Scott Martelle is a journalist and author. His new book Detroit: A Biography chronicles the history of the city from the 17oo's to the present day. He was also a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and the Detroit News.
Martelle believes there was a point in history when Detroit had an opportunity to diversify its manufacturing.
“Just after World War II when the auto industry was retooling from war footing from making tank and armaments back to making motor vehicles, they really had a chance then to change the industrial fabric of Detroit. So they missed a crucial opportunity then.”
Martelle also points to the 1949 mayoral race between Albert Cobo and George Edwards as a major turning point. "And even though Detroit at that time was a democratic city, and the UAW was hugely popular, he lost that election primarily because of race issues, white Detroit just did not want to de-segregate.”
How important has race been to Detroit’s development? “Oh massively,” says Martelle, “the exodus from Detroit began in the 50’s.”
In the interview Martelle points to a late 1940’s Supreme Court case, which struck down old deed restrictions. For decades it was possible to put a restriction on a house, basically it could not be sold to a black person.
“And when those restriction were struck down in the late 40’s blacks began moving out of the hugely over populated, very beaten down, black bottom neighborhood, places like that. The middle class began moving out of those into white neighborhoods. And that’s when the whites began to exodus further out in the city and then out to the suburbs,” explains Martelle.
So, what can we take away from what we know about Detroit’s history? “It’s not going to be an auto town again," he says. "However it comes back it’s not going to come back on the backs of the auto company."
So the question remains - how can Detroit reinvent and re-image itself? It's hard to tell. but Martelle thinks people shouldn't forget the role its played in forming American culture.
“Detroit is a huge part of America’s history and I don’t think many Americans fully appreciate the role it played and the debt that we owe to the city of Detroit.”
April 2: 7 p.m. Nicola's Books, in Ann Arbor.
April 3: 6 p.m. Barnes and Noble, in Lansing.
April 4, 7 p.m. Anchor Bar, in Detroit.
April 5: 7 p.m., in conversation with M.L. Liebler at The Book Beat, in Oak Park.