Communities

‘Knight Cities’ podcast: David Maraniss tells the story of how Detroit exported innovation

Detroit was once the innovation center of America. Ingenuity propelled a booming auto industry, Motown synthesized and popularized a new form of music, and social change poured out on race and workers’ rights.

In his new book, “Once in a Great City,” David Maraniss has captured this story of Detroit of the early ’60s. Born in Detroit, David is an associate editor at The Washington Post and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author. Here are five things you should know from our conversation:

Knight Cities podcast

1.     Even with the Detroit auto industry at its peak in 1963, there were already projections of decline, the result of a perfect storm of Detroit’s reliance on one industry, racial tensions going back decades, urban planning that uprooted black communities, and an expanding freeway system that made white flight easier.

2.     Race is the great American dilemma, and it played out in Detroit. The demographic factor that made it difficult is that so many Detroit workers came up from the South and Appalachia. They had jobs through the arsenal democracy, but by the ’60s, their jobs were precarious.

3.     A lot of decisions in Detroit in the early ’60s were for short-term gain and not looking out for the long-term interests of the city. There was a bright shining light in the city, but it was a dying light. The leaders of the auto industry didn’t see how important the city of Detroit was to their own sense of health and well-being.  The city was the heart of the auto industry, and its leaders should have paid attention to that. 

4.     Because Detroit was so homogenous and such a one-industry place, its leaders were talking to themselves and failing to see different perspectives and diverse ideas. That led to an in-grown sensibility that is counterproductive.

5.     Detroit has moved from being a city of ruin to a city of hope.  Today, people are flooding into Detroit, bringing with them diversity of thought and of commerce.

David will appear at the Miami Book Fair on Sunday, Nov. 22. Listen to my conversation with him here. And sign up for the “Knight Cities” newsletter to get alerts as soon as new conversations are posted.

Look for new “Knight Cities” content posted every week. You can follow us on Twitter at #knightcities or @knightfdn. And if you have ideas for people you’d like to hear from, please email me.

Carol Coletta is vice president of community and national initiatives at Knight Foundation. Follow her on Twitter @ccoletta.

If you’re interested in the success of cities, consider applying to the Knight Cities Challenge, a $5 million initiative to make the 26 Knight communities more successful. For the latest information on the challenge, be sure to follow @knightfdn and #knightcities on Twitter or sign up for our email newsletter. You can send questions to [email protected]. And you can peruse the winners of the first Knight Cities Challenge and apply – by noon ET on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015 – at knightcities.org.