Detroit gets booked

Nov 25, 2009 at 12:00 am

For a city that's shrinking, Detroit sure gets a lot of play on the bookshelves. From appealing photographic books to auto histories to poetry anthologies, there's plenty of paper to stuff a stocking with this year.

Take Up the Rouge! (Wayne State, $34.95), for instance. Former Freep journo and active Detroit blogger Joel Thurtell tells of his 2005 canoe journey up the Rouge River. What at first appears to be a stunt quickly develops into an investigation of how the river's environmental quality is ignored. As he makes his way up the trash-strewn, polluted waterway, scrambling over logjams and avoiding bacterial infections, Thurtell (and photographer Patricia Beck) force us to bear witness to how, unlike our other recreational rivers, we've been content to turn this one into a sewer. The resulting story is unusual, insightful and surprisingly engaging.

Another Freep writer, Tim Kiska, has become a local TV scholar of sorts, with his recent book From Soupy to Nuts: A History of Detroit Television. This year saw publication of his Newscast for the Masses: The History of Detroit Television News (Wayne State, $24.95), which follows the story of local news from its beginnings with WWJ-TV through to the golden age of Bill Bonds and beyond.

And, of course, there's no shortage of books about Detroit's auto heritage. In The Corvette Factories: Building America's Sports Car (Motorbooks, $40), most of the photography is from outside the city, but the story itself is pure Detroit: How Chevrolet built an American legend, churning out the classic sports car. This handsome book, written by gearhead Mike Mueller, is not just for the aficionado or the completist, as it's a fascinating story of how an automotive experiment became an exemplar.

This year also saw a spate of books exploring our extinct carmakers. For instance, just a quarter-century ago, American Motors, the last of the independents, was still making cars out of Detroit. The product of a 1954 Nash and Hudson merger, this spunky little competitor bucked the odds until it was subsumed into Chrysler in 1987. In Storied Independent Automakers: Nash, Hudson and American Motors (Wayne State, $24.95), scholar Charles K. Hyde chronicles the history of the longest-surviving independent and the men who led it, lavishly illustrated with 100 photographs.

Or take Maxwell Motor and the Making of the Chrysler Corporation (Wayne State, $34.95). One of the leading companies in the early pack of Detroit auto producers, Maxwell Motor is now mostly forgotten. In Maxwell, historian Anthony J. Yanik looks back on the technical innovations and business deals that made the old Maxwell-Briscoe company into the cornerstone of the house of Iacocca. 

Some auto titles may appeal to more than motorheads. Two books in particular discuss old Henry Ford's influence on architecture and society. From Autos to Architecture (Princeton Architectural Press, $60), by David Gartman, argues that Ford's mass production techniques helped inspire the clean lines of modernist architects, and Greg Grandin's Fordlandia (Metropolitan Books, $27.50) chronicles Henry Ford's ill-advised attempt to realize a homespun American workers' town in the middle of the Brazilian rain forest. 

This year also saw a whole bunch of new photo books, including A Motor City Year (Wayne State, $39.95). In it, photographer John Sobczak encapsulates a year in 365 photographs of the Detroit area, including open-air fairs, sporting events, churches and more. It's not all pretty pictures, either, as Sobczak includes some of the area's fantastic ruins and grittier locales, but it's sure to be a crowd-pleaser to adorn the coffee tables of regional boosters.

Another lavish photo history is A History of Wayne State University in Photographs (Wayne State, $39.95) from area native Evelyn Aschenbrenner. Working with scholars at Wayne State University, and with free access to that institution's massive photo collection, Aschenbrenner tells in pictures the history of the loose association of schools that united to become Detroit's urban research university. Her clear prose tells the facts, while eye-opening pictures show how it was: "Old Main" during its construction, when Cass Avenue was still paved with slices of log; the rush of postwar students crammed into vacant homes for classes before imposing modernist architecture mushroomed on campus; and the turbulent 1960s, when the university's president often marched with anti-war protesters. This handsome volume should delight both alumni and those interested in the history of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Also, like clockwork, a new bevy of books from Arcadia have come out this year, sure to have niche appeal for photo fans and anybody taken with the old days. Usually available for $20, they include books about ragtime, hydroplane racing, Holy Cross Cemetery and high school basketball rivalries, but perhaps none will generate so much interest as Detroit: The Black Bottom Community. In this photo history, Jeremy Williams tells the story of the near-eastside neighborhood that thrived when African-Americans could find few other places to live in the segregated city, resulting in a quarter of town that was politically potent, at least until urban renewal and freeway building reduced its main street to a service drive.

This is also a good year to give the gift of black history. In Freedom by Any Means (Atria, $25), former Detroit News writer Betty DeRamus takes oral histories of the Underground Railroad and, combining sharp writing and journalistic research, tells the moving stories of slaves who ran north to Canada before the Civil War. That means many of the stories take place in Michigan, especially Detroit, though anybody interested in the fight for freedom would sympathize with DeRamus' subjects. Instead of dwelling on the agonies of slavery, she is careful to share the other side of the fugitive experience: achievement and triumph.

Or look at Roses and Revolutions: The Selected Writings of Dudley Randall (Wayne State, $27.95). Dudley Randall ranks as one of the most noted African-American poets, editors and publishers of the 20th century, leading Detroit's Broadside Press. Though he published a half-dozen books of his poetry throughout his career, much of it is difficult to find in print, spread out among anthologies and rarities. This collection, edited by Melba Joyce Boyd and opening with an introduction from her, unites much of his best work into one volume, showcasing his skill as a poet and his ability to twist together themes as seemingly disparate as love, identity and politics.

On a more personal note, native Detroiter Steve Luxenberg, now a senior editor at The Washington Post, only learned about the existence of his aunt some 30-odd years after she died. Then, in the late 1990s, he discovered his she'd been committed with mental illness to Eloise Hospital. Using public records, personal interviews and research about the now-demolished sanitarium, Luxenburg unravels his family's secrets in Annie's Ghosts (Hyperion, $24.99), as well as the untold story of why thousands of American families have had "hidden relatives" they never knew existed. 

And, for those who love Detroit's history but aren't voracious readers, consider the Detroit Historical Society's "Days of Detroit" calendar. Ticking off 365 memorable dates in history, and illustrated with a dozen historic images, it's certain to please.

Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]