Washington Post editor talks Detroit, urban decay in new book

An audience member asks a question during David Maraniss' talk at the UConn Co-op Bookstore in Storrs Center on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015. (Ashley Maher/The Daily Campus)

Washington Post associate editor David Maraniss spoke Tuesday night at the UConn Co-op Bookstore in Storrs Center to promote his new book “Once in a Great City.”

The book is about Detroit during a period that Maraniss refers to as a “magical time,” from Oct. 1962 to May 1964. It shows that even during a time full of promise, as stated on the book’s Amazon page, signs of collapse were evident.

Maraniss is not only an award winning author and Pulitzer Prize winner, but a Detroit native. He was inspired to write the book during the 2011 Superbowl.

During halftime, Maraniss caught a glimpse of one particular commercial that showed a freeway sign of Detroit. He wasn’t paying much attention to the television screen, but once he saw, what he described as the “wonderful, iconic images of Detroit” he tuned in.

The advertisement ended up being for Chrysler automotive. Maraniss admits that he doesn’t even like cars, but was touched, even choked up, by the ad.

The commercial meant something deeper to Maraniss than it might have to the average American watching that night, because he had spent the first six and half years of his life living in Detroit. He decided to write the book to honor the city that holds his first memories.

Readers might be surprised to learn that two months before Rev. Martin Luther King gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington D.C, he gave that same speech to the city of Detroit.

According to Maraniss, 150,000 people attended the rally, making it the largest civil rights gathering at the time.

Maraniss blames the convergence of structural problems as the underlying cause of Detroit’s decline. These problems include: urban renewal, resistance of white and fair housing neighborhoods and the economic impact of the automotive industry leaving the city.

“It’s ironic that the city of cars was building freeways so people could escape,” Maraniss said.

Detroit was once the fourth largest city in America, but has lost half a million people per decade, said Maraniss.

Maraniss chose to end the book with Lyndon B. Johnson’s speech on May of 1964. He referred to it as a “magic moment” that foreshadowed the city’s downfall.

Maraniss noted that when he returns to his home city there is more energy, particularly in downtown and midtown. The city is slowly on its way to restoration. Many young artists, musicians and techies swarm to the city that is to some becoming the “new Brooklyn.”

“Detroit went from a city of ruins to a city of hope,” Maraniss said.

During a question and answer portion of the event, an audience member asked Maraniss what lessons could be learned from the collapse of Detroit. He said that a short-term gain without thinking about the long term is disastrous.

When asked what it is like to see Detroit in shambles after knowing how it once was, Maraniss said that sadness and anger were two of his standout emotions. But he mentioned that he lives by the philosophy that everything is always decaying; it’s a cycle of humanity. He believes that there was a natural pattern to the decay of Detroit, but he still looks for creativity to thrive in the city.

As an eighth-semester journalism and geography double major, Kristi Allen said that book talk combined two of the things that are most interesting to her.

“It was very cool and interesting. He approached the topic of urban studies in a different perspective, he referred to as ‘narrative history,” said Allen. “It was also awesome to see how Detroit was once so thriving. We don’t hear much of that.”


Angie DeRosa is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at angelina.derosa@uconn.edu. She tweets @theangiederosa.