Interesting Books about Detroit



Prepared by:  Reynolds Farley

University of Michigan
Institute for Social Research

  Updated January, 2012


63 Alfred Street: Where Capitalism Failed, The Life and Times of a Venetian Gothic Mansion in Downtown Detroit, John Kossik, Published in Lexington, Kentucky by the author, 2010. Contact:

This is a biography of the Ransom Gillis residence a very well-known decaying residence in downtown Detroit.   It is frequently seen by those who attend game at Comerica Park or Ford Field.  It was made famous by the popular urban critic Jose Vagara who has published several books with the residence prominently featured.  He wishes to emphasize the Detroit’s residents have turned their backs on the city’s very rich architectural history.  This is a component of the nation’s current values.  The author of this book provides much interesting information about the architect who designed this home, the history of its residents, how it fell into disrepair and the efforts that saved it from destruction at the time of the Super Bowl in Detroit.  This author, however, does not provide any overarching views about Detroit’s decline and efforts at renewal. This is an interesting book. (January, 2012)

AIA Detroit : The American Institute of Architects Guide to Detroit Architecture.  Eric J. Hill and John Gallagher. Detroit :   Wayne State University Press, 2003

This is the most comprehensive guide to architecture in the Detroit area.  It is a very helpful guide if you tour Detroit .  
(The) Algiers Motel Incident.  John Hersey , New York , Alfred A. Knopf, 1968
On the final night of the 1967 riot, white police officers apparently shot three young black men to death in an inexpensive motel along Woodward, perhaps because the black men were cavorting with white women. This became a nationally discussed incident involving race, sex and police brutality. Hersey provides an excellent description of these issues in polarized Detroit and recounts the strong but ultimately unsuccessful effort to convict the officers of murder.

American Odyssey.  Robert Canot. New York : Bantam Books, 1974.

This is a comprehensive history of the city of Detroit focused on the period from the US occupation of the city to 1967. If you are writing extensively about the city, this book is worth your time.  

Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age. Kevin Boyle. New York : Henry Holt and Company, 2005.

This is the most elegantly written books about racial issues in Detroit and merits the National Book Award it won in 2004. Ossian Sweet, a black physician, purchased a home on Detroit's east side and attempted to move in, but his property was attacked by a violent crowd. To defind this home, his brother shot and killed a protester, leading to the nation's most significant civil rights trial of the 1920s; one in which Clarence Darrow successfully defended the right of the blacks to protect their property.

Art in Detroit Public Places. (Revised edition)  Dennis Alan Nawrocki and David Clemens. Detroit : Wayne State University Press, 2008.

This is an inclusive guide to public art in the City of Detroit. This is another valuable guide book to carry with you on a tour of Detroit.

Before the Ghetto: Black Detroit in the Nineteenth Century.  David Katzman. Urbana , Ill. : University of Illinois Press, 1973.

Detroit leads the nations in racial riots that required dispatching the federal military to the streets. Katzman describes the small black population of Detroit in the 19th century, their struggle for civil rights and the urban racial riots of 1833 and 1863.  This book provides an excellent description of Detroit's Nineteenth-Century black population.

Before Motown:  A History of Jazz in Detroit: 1920-1960.  Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert, Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, 2001.

Detroit’s musicians made remarkable contributions to the development of jazz, long before Motown music appeared. This is the authoritative history of Detroit ’s contributions to jazz and an interesting book with numerous maps showing the location of jazz clubs.

Black Detroit and the Rise of the UAW.  August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, 1979.

The UAW’s successful efforts to win gains from vehicle manufacturers helped establish the blue collar middle class. At all times, the UAW’s leadership had to wrestle with racial issues. Hate strikes were common in World War II as white workers sought to prevent the promotion of blacks while black men refused to work if they were not treated in accordance with the Fair Employment Practices Commission’s requirements.  This is an excellent description of racial conflict within the UAW.  This is the definitive book about Detroit ’s World War II hate strikes.

Breaking the Banks in the Motor City: The Auto Industry, the 1933 Detroit Banking Crisis and the Start of the New Deal.
Darwyn H. Lumley, Jefferson, North Carolina; McFarland and Company, 2009).

The first very large banks to fail during the Depression were those in Detroit in early 1933.  Shortly thereafter President Roosevelt briefly closed all the nation’s banks.  In the economic recession that began in 2008, there was a fear that the nation’s fiscal system would shut down and this would lead to the closing of almost all businesses and impoverishment of most people.  To prevent this, the Bush administration took the unpopular stop of financially supporting key fiscal institution.  Reading this book reminds us of the very similar crisis that confronted the Roosevelt Administration shortly after they took office.  In the early years of the Depression, various temporary solutions were found to keep banks open but, ultimately, they failed and the banks ran out of funds.  The collapse of the Detroit banks that were closely linked to the once booming automobile industry, sent a clear signal that all of the nation’s banks might soon fail leading President Roosevelt to take extraordinary measures.  These eventually led to many New Deal programs and some government regulation of the fiscal system.  This is a very informative and interesting book that describes the close links of the failing auto industry to the nation’s banking system and the absence of information in both the Hoover and Roosevelt administration about what do to when the nation’s banks collapse.

