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Getting A Read On Detroit

I'm glad we've got the Detroit Blog to debate about the issues and people that impact this city, but if someone wants to truly understand Detroit, I think we'd all agree that he or she is going to have to do a whole lot more reading than this.

So let me ask: What books would you recommend to someone who was trying to get a grasp on Detroit, both as it was and as it is now? What books do you think help sum up who we are, how we got this way and where we're headed?

Unlike my Motown Records request, this one's a lot more serious and a lot more wide open, so feel free to list as many as you'd like, from any genre, any year, any publishing house, any author. And maybe tell why you think those particular works are valuble. Any Detroit piece is up for mention, be it fiction or non-fiction, from Thomas Sugrue to Elmore Leonard.

You don't even have to necessarily "like" the book to think it's important. All I really want you to do is share.

Here then, in no particular order, are a few of mine:

The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, by Thomas J. Sugrue — One of the most definitive books ever written on life and politics in the city after WWII.

Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, by Dan Georgakas and Marvin SurkinThe story of the Detroit-based Dodge Revolutionary  Union Movement (DRUM) and the League of Revolutionary workers. An incredible piece about race and organized labor here.

Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age, by Kevin BoyleA good look back on the historic case of Dr. Ossian Sweet.

The Algiers Motel Incident, by John Hersey and Thomas J. SugrueTo keep it real with you, I haven't even seen this book since college, but its recollection of one of the most infamous instances of law-enforcement brutality in Detroit is not easily forgotten.

Devil's Night: And Other True Tales From Detroit, by Zev Chafets Not really one of my personal favorites as it seems way too over-the-top in some places. But still important? No doubt.

The Detroit Almanac: 300 Years of Life in the Motor City, by Peter Gavrilovich and Bill McGrawJust what the title suggests: Probably the most exhaustive look at Detroit ever written. And done by two of the city's finer journalists, to boot.

American Odyssey, by Robert E. ConotAnother excellent, comprehensive study of Detroit and, in a larger sense, the meaning of the American city. Conot put this together after sitting on the Kerner Commission and being dissatisfied with its conclusions.

Land of Opportunity: One Family's Quest for the American Dream in the Age of Crack, by William M. Adler — An awesome, frighteningly detailed look at the history of the once-infamous Chambers Brothers drug organization. Since I grew up in the very same neighborhood where most of this takes place, I can safely say Adler's take on how crack, as well as Reagan-omics and recession, decimated Detroit (even as drugs were turning young pushers in millionaires -- and premature corpses) is deadly accurate.

Whoreson: The Story of A Ghetto Pimp, by Donald Goines — Raw, profane and real, Goines' works delved into some of the worst aspects of urban life in Detroit in the 1970s. Though labeled fiction, almost all of his stories were taken from either his own troubled life or those of people around him. The semi-autobiographical Whoreson makes my list because it is maybe his most powerful, but I'd suggest you check out his other 16 books, too.

Dangerous Society, by Carl S. TaylorI've already said it: Carl S. Taylor is one of the most important sociologists in the nation -- and probably the most important in Detroit. Dangerous Society serves as my Exhibit A.

YBI: The Autobiography of Butch Jones, by Butch Jones The self-published life story of one of the most feared, focused and successful crimelords in Detroit since Abe Bernstein and the Purple Gang. Jones and his highly organized group of underage pushers, known as Young Boys Inc., not only changed the landscape of Detroit, but also helped usher in the "crack era" of the '80s and early '90s.

American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker's Notebook, by James Boggs — The late husband of noted Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs, James Boggs was one of the most important thinkers in the history of organized labor, here or anywhere else. And this book, with its razor-sharp critical analyses of race, labor and capitalism, underscores why.

Like I said, these are just some of the books I think are worth reading to learn about the D. What would you recommend?

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  • 1

    The Buildings of Detroit: A History (Hardcover)
    ~ W. Hawkins. Ferry
    W. Hawkins. Ferry (Author)
    There are 2 versions, one from 1968 and one from 1980. This is the definitive book on Detroit architecture, that also outlines the rise and fall of the city. Many of the landmark buildings of the 1920s have fallen in the last ten years. Most residents today don't know how high Detroit stood and it wasn't just related to the auto industry.

  • 2

    Books this is the new era of the kindel, blogs etc.. In that vain I would recommend my favorite Blog Site for those in need of alternative and progressive poltical, cultural. fictional, avant garde insights, narratives and talking points from a Detroiter now living in the region...

    Dangerous Society - Carl S Taylor is a great primer on the youth in the D

  • 3

    Definitely read Violence in the Model City: The Cavanagh Administration, Race Relations, and the Detroit Riot of 1967, by Sidney Fine.

    This is the definitive book on the 1967 riot. The story of the riot remains fascinating, and I would definitely recommend it.

    • 3.1

      I second Fine's book and add The Changing Face of Inequality: Urbanization, Industrial Development, and Immigrants in Detroit, 1880-1920 by Olivier Zunz.

      Rumrunning and the Roaring Twenties: Prohibition on the Michigan-Ontario Waterway by Philip P. Mason

      State of War: Michigan in World War II by Alan Clive

      Reform in Detroit: Hazen S. Pingree and Urban Politics by Melvin G. Holli

      Beyond the Model T: The Other Ventures of Henry Ford by Ford R. Bryan

      The History of Michigan Law edited by Paul Finkleman and Martin J. Hershock ("Michigan was the first jurisdiction in the English-speaking world to abolish the death penalty.")

