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Super Bowl Commercial Inspires Maraniss To Write About Detroit's Better Times


David Maraniss won a Pulitzer Prize writing about politics. He's also written several books of nonfiction, and his latest features an unlikely main character - a city, a great city, that has come to symbolize hard times. When we sat down to talk, I asked David Maraniss about his inspiration.

You know, I don't imagine many works of history have their origins in a television commercial. But there was a Super Bowl commercial that really is the starting point for this book.

DAVID MARANISS: It's an odd thing, but yes. I was watching the 2011 Super Bowl with my Packers playing in it. And at halftime...

GREENE: Playing my Steelers and beating them, by the way. Let's just say that.

MARANISS: Yes, but - looked up at the screen and saw a commercial that had a freeway sign that said Detroit.

GREENE: And while David Maraniss grew up mostly in Packer country, Wis., Detroit is his hometown. And that commercial he's talking about - that's rapper Eminem cruising in a black Chrysler through the iconic streets of downtown Detroit. And there was this voice-over.


KEVIN YON: Now, we're from America. But this isn't New York City or the Windy City or Sin City. And we're certainly no one's Emerald City.

MARANISS: You know, I'm too old to be an Eminem guy, but I love the back beat of that song. And he walks into the Fox Theatre and a black gospel choir is rising in song. And he turns to the camera and says...


EMINEM: This is the Motor City. And this is what we do.

MARANISS: Now, of course, they were just selling Chryslers. But it struck me in a deep, deep way and got me thinking about I want to write about the city where I was born.

GREENE: And David Maraniss ended up writing a history of what Detroit gave America. His book, "Once In A Great City," examines four subjects - cars, the labor movement, civil rights and Motown - all at a very specific point in the early 1960s.

MARANISS: It seemed that I could tell the whole story pretty powerfully in those 18 months between October of '62 and the spring of '64 when they were all at their peak. And yet you could see some of the shadows of Detroit's demise coming.

GREENE: Yeah, and you kind of capture that in a paragraph from the very beginning of the book that I'd love you to read here, if you don't mind.

MARANISS: (Reading) 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. There was a precarious balance during those crucial months between composition and decomposition - what the world gained and what a great city lost. Even then, some part of Detroit was dying, and that is where the story begins.

GREENE: Life - luminescent at its most vulnerable. What exactly do you mean by that?

MARANISS: Well, here you had a city that was selling more cars than ever before, that had this wondrous music being created, that was so vital to the labor and civil rights of this country, and yet it was dying and didn't see it, except for some sociologist at Wayne State University who predicted that Detroit was losing population by a half-million by the end of that '60s decade, and that that trend would continue taking away its tax base.

GREENE: But people were focusing on other things, I mean, among them the Detroit Auto Show of 1962, which you described as the Academy Awards of Detroit. I mean, paint me a picture of that.

MARANISS: Sure - or the White House Correspondents' dinner of Washington. Originally, John Kennedy was going to come speak, and then Lyndon Johnson. Because it was October of '62, neither made it because of the Cuban missile crisis.

GREENE: They had a little other business to take care of.

MARANISS: Yes, but it's that big. And all of the big shots of the car industry are there, strutting their stuff. And that year, they're feeling especially good because cars were selling more than ever before.

GREENE: And so if those were the positive signs, what were the signs - if we're talking about cars - that things were really about to implode in Detroit?

MARANISS: Well, there were several things. One was that the industry itself built in Detroit was abandoning the city - taking factories elsewhere, the corporate headquarters elsewhere. And then the industry itself was so cocky about what they were doing that they weren't seeing what was coming on the horizon with Japan and Germany and other places that were building smaller cars.

GREENE: And, you know, I'm just amazed by how many big speeches were given in Detroit or nearby. You had Martin Luther King - I mean, this was basically the first time he used "I have a dream" - at a speech in Detroit before the big one in Washington. You had Lyndon Baines Johnson using the term Great Society in a big speech in Ann Arbor, at the University of Michigan. I mean, it's just extraordinary.

MARANISS: And that John F. Kennedy uttered the first variation of "ask not what your country can do for you" in Detroit on Labor Day in 1960. So Detroit was really central to Democratic politics United States. Every Democratic candidate would start their fall campaigns in Cadillac Square. Second, it was so crucial to the Civil Rights Movement that on June 23, 1963, Martin Luther King came to town, walked down Woodward Avenue with more than 100,000 people and delivered the first major public iteration of his "I Have A Dream" speech, two months before he did it in Washington.

GREENE: So you had this hope and optimism. But what was happening in sort of the Civil Rights Movement where you could sort of see the seeds for real problems if we look at the city?

MARANISS: Detroit was an exaggeration of what was going on across the country. You could see the divisions, even within the Civil Rights Movement of that period. At the same time that Martin Luther King was talking about his dream, Malcolm X gave his most famous address in Detroit during that same period, "The Message To The Grass Roots," dismissing the notion of integration. You also had in Detroit that summer, an early variation of Ferguson. A black prostitute was shot in the back by police. And all of the efforts that a very progressive police chief and mayor of that period had put into trying to restore race relations started to fall apart again, and you could see that unraveling for several years until the riots or rebellion of 1967.

GREENE: You write about - at the end of the book - the experiences in going back and doing the research and seeing modern-day Detroit and staying in a hotel with some tourists who have come to treat the urban destruction as something to see.

MARANISS: Well, there is something beautiful about ruins. I mean, in one sense it's not that different from going to Rome and looking at the Forum. But it's changing. It truly is. I'm optimistic but skeptical. So, I mean, there's still vast swaths of the city that are suffering from a lack of jobs and poor housing and poor public schools, but they are building momentum - you know, techies, foodies, artists, musicians, all coming to Detroit. So there is this vibrancy. You see it in the newspapers every day - some story about the new Detroit.

GREENE: You know, I do a lot of interviews with musicians. And often at the end, I'll say, is there a song you want to go out on? And, you know, the soundtrack of Motown just infuses your book. Is there a Detroit song from this era that we should play as, you know, it seems particularly fitting to you?

MARANISS: My favorites are Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, but those are a little off in terms of getting Detroit right on the head. But of course, you know, "Dancing In The Streets." You can't forget the Motor City. And we can't forget the Motor City.


MARTHA AND THE VANDELLAS: We can't forget the motor city. All we need is music.

GREENE: David Maraniss' book is called "Once In A Great City: A Detroit Story." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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