Review: ‘Detroit: A Biography’ by Scott Martelle sees ruin, hope

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Detroit: A Biography

Scott Martelle

Chicago Review Press: 288 pp., $24.95

In February 1863, Thomas Faulkner, a Detroit saloon owner of mixed-race background, was arrested on the charge of raping a 9-year-old white girl. Despite his protestations of innocence, Faulkner was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The Civil War-era incident incited a white mob to burn 35 homes, kill at least two black people and injure numerous others.

It’s a chilling story — all the more so because there was no rape. The witnesses recanted, and Faulkner was pardoned “after serving seven years in prison for a crime that never happened,” Scott Martelle writes in “Detroit: A Biography.”

Martelle, a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and the Detroit News, caps this account by quoting a disturbing letter from a woman on a farm outside Detroit to her lawyer-husband in the city: “Abstractly considered, the burning of those houses was something to be thankful for.” This, Martelle notes dryly, “was a timeless indicator of the relations between Detroit’s future suburbs and the core of the city.”

The American tragedy of race is a strong undercurrent in Martelle’s readable, if deliberately sketchy, “biography” of what is arguably this country’s most economically aggrieved city. Although Martelle never offers this precise statistic, with a black population of more than 80%, Detroit is also the most heavily African American of this country’s major urban areas. Following decades of white flight to the suburbs, the exodus of the black middle class has further crippled the city’s tax base and chances for recovery.

Detroit’s abundant highways — built to accommodate the car culture of Motor City — only made the trip to the suburbs easier. There are plenty of similar ironies, as well as economic lessons, to be drawn from the city’s history, which Martelle dates from the 1701 founding of Fort Pontchartrain by a French magistrate’s son known as Cadillac. In those days, the predominant tensions were between Native American tribes and French settlers, who were succeeded by the far more brutal British before the area passed into American hands.

In the early 19th century, Detroit was a bustling frontier town, focused on agriculture but with an increasingly diverse economy. If only that diversity had been maintained, Martelle writes, the city’s story might have been a happier one.

By the 1920s, automobile manufacturing was making Detroit boom. Powerful unions vaulted auto workers into the middle class. But the dependence on one industry — one that was cyclical, shortsighted and eager to relocate to the suburbs — eventually helped doom the city. The devastating 1943 and 1967 race riots; the conjoined plagues of crime and drugs and failing schools, and the city’s often inept political leadership combined to make matters worse.

To fill out the picture, Martelle offers vivid portraits of a handful of Detroiters. Among others, he tells the stories of a struggling black single mother, an entrepreneurial bar owner, and a couple of urban pioneers who unaccountably paid $300,000 for a two-bedroom condo in the once-elegant, half-deserted neighborhood of Brush Park. (The condo is now worth considerably less, he reports.)

I briefly entered the story Martelle tells in the late 1970s, when I lived in Waterford Township, about an hour north of the city. The riverfront Renaissance Center — the RenCen, Detroit’s big bet on revival — had just been built, but it was still mostly empty, a fortress-like structure in the midst of desolation. I recall visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts, seeing “Saturday Night Fever” in a downtown movie theater, dining in Greektown, and driving to a popular jazz club where the music was reputed to start only after midnight. The city, even then, seemed an eerie place.

Years later, I met Camilo José Vergara, a sociologist (and MacArthur Foundation fellow) who traveled the country photographing the distinctive architecture of the ghetto and its gradual decay into pastoral landscape. Vergara had outraged Detroiters by proposing that the crumbling skyscrapers of downtown be preserved as iconic ruins, as what he called “a memorial to our throwaway cities.”

Martelle, who remarks on Pittsburgh’s successful reinvention after the decline of the steel industry, suggests a (slightly) more hopeful ending. Citing the region’s surprising optimism and a few positive economic developments, he suggests that Detroit’s best move would be to collapse into a smaller geographic footprint and relocate some of its population. The aim, he writes, would be to “build a critical mass of people in the new areas that could … coalesce into pockets of vitality.”

“Detroit: A Biography” isn’t the last word on the city’s promise and problems, but it offers an engaging, provocative introduction.

Klein is a cultural reporter and critic and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.