      So many others...

    • 3.2

      One more, for those who want a quick smattering of everything ~

      This Is Detroit: 1701-2001 by Arthur M. Woodford

  • 4

    Please check out the Detroit News article (Dec 4) about two new Detroit historical novels--Grand River and Joy by me (Susan Messer) and The Art Student's War by Brad Leithauser.

    Novels offer insight into emotional truths, but both are also grounded in serious historical research.

  • 7

    Great list, Darrell.

    I'd add two books: Made in Detroit, by Paul Clemens, a beautifully written book that provides an exceptional insight into the mindset and experience of a white, Catholic, working-class family that stayed in the city well into the 1990s; and Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. I'm of the school that believes that fiction can provide an intimate sense of truths that non-fiction can only describe from a distance.

    By the way, I'm with you entirely on Arc of Justice and the Detroit Almanac -- books that are similar only in two ways: they're about Detroit, and they're both terrific.
    Dan Okrent

  • 8

    especially pertinent now, i would add:
    The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System by Jeffrey Mirel.

    It chronicles Detroit Public Schools 1907-1981. Some of the eras politically mirror today's crises.

  • 9

    Working Detroit by Scott Babson. This book chronicles the Detroit Labor History from 1848-1984. The rise of industrialization, when Detroit was in its heyday, building ships and stoves. The automotive industry and the beginning of labor unions. And how the automotive industry contributed to this areas segregation.

    I read this book in a class at U of M called: Social Inequality in S.E. Michigan. One of the best the best classes I have ever taken.

  • 10

    There's another one that I think helps illustrate the oft overlooked role Great Lakes shipping plays in the region, and especially overlooked is its role in the history of Detroit, bringing materials up from below and down from the north to converge at Detroit, where the people knew how to use them to build things ~ Iron Fleet:The Great Lakes in World War II by George J. Joachim.

    From reading online comments and articles, even from so-called scholars and experts, I know many from outside the region don't realize the scale of the Lakes and their economic importance. For more information in Great Lakes shipping there's a popular website with news, information, and industry links galore ~

  • 11

    My recommendations are quite similar and include non-fiction (Reynolds Farley, Detroit AIA, and more), fiction (including old, and just off the press), and a review of Beautiful Rust (poetry by Ken Meisel). It's all found here:

  • 12

    Oh, thanks for mentioning poetry, amiliacca. Because that brings Philip Levine's work to mind,. His writing about
    Detroit is breath taking.

  • 13

    Echo effect:
    I'm enjoying Washington Post reporter Steven Luxenberg's 'Annie Ghosts,' a 2009 Detroit-focused memoir/reported history, and just reached a chapter that credits Robert Conot's 'American Odyssey' as "an epic chronicle of the city from its founding to its emergence as a world economic power to its disheartening decline."
    Luxenberg says he "consulted and often marveled at" that book.
    Solid list and enlightening discussion incubator, Darrell. The conversation spills over to the Discuss Detroit forum [], where these additions are offered:
    * "Rivethead by Ben Hamper. Although situated in Flint, pretty much gives you the early '80s version of the first wave of auto jobs being sent across the border, and the varying reasons as to why. A pretty funny read, too." [posted by 'HamTragedy']
    * "Malcolm Bingay's Detroit Is My Own Hometown, written in the late 40s as one person's recollections of living through the amazing technological transformations of the turn of the century forward. [- - 'Lorax']
    * "This is Detroit, written at Detroit's 250th birthday in 1951 -- a snapshot with only brief mention of the '43 riots. Still had a rosy future predicted for the city." [- - 'Lorax']
    * "There is also a This Is Detroit 1701-2001 that was done for the 300th." [ - - 'Lilpup']

  • 14

    I hope the Feep's gloryhounds reporters sleaze novel will not make any lists..Insane how the Freep milked this KK saga by getting a Pulitzer Prize for doing nothing( TEXTS were given to the Freep by ambulance chasing atty) to now a tabloid novel by two shallow reporters who did nothing but transcribed the TEXTS ..

    Is it that easy to win a Pulitzer Prize....Who,lol,lol

  • 16

    Darrell let me add some dessert to your full plate. HardStuff The Autobiography of Coleman Young

    Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor and Race in a Modern American City by Heather Ann Thompson

    Dancing in the Street Motown and the cultural politics of Detroit by Suzanne E. Smith

    Now is the Time Detroit Black Politics and Grassrots Activism by Todd C. Shaw

    Finally, one of my all time favorites
    Corporate Power and Urban Crisis in Detroit

    Thats an absolute masterpiece by Lynda Ann Ewen.

  • 17

    Ha! I'm only literate enough to read Facebook! No, but seriously. If you're going to read at least read to some kids or with one of the functionally illiterate at the same time. It'll take you longer but make you feel better too.

  • 18

    I'm surprised no one has mentioned them by Joyce Carol Oates...


  • 19

    [...] (MORE: Getting A Read On Detroit) [...]

  • 20

    private jet

    A Discussion About Some of the Most Important Books About Detroit - The Detroit Blog -

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