March 2012

Benjamin Taylor


Detroit: A Biography by Scott Martelle

Scott Martelle's thoroughly researched Detroit: A Biography raises a problematic question in its very title. Namely, how does one write a "biography" of a city? Implicit in the concept of biography as typically understood is that of a life completed, with a discrete beginning and end, and if not definitive end, at least a fully-realized life that can be assessed from the vantage point of completeness. In the case of, say, Herculaneum or Constantinople (qua its existence as "Constantinople"), such an approach would seem quite natural. But in Detroit's case, such an approach seems premature, particularly if one is unwilling -- as Martelle rightly is -- to declare Detroit dead once and for all.

To Martelle's credit, he obliquely acknowledges this problem in the book's preface, explaining that he chose "biography" rather than "history" in order to focus on "some of the key events in the city's evolution, exploring the major forces that have shaped Detroit into its adulthood." The concept of "biography," however, remains in the back of the reader's mind throughout the book, and seems a relevant line of inquiry to pursue when considering Martelle's narrative and the conclusions it draws.

The other potential problem with a biography of Detroit, of course, is its very subject matter. Detroit, more so than perhaps any other American city, seems to embody -- in 2012, at least -- one distinct side of contemporary America, the narrative of past blue collar union-fueled prosperity long since fallen into decrepitude, decay, and broken dreams. In other words, it's an easy target for romanticization, whether by politicians eager either to build a career or push an agenda, by advocates of urban renewal through urban farming collectives, urban consolidation, and extensive public works programs, or by members of the creative (under)class drawn by cheap rents, gritty streets, and the scenes and stories associated therewith, or by what Martelle calls "decay porn."

Martelle manages deftly to depict in exhaustive detail Detroit rising as a microcosm of the country during its industrial heyday as well as Detroit fading on the same terms without once falling prey to romance. In Detroit: A Biography, he's crafted an account of a once great American city that manages to be both a compelling and highly informative read.

It's no secret that Detroit present is in dire straits. Even with the revival of the Big Three automotive companies (General Motors, Ford, Chrysler), Detroit could run out of cash to meet its basic obligations any day now and is locked in a battle with Michigan's Republican governor over potential state bailout funds (according to the Detroit Free Press). Unemployment and crime remain far higher than in other cities of comparable size, and income, education, and health outcomes remain lower. Thus any consideration of Detroit's life -- or continued existence on life support -- must necessarily lead to the crises of the present day. Toward this end, Martelle bookends his narrative by discussing present day Detroit and what potential exists to fix the ailing city. The bulk of the book he devotes to Detroit's history and documenting by what steps it arrived at its present circumstances, though one wishes he would have devoted a little more space to the present; his background as a journalist shines through in the preface and epilogue, and the reader, having arrived at 2012 in the course of the book, finds himself or herself wanting more information about the next phase in Detroit's life.

That's a fairly minor quibble though, as Martelle's primary narrative is an excellent example of meticulous research and compelling narration. Throughout the book -- from Detroit's French colonial beginnings in the early eighteenth century to its steady decline in the latter half of the twentieth century -- Martelle supplements his account with ample data and statistics, from population trends to median incomes over time to automobile production. Though the reader can sometimes lose himself or herself in the figures, and the move from narrative to numbers can make for jarring transitions, the evidence Martelle provides does both his research and his narrative credit. And with regard to narration, Martelle intersperses portraits of individual Detroiters, each with some connection to the era under discussion at that point. For instance, the first such portrait involves a retiree whose ancestors were among the early prominent Detroiters from the mid-eighteenth century forward. These snapshots of individuals greatly enrich the reader's understanding of Detroit and those inextricably tied to it.

Martelle does an admirable job as well couching Detroit's story within broader currents of American history, framing in a nuanced way both Detroit's triumphs and its tragedies. Thus the reader learns of the capture of Detroit during the War of 1812, its pivotal role as a stop on the Underground Railroad and as a hotbed of pre-Civil War abolitionism, of course as the birthplace of the American automobile industry, as a prime smuggling depot during Prohibition, as the "Arsenal of Democracy during World War II, and on through race riots in the 1960s, the crack epidemic of the 1980s, and mismanagement in city government thereafter.

One can't discuss Detroit without examining at some length automobiles and race relations, after all. Martelle is excellent at keeping the tenuous (at best) relationship between the city's African American and its white residents near the fore, and tracing its development from the first importation of slaves early in Detroit's existence through its emergence as a majority black city in the twentieth century. Similarly, Detroit: A Biography documents the rise, fall, and potential rebirth of the auto industry in detail and always in relation to the health of the city as a whole. Martelle skillfully weaves both sub-narratives to show how Detroit's fraught history of race relations and reliance on that one industry carried with them the seeds of its decline as early as the 1940s.

Martelle's account, however, does have some significant flaws. Its reliance on political, economic, and demographic history to the neglect of culture leaves a major gap in the life of Detroit. Though he states explicitly in the preface that he will exclude culture to focus on those aspects, it does seem counter to the concept of delineating a city's "life" to leave out the elements that give color and vibrancy to that life. Detroit without Delta blues, jazz, Motown, hardcore, and hip-hop or the work of Jeffrey Eugenides isn't the same city. More importantly, Martelle's narrative seems to stall in the 1970s; though he elaborates at some length about longtime iconoclastic mayor Coleman Young's political career, his actual retelling of Detroit's fate throughout the 1980s to the present day is glossed over in a few paragraphs. And even with Young, though we learn of his past at length and of his personal peccadilloes and idiosyncrasies, Martelle doesn't provide much substance as far as Young's actual tenure went -- what policies he pursued to what ends, to what cost, etc. It makes for a rather incomplete ending to an otherwise excellent read.

Finally, and just as an aside, the Chicago Review Press has put together a physically beautiful book. From paper quality to typeface to the images (black and white) peppered throughout, it's simply a gorgeous book -- and one that's a delight just to page through, though all in all, even more a delight to read.

Detroit: A Biography by Scott Martelle
Chicago Review Press
ISBN: 978-1569765265
304 pages