It Takes a City

The story of Detroit in its heyday shows how the success of Motown Records was a community effort.

A skyline of Detriot in the 1960s is pictured. 
Fred Wilkinson/Flickr Creative Commons
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
Oct. 2, 2015, 5 a.m.

A mes­mer­iz­ing cast struts through the pages of Dav­id Maran­iss’s evoc­at­ive new book about De­troit in the early 1960s, Once in a Great City.

In Maran­iss’s cap­able hands, mob­sters rub shoulders with ath­letes; the city’s may­or, Jerome Cavanagh, bal­ances na­tion­al am­bi­tions with sim­mer­ing loc­al ten­sions; Henry Ford II and Lee Ia­c­occa feud their way in­to auto­mot­ive his­tory by de­vel­op­ing the icon­ic Mus­tang; and late-night scene-seekers squeeze be­side gam­blers and hust­lers to hear Bil­lie Hol­i­day, Etta James, and Jack­ie Wilson at the “exot­ic, hyp­not­iz­ing, en­thralling” Flame Show Bar. Riv­et­ing fig­ures such as John F. Kennedy and Mar­tin Luth­er King make ex­ten­ded ap­pear­ances. The over­all ef­fect is like sit­ting on a bar stool next to one of the great old-time city news­pa­per colum­nists (think Mike Royko or Jimmy Breslin) who seemed to know, and drink with, every­one in town.

Maran­iss, a former Wash­ing­ton Post re­port­er who has be­come a premi­er con­tem­por­ary his­tor­i­an and bio­graph­er, braids to­geth­er these stor­ies for a pan­or­amic por­trait of a city un­know­ingly near­ing the end of its golden run as the world’s auto­maker. The 1967 race ri­ot and the tsunami of for­eign car im­ports that would bat­ter De­troit’s found­a­tions from with­in and without loom just off­stage.

But of all the stor­ies Maran­iss tells, the most com­pel­ling may be the rise of Berry Gordy Jr. and Mo­town Re­cords. It is also the story most rel­ev­ant to the chal­lenges fa­cing cit­ies today.

In many re­spects, Amer­ica’s cit­ies are re­viv­ing. The Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion re­ports that 63 of the 100 largest met­ro­pol­it­an areas have more jobs today than be­fore the fin­an­cial crash in 2007. Between them, those cit­ies have ad­ded 8.4 mil­lion jobs, more than three-fourths of all U.S. em­ploy­ment cre­ated since then. Young col­lege gradu­ates drawn to urb­an life are re­in­vig­or­at­ing neigh­bor­hoods from Wash­ing­ton, D.C.’s 14th Street cor­ridor to SoMa in San Fran­cisco as en­tre­pren­eur­i­al hubs and des­tin­a­tions for bust­ling shop­ping and night­life. In a telling re­versal, after dec­ades of flight, the white pop­u­la­tion has in­creased since 2000 in about half of our largest cit­ies, Brook­ings re­ports.

Yet cit­ies every­where are strug­gling to ex­tend these ex­pand­ing op­por­tun­it­ies to all of their res­id­ents. In vis­its this year to places as dif­fer­ent as Den­ver, At­lanta, Chica­go, and Aus­tin, the most com­mon con­cern I have heard is that the kids grow­ing up there—most of them Afric­an-Amer­ic­an or His­pan­ic—are not be­ing equipped with the skills to com­pete for the jobs the cit­ies are again gen­er­at­ing. That sense of dis­con­nec­tion deepened the urb­an un­rest that flared in places from Fer­guson, Mis­souri, to Bal­timore and fueled the “tale of two cit­ies” con­cerns that dom­in­ated the most re­cent may­or­al elec­tions in New York City and Chica­go. Alicia Phil­ipp, pres­id­ent of the Com­munity Found­a­tion for Great­er At­lanta, crys­tal­lized the frus­tra­tion I heard across those cit­ies when she told me re­cently, “What we need is an op­por­tun­ity in­fra­struc­ture.”

Maran­iss is a bril­liant storyteller, not a policy ana­lyst. But his ac­count of Gordy’s rise of­fers keen in­sights in­to what such an in­fra­struc­ture might look like. The key is that it in­volves pub­lic, private, and civic in­sti­tu­tions each play­ing com­ple­ment­ary roles.

How did Mo­town give the world such tran­scend­ent tal­ents as Wil­li­am “Smokey” Robin­son, Di­ana Ross, Stevie Won­der, and Martha and the Van­del­las? Cer­tainly the an­swer starts with the mu­sic­al and en­tre­pren­eur­i­al geni­us of Gordy, who was equal parts song­writer, im­pres­ario, and em­pire-build­er. But, as Maran­iss shows, Gordy’s in­spired mu­sic­al in­nov­a­tion res­ted on a sturdy found­a­tion built by com­mun­al in­sti­tu­tions.

That list starts with De­troit’s pub­lic schools. Many of Gordy’s stars (and the ses­sion mu­si­cians who sup­por­ted them) were products of the city’s schools, which val­ued mu­sic and lov­ingly nur­tured tal­ent. “Talk to mu­si­cians in De­troit,” Maran­iss writes, “and odds are they will re­call—vividly and fondly—the teach­ers who pushed them along.” The schools were sup­por­ted in that mis­sion by the city’s vi­brant black churches, which provided both a rich mu­sic­al tra­di­tion and an­oth­er nurs­ery for in­cub­at­ing young tal­ent. Aretha Frank­lin, for one, was the daugh­ter of the for­mid­able C. L. Frank­lin, the city’s lead­ing Afric­an-Amer­ic­an min­is­ter.

Less ob­vi­ous, but equally es­sen­tial, was the role of the Grin­nell Broth­ers Mu­sic House, a down­town mu­sic shop whose classes and af­ford­able fin­an­cing for fam­il­ies of all in­comes and races meant, as one loc­al ob­serv­er told Maran­iss, “all these work­ing-class fam­il­ies in De­troit … had their own pi­ano.” If Grin­nell had nar­rowed its busi­ness strategy to serving only the af­flu­ent, few­er young people (such as Smokey Robin­son, who grew up play­ing a Grin­nell pi­ano) would have dis­covered the gifts Gordy later har­ves­ted.

Even in those years, De­troit suffered from se­greg­a­tion, dis­crim­in­a­tion, and in­equal­ity. But Gordy and Mo­town showed what’s pos­sible when the spark of private-sec­tor in­nov­a­tion is ap­plied to tal­ent that was sys­tem­at­ic­ally de­veloped by pub­lic and civic in­sti­tu­tions. That’s still the most prom­ising for­mula for re­con­nect­ing all of our com­munit­ies to op­por­tun­ity—even if it’s un­likely to again pro­duce the con­stel­la­tion of mu­sic­al bril­liance that Maran­iss so vividly re­cre­ates.

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