If Detroit was a rock star, VH1 would have a field day with its “Behind the Music.” This is a juicy tale; a story dripping with “racism, fear, greed and avarice.”
Apologies to Scott Martelle, author of “Detroit: A Biography,” from which those four fitting words are lifted. I’m apologizing because I think you’ve got to add something sexy to that mix – maybe “rough,” “bawdy,” “dirty” or “coarse.” Because Detroit’s story is that of the human condition…a rise and fall, good and evil, smart moves and bad decisions, tender care and gross neglect. Add some lust and aggression, and you’ve got a city unlike any other.
You’ve got Detroit.
And I think Martelle, a former Detroit News reporter and Grosse Pointe Park resident, has got Detroit. At least, he has the first 258 pages of our story. “Detroit: A Biography” is a historical look at Detroit as it grew from the stomping grounds of Antoine Laumet de la Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, to that of “Detroit 1-8-7,” Eminem and “ruin porn.”
But to call this a history book would be a bit too simple. This is a labor of love for Martelle, who is in town this week to talk to locals about their stories of the city (see below for details). He believes in Detroit, much like we do. After all, the dedication page of “Detroit: A Biography” starts on the right foot. It is for “Detroiters, past and present, who are fighting for its future.”
And that is why this is a must read for anyone who lives here, has visited here, who loves someone from here or has any questions about our dear little metropolis. We are a city of contrasts for sure. We are a city that is an example of what not to do. We are a place that is no place and everyplace. But we also are a city that stands for something – and this book works hard to define exactly what that is.
“I’ve always had an affection for Detroit,” Martelle told me via telephone last week from his home in California. “I found it a fascinating place to live and work. But I was amazed how little people know about the city.”
That was especially true in Los Angeles – people there don’t have a sense of what happened to create Detroit, what occurred there over the past three centuries and what’s struggling to survive now. Martelle, who may not be a native son, wants to give Detroit, Detroiters and those who are curious a sense of connection.
“I still have a lot of connections with Detroit, having lived there for a decade,” Martelle said. “When you live in a place and are doing a job, you know your slice.”
You know the ground you travel. And as a beat reporter covering the city, Martelle saw it all. And he wanted to know more. So he approached his book editor with the Detroit idea. He started with the “Detroit: A Biography” title from the start. It wasn’t “City of Disaster” or “City of Doom that Will Never See Another Good Day.” Thank the Lord.
A good biography, Martelle told me, focuses on the critical junctures of a life – what made someone a full-fledged adult? So he approached this book in the same vein – what happened in Detroit’s history to make it the adult city it is now? This is not ruin porn; those words and that idea does the city a disservice, Martelle contends. He’s not about voyeurism – in fact, he going out of his way to meet and write about the people living here today in personable, real terms.
And he’s not trying to be destructive. He’s trying to show the neighborhoods that made Detroit what it is today — the good parts. The people who kept going. The businesses that are trying. The hope that survives. Mix in the reality of our situation .. and you all probably know all those nasty little things like a failing school system, deeper than deep debt and raw societal disfunction … and you’ve got yourself a pretty fascinating read.
“Everybody has heard about the collapse,” Martelle said. “What I wanted to do was to explain to people how come.”
And then what?
“I wanted a benchmark for people to begin to build on,” Martelle said.
So stop reading. Get building.
Want to meet the author? Try these fine establishments…
DETROIT—April 4 @ 7pm
Anchor Bar “Beer & Politics” (450 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI, 48226)
OAK PARK—April 5 @ 7pm
Book Beat (26010 Greenfield Rd., Oak Park, MI 48237)