend C. L. Franklin, Martin L ...more
Scott Sigler
Oct 28, 2016 rated it really liked it
If you're ...
A) A history buff and a Michigander
B) A fan of Motown and that era of music (Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells, Four Tops, etc)
C) Interested in civil rights history
D) Thinking "my city could never end up like Detroit"

... then you will enjoy this book. Unless you only chose "D," then it might freak you out a little bit.

Maraniss covers the heyday of the Motor City, when automakers were setting records for new car sales, the Mustang was on the way, Barry Gordy Jr. was founding Motown and turn
Leslie Reese
Apr 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: detroit
3.5 stars
This book was on my Detroit TBR - a stack from which I hope to learn more about the city in which I was born.

In Once In A Great City David Maraniss provides straight-forward reportage of what was going on in Detroit from the fall of 1962 through spring of 1964. Nationally this time period includes the Civil Rights Movement and the March on Washington, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the assassination of Medgar Evers, the 16th Street Bap
Juan Carlos
Jan 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Mid-Century America Fans, Detroit Historians
This book served as a time portal to mid-century Detroit. Every time I opened the pages and started reading, I could see the modern marble and glass buildings being constructed alongside the art-deco skyscrapers that trademarked generations past. I could smell the exhaust polluting the air from heavy Ford muscle cars congesting traffic on the newly built interstate highways bringing the city core to the suburbs. I could hear the R&B notes and melodies of Motown filling the air in and around the ...more
Oct 21, 2015 rated it liked it
I wish David Maraniss had written a different book than this one, which isn't really a fair criticism, but it's true. Once In a Great City is a portrait of Detroit in 1963 (and into the beginning of '64), a time when the city was at its peak, culturally, economically, socially, politically, and it all seemed like there was nowhere to go but up. Berry Gordy and Motown were just entering their glory years; labor leader Walter Reuther and industrialist Henry Ford II were trusted and frequent adviso ...more
Nov 05, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Maraniss can write great books. His Clinton biography is just plain fun (in parts) I have mixed feelings on this one. He's only covering 62-64--a glory time for Detroit. I learned things--which is good since I'm old enough to remember some of the events. Still, I thought it might be difficult for younger people. In truth, many of his chapters could be expanded to make entire books. Berry Gordy and the start of Motown. The Detroit Mafia. The insular automotive culture. The importance of several p ...more
Sep 21, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: giveaways
I received this book for free from Goodreads first reads giveaway. For the most part, I enjoyed this book. I was expecting a more extensive history of Detroit, which the author may have accomplished; however, the story consisted of many tangential narratives. I was very intrigued Martin Luther King Jr. first gave his "I have a Dream" speech in Detroit but the additional information on MLK Jr. seemed more appropriate in a biography of the man. At times I found myself wanting more information on H ...more
Alice Lemon
My interest in this book was primarily spurred by my personal connections to Detroit: my mom grew up in Hamtramck, and I went there to visit relatives several times a year up until I was in college. It's embarrassing how poorly I know the city and its history, though, and that's something I need to correct.

In that light, I was hoping and expecting Once in a Great City to be a history of Detroit over a bit longer a period than the eighteen months the early 1960's it covers, and I still want to re
Alysson Storey
Dec 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
An alternately devastating and inspiring account of one of the world’s most fascinating cities. My mom grew up outside Detroit and I grew up across the border in Canada, spending time in Detroit in my childhood and teenage years during some of the city’s darkest days. To see flickers of renaissance now, is exciting but also raises so many more questions about those still left out of this economic rebirth. This book gives so much more context to the devastated city many of us grew up with. It als ...more
Nov 02, 2015 rated it really liked it
This a good companion to other books about Detroit that I've read, focusing on iconic figures of the automotive industry, labor, civil rights, and Motown, mostly during 1963. After reading other books, I was left thinking, "well, what about the good stuff about Detroit?" and that good stuff is here, mostly in the music which Maraniss clearly believes is Detroit's best legacy. ...more
Rebecca Moll
Oct 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
David Maraniss offers a thoughtful and compelling snapshot of the City of Detroit against the larger US political and industrial landscape from October 1962 to May 1964. The birth of Motown, the ingenuity and heart of America's Automotive industry, the glory of The Motor City's brief rise from the smoldering embers of racial inequality and civil unrest, segregation, union labor, mafia underpinnings, politics, and religion.

It is a snapshot cast in the die of an instamatic polaroid. A black and wh
MeLisa Banks
Mar 29, 2019 rated it liked it
Not as much about Detroit as I would have hoped. There is a lot about MLK, JFK and LBJ etc. that, in my opinion, could have been shorter in order to leave more space for Detroit. So much was left out for extraneous things, but it’s entertaining.
Jun 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Clever approach to explaining the rise and fall of a major American city. Instead of a comprehensive infodump, Maraniss focuses in on its inflection point: the apex of the city in the early 1960s. Civil rights progress seemed inevitable, the auto industry was driving the economic success of the whole state, and Motown was blowing up.