Brewed in Detroit : Breweries and Beers Since 1830.  Peter H. Blum, Detroit : Wayne State University Press, Detroit , 1999 This is the definitive history of brewers, brewing and breweries in Detroit

There is extensive information in this book about individuals and the beers they produced before and after prohibition.

The) Buildings of Detroit : A History.  W. Hawkins Ferry. Detroit : Wayne State University Press, 1968.

This is the most comprehensive historical description of the area’s architecture.

(The) Catholic Church in Detroit : 1701-1888.  George Paré, Detroit : Wayne State University Press, 1951

This is a comprehensive history of the Catholic Church in Detroit with many chapters devoted to the era when the French governed Detroit.

Roy D. Chapin: The Man Behind the Hudson Motor Car Company.  J. C. Long, Detroit : Wayne State University Press, 1945

This is the most extensive biography of the man who founded and developed the successful Hudson Motor Car Company in Detroit

(The) Changing Face of Inequality: Urbanization, Industrialization and Immigrants in Detroit : 1880-1920. Olivier Zunz, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Detroit was a booming industrial metropolis in 1880 but the factories and shops were small employing only a few dozen workers; many of them skilled. With the coming of the vehicle industry, employers reorganized labor so that thousands of unskilled men worked in the same factory. Zunz excellently describes the industrialization of Detroit, a process that eventually led to the modern blue collar middle class. He provides much information about the assimilation of European immigrants and described the unique status of the few blacks who lived in Detroit at the turn of the Twentieth Century.

Coleman Young and Detroit Politics: From Social Activist to Power Broker.  Wilbur C. Rich, Detroit : Wayne State University Press, 1989

This is a rather uncritical biography of Mayor Young describing his many accomplishments.

Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America ,  David Freund.  Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2007.

This is an extremely comprehensive and detailed analysis of the cultural values, political processes and legislation that sought to prevent blacks from moving into Detroit's suburban ring after World War II.

Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit .  Suzanne Smith, Cambridge , MA : Harvard University Press, 1999

This is a comprehensive and informative description of the development of Barry Gordy’s Motown industry and what it meant to Detroit ’s black residents at the time when racial issues were bitterly contested.  

David Buick’s Marvelous Motor Car: The Men and The Automobile that Launched General Motors.   Lawrence R. Gustin. Flint : Alfred P. Sloan Museum , 2006.

This interesting book provides extensive information about the engineering accomplishments of David Buick, his less than lucid role in the formation of General Motors and his eventual poverty.

(The) Detroit Almanac: 300 Years of Life in the Motor City .  Peter Gavrilovich and Bill McGraw (editors), Detroit : The Detroit Free Press, 2000.

This is a comprehensive encyclopedia of information about Detroit .  If you are going to write about Detroit , this is a useful reference volume.   Detroit Divided.  Reynolds Farley, Sheldon Danziger and Harry J. Holzer. New York : Russell Sage, 2000 This volume provides extensive information about racial, social and economic trends in metropolitan Detroit including results from attitudinal studies.  

Detroit: 138 Square Miles.  Julia Reyes Taubman, Detroit: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2011.

The hundreds of photographs in this book are excellent.  However, almost all of them show dilapidated homes, abandoned factories, closed stores, and ransacked school building falling apart.  There are no pictures of recently renovated buildings, new plants or other signs of the redevelopment of Detroit that is gradually underway.  There is no essay describing the processes that produced such terrible outcomes in Detroit or explaining the meaning and importance of the artistically beautiful pictures displayed in this volume.  Should the volume be considered an example of “Ruin porn” or are their meanings that I am overlooking?  (January, 2012)

Detroit Disassembled.  Andrew Moore, Akron, Ohio: Akron Art Museum, 2010

This is a collection of artistic photographs of decaying Detroit—abandoned homes, schools, neighborhoods and, especially, dilapidated factories.  Some might call this book the epitome of Ruin Porn but quality of the photographs is exceptionally high.  The book includes a brief, interesting essay by Detroit native Philip Levine, the nation’s Poet laureate who moved away from the city in 1954.  Consistent with the many photographs, Levine describes about a dozen places where he worked in the Detroit, all or almost all of them abandoned or torn down.  If you collect coffee table books showing the current status of abandoned major buildings in Detroit, you might add this one.  (January, 2012)

Detroit in Its World Setting: A Three Hundred Year Chronology, 1701-2001. David Lee Poremba (editor),

Detroit : Wayne State University Press, 2001.
This is a comprehensive year-by-year history of events occurring in Detroit with an excellent index. This is basically an interesting encyclopedia providing annual information about Detroit from 1701 to 2000—a useful reference volume.

