As Maraniss’s book opens, Detroit appears to be a city on the verge of unimagined greatness. President John F. Kennedy campaigns in the Motor City in October 1962 in support of the off-year elections. Democrat Jerry Cavanaugh is mayor of the city, then the fifth largest in the country with a population of nearly 1.7 million. Cavanaugh is the mayoral version of JFK, a relatively young man with a big Catholic family, liberal, civil rights minded. George Romney is elected governor, a Republican who also champions civil rights. Vice President Lyndon Johnson visits the city in early 1963 in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Motown, now well established, is conquering the Billboard charts. Mary Wells’ “My Guy” dislodges the Beatles from the number one spot in March of 1964. Following the best sales year in its history, Ford introduces the Mustang in the spring of ’64. The United Automobile Workers, under the leadership of Walter Reuther, has won an unprecedented standard of living for its members, setting the bar for workers across the country and building the foundation for the Affluent Society. Martin Luther King delivers the first version of his “I Have a Dream” speech to a Detroit crowd of 100,000 two months before the March on Washington in August 1963. The city nearly wins the bid for the 1968 Summer Olympics.
Of course, this is what helps make the Detroit case so interesting: the city was so large, so influential, so promising, and then the bottom dropped out over the next fifty years. Humans often make the mistake of romanticizing some sort of golden age where problems were few and life was good, but in this case there really does seem to have been a better era.