My Gen X peeps and younger never knew Detroit as the key cultural and economic center that it was up to that point, only as the symbol of urban decay it later became
Sep 18, 2016 rated it liked it
When I think of Detroit, the first thing I think about is urban decay.
"Once in a Great City" is a reminder that Detroit indeed once was -- and in many respects still is -- a great city.
David Maraniss chooses to tell about a short section of Detroit's history -- from the latter part of 1962 to the early part of 1964. This could be said to have been Detroit's heyday. The American automobile industry was dominant, and anchored in Detroit. The Motown sound was emerging as a major force in American p
Robert D. Cornwall
I'm relatively new to the Detroit area. Since arriving I've discovered that the region is rather complex, with significant racial/social/cultural dimensions. There is a significant divide between city and suburb that has been defined in ethnic terms, but it is also economic in nature. I've been trying to understand how things have come about. How did Detroit go from a city of nearly 2 million to a city of under 700,000? The auto and the freeway allowed for significant urban sprawl, leaving Detro ...more
Joseph Serwach
Oct 04, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
What every American can learn from Detroit

The great Pulitzer Prize-winning David Maraniss does what no other author can: puts the Detroit story into a global perspective that is educational, informative and fun to any reader anywhere. I studied history in my undergraduate years (and helped expand the Pure Michigan and Michigan brands in recent years) and have subsequently read most of the major histories of Detroit and Michigan. Most fall into two categories: 1. A Michigan-centric author full of
Nov 23, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting look at one of America's great cities of the past. It's not an exhaustive history, by any means, nor was it meant to be, but it gives, I think, an incomplete portrait of the city at that time as well. The main focus is on the founding and rise of Motown Records by Barry Gordy, the activities at Ford Motor Co., and various political figures. I don't feel the book quite brought them together, despite the occasional overlaps in their stories.

But still a lot of interesting stuff here. I
Nov 16, 2015 rated it liked it
Rather than another "urban autopsy" book on crumbling Detroit, David Maraniss takes us back the city at its apogee in the early 1960s--but only a few years before the riots of 1967, the invasion of Japanese cars, labor issues, and white flight sent the city into a tailspin.

In 1962-64, Motown and the Mustang were king. The city of 1.7 million was considered a paragon of economic equality and (relative) racial harmony. Detroit made a strong bid and was a serious candidate to host the 1968 summer
Sep 15, 2015 marked it as unfinished
I didn't have much time to give to this book, which, more than anything else, is why it was unfinished. There have been a lot of Detroit books published since bankruptcy, and after 100 pages, I wasn't sure this was one I wanted to read. David Maraniss has a gift for prose, and the people and places he described were immediately knowable even for non-natives. It was his framing that left me cold, though. Maraniss has identified an 18 month period between 1962 and 1964 as the beginning of Detroit' ...more
Dwight Koslowski
Jan 25, 2016 rated it did not like it
Very disappointing book. The book was supposed to be about Detroit during 1963 -1964. The author's narrow focus centered upon three subjects: Motown Records, M.L. King's appearance in a "Walk To Freedom", and Walter Reuther's activity in the Civil Rights quest. The timeline is stretched into 1964 to cover LBJ's "Great Society" speech in Ann Arbor, and the introduction of the Mustang. Everything else in this time period is incidental to the author's story. The biggest story of the year, nationwid ...more
Oct 21, 2015 rated it really liked it
3 1/2 stars. I enjoyed this micro-history about Detroit in 1963-4 through the lens of Motown Music, the local civil rights movement, and Ford Motor Company. It was of special interest to me since I lived in the Detroit area growing up and it was the home of my parents until right before I was born in 1964. It's an interesting snapshot of the city before its fall and well worth the read. Maraniss tells the story based on research and interviews with both famous and normal folk who were there. ...more
Chris Dean
Oct 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
Mr. Maraniss does an excellent job of catching a moment in time.

Whether it is the rise of Motown, creation of the Mustang, civil rights, Mr. Maraniss, introduces us to all of the personalities of the Detroit area circa 1963. He does so masterfully against the backdrop of events occurring nationally at the time and with national personalities such as JFK, LBJ and Martin Luther King Jr.

There are also many hints of what was to come, not only in Detroit proper, but with the Civil Rights movement,
Sep 04, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Linda by: Shelf Awareness
This is the story of the Detroit I grew up with. Maraniss spends a lot of time talking about MoTown, the auto industry and the city government. To a lesser extent he brings in The Detroit Tigers (who a fan could COUNT on in 1964!). This was a journey back to my childhood.
The book was narrated by the author, who was born in Detroit. He delivers this with expressiveness of a history professor. That part could have been better.
Jeff Criteser
Sep 15, 2015 rated it really liked it
Thoroughly enjoyed this deep dive into a pivotal 18 months in Detroit's history. Maraniss is a biographer and he successfully brings to life the characters of 1963 Motown. He has said he wanted to capture the essence of what Detroit have America - music, civil rights, organized labor, and of course the muscle car. ...more
Nov 01, 2015 rated it liked it
In his encyclopedic account of Detroit in the early sixties, journalist David Maraniss hints that urban violence may have played a decisive role in bringing down Detroit. A plus for the causal non-fiction reader, the Motown chapters are engaging.
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David Maraniss is an associate editor at The Washington Post and the author of four critically acclaimed and bestselling books, When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi, First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton, They Marched Into Sunlight War and Peace, Vietnam and America October 1967, and Clemente The Passion and Grace of Baseballs Last Hero. He is also the author of The Clinto ...more

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