( The) Detroit Race Riot: A Study in Violence. Robert Shogan and Tom Craig, Philadelphia : Chilton Books, 1964.

This informative account describes the 1943 racial riot, its causes and its consequences.  Particularly interesting are the various interpretations of this riot given by different groups and organizations.  This is the most informative single book describing the 1943 racial violence.

Detroitland: A Collection of Movers, Shakers, Lost Souls, and History Makers from Detroit’s Past by Richard Bak.  Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2011.

This is a fascinating collection of 27 short essays describing individuals who played a role in the city’s history or events that occurred in Detroit, some of them well known, some forgotten. For the most part, they are not complete biographies but rather short, interesting reports about a person or an event – very informative but not exhaustive.  The essays describe familiar Detroit natives or figures  including Bruce Beemer, Eddie Cicotte, Barry Gordy, Albert Kahn, Charles Lindbergh, Frank Murphy and Hazen Pingree as well as other colorful characters whose name are known by few.  Several forgotten events are described including the Detroit International Exposition and Fair held in 1889 and the day when an RAF bomber fell into a far east side neighborhood, October 24, 1958.  Alas, there is no description of Mayor Kilpatrick.  (January, 2012)

(The) Dodges: The Auto Family Fortune and Misfortune. Jean Maddern Pirrone and Joan Potter Elwart.  South Bend, Indiana: Icarus Press,1981

This is one of several books describing the important contribution of the Dodge Brothers to the development of the nation’s automobile industry and to the significant contributions their heir made by dispensing their fortunes

The Fall and Recapture of Detroit in the War of 1812: In Defense of William Hall, by Anthony J. Yanik, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2011.

This year, 2012, we will commemorate the surrender of Detroit to the British by General William Hall.  After disputes with England about international trade matters and the British practice of boarding United States ships and impressing seamen, President Madison convinced Congress to declare war against England in June, 1812.  He assumed that the British were very concerned about Napoleon’s conquest of Europe and not much interested in Canada.  Madison thought that the United States could easily invade and take over empty Canada and, once that was accomplished, the British would agree to the demands of his administration.  Reluctantly, he appointed Michigan territorial governor William Hall to lead a force that would invade Canada from Detroit in the summer of 1812.  Hall tried to invade Canada in July, 1812 with poorly prepared forces but quickly withdrew.  In August, he believed that Detroit was surrounded by the British military and their numerous Indian allies.  He surrendered Detroit in August, 1812 without a fight.  US forces retook Detroit the next summer after the British fleet on Lake Erie was defeated. Subsequently Hall was court martial and accused of cowardice and dereliction of duty.  He was sentenced to death but President Madison commuted that execution.  William Hull spent much of the rest of his life trying to reestablish his reputation.  Yanik’s book is fascinating to read since it describes clearly the War of 1812 as it played out in Detroit, this terrible errors and misunderstandings of President Madison as well as the seeming unfair court martial of William Hull.  As the title suggests, this is a defense of Hall with the argument that the surrender of Detroit likely prevented the slaughter of the residents by Indians.  (January, 2012)

Frank Murphy: The Detroit Years.  Sidney Fine; Ann Arbor , The University of Michigan Press, 1975.

Detroit resident Frank Murphy presided as judge in the Ossian Sweet trial in 1925, then served as mayor of the city, governor of Michigan, and was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Franklin Roosevelt. This is an excellent summary of his accomplishments in Detroit.

Grits, Noise and Revolution:  The Birth of Detroit Rock and Roll.  David A. Carson, Ann Arbor .

This is the definitive history of Detroit ’s numerous contributions to the development of rock and roll music.  

Hard Stuff: The Autobiography of Mayor Coleman Young.  Coleman Young and Lonnie Wheeler, New York : Penguin Books, 1994.

This is Mayor Young’s autobiography.  It is a very interesting book and provides important insights into the political development of Mayor Young and the challenges he faced while in office.

Harmony & Dissonance: Voices of Jewish Identity in Detroit 1914-1967.  Sidney Bolkosky. Detroit : Wayne State University Press, 1991.

This informative book describes Detroit's heterogeneous Jewish community as they went from being, typically, low-income immigrants to prosperous middle and upper class citizens.  The author tells readers about the geographic mobility of Jews and their synagogues from the lower east side, to central Detroit, then to northwest Detroit after World War II and then to Oakland County.

How Detroit Became the Automotive Capital.  Robert G. Szudarek, Warren , Michigan : 1996.  Published by author.

This is an encycpedia providing much information about almost two hundred manufacturing firms that actually produced vehicle in or near Detroit or intended to do so.

Life for Us Is What We Make It: Building Black Community in Detroit : 1915-1945, Bloomington , Ind. : University of Indiana Press,

As the black population of Detroit grew after 1915 and a middle class emerged thanks to auto industry jobs, a controversy arose between those blacks who strongly favored ending Jim Crow policies and those blacks who favored establishing parallel institutions. In many ways, this was the controversy between devotees of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois.  This is an inclusive and valuable account of these issues as they played themselves out between the first and second world wars.

Made in Detroit : A South of 8 Mile Memoir. Paul Clemens. New York : Doubleday, 2005.  

This is an exceptionally thoughtful account of growing up as a white person on the east side of Detroit during the 1980s and 1990s.  If you are interested in personal memories that describe important social and racial urban issue, you will find this book exceptionally interesting.

Mike’s Guide to the Motor City – World Class Art, Architecture, History and Fun! In Detroit.

(The) Most Dangerous Man in Detroit : Walter Reuther and the Fare of American Labor. Nelson Lichtenstein. New York : Basic Books, 1995

This is the authoritative biography of Walter Reuther and his many contributions to the development of this nation’s blue collar middle class.

One Man’s Castle: Clarence Darrow in Defense of the American Dream. Phyllis Vine, New York : Harper Collins, 2004. This is a good book about the Ossian Sweet trial with special emphasis upon the role Clarence Darrow played. 

The author is the one who discovered that Dr. Sweet purchased the home on Garland from a man who was a light-skinned African American passing as white.

(The) Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit . Thomas Sugrue. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

This is an excellent and prize winning description of racial and economic change in Detroit in the years immediately following World War II. The precarious position of black workers in the auto industry is fully noted. No one has written a more informative account of the strident but unsuccessful efforts of many whites to keep their Detroit neighborhoods white.

Orvie: The Dictator of Dearborn: The Rise and Reign of Orville L. Hubbard. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989.

Long term Dearborn Mayor Hubbard became a national symbol of suburban resistance to blacks in the era before the Open Housing Law was enacted in 1968.

Profile of a Metropolis. Robert J. Mowitz and Deil S. Wright. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1962.
For a decade of so after World War II, it appeared that Detroit would grow rapidly and become the nation's third largest and most prosperous metropolis.  That did not happen.  This book describes the many planning efforts that were undertaken to prepare for the tremendous population and economic growth that was expected.

(The) Quotations of Mayor Coleman A. Young. Edited by Bill McGraw. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005.

Mayor Young did not always speak in politically correct language.

Racial Situations: Class Predicaments of Whiteness in Detroit. John Hartigan, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

This ethnographic account of poor whites remaining in Detroit after the city became overwhelming black is informative, especially about aspects of race relations seldom considered: urban white poverty and whites as a minority in a black-dominated city.

Radio Priest: Charles Coughlin, The Father of Hate Radio.  Donald Warren. New York: The Free Press, 1996

This is an excellent biography of Father Charles Coughlin, the nation’s first popular radio preacher—a controversial man who believed that he shaped the nation’s political trends in the 1930s.

(The) Rise and Fall of an Urban School System: Detroit, 1907-1981. Jeffrey Mirel. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

This is the authoritative history of Detroit's public school system for the period selected.
Seasons of Grace: A History of the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit. Leslie Woodcock Tentler, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990.

This is a comprehensive history of the Roman Catholic diocese of Detroit from its founding in 1834 to 1958.

Singing in a Strange Land, C. L. Franklin, the Black Church, and the Transformation of America. Nick Slavatore, New York: Little, Brown, 2005.

This is a very interesting biography of Revered C. L. Franklin, the pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit

Someone Else’s House: America's Unfinished Struggle for Itegration. Tamar Jacoby, New York: The Free Press, 1998

Several chapters of this book describe racial issues in Detroit while Coleman Young served as mayor. Jacoby very capably describes the depth of the racial division and stresses forcefully that integration has become a forgotten strategy for ameliorating racial hostility and bring about equal opportunities.  This is one of the most convincing recent appeals to reconsider racial integration as a goal for this nation.

Storied Independent Automakers: Nash, Hudson and American Motors. Charles K. Hyde, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010).

There were upwards of two dozen firms manufacturing automobiles at the state of the Depression.  Perhaps more them half of them failed during the 1930s or, if they survived the Depression, they did not return to vehicle manufacturing after V - J Day.  Four large independent firms survive to sell calls in the booming years of the late 1940s and early 1950s: Hudson, Nash, Packard and Studebaker.  This is an interesting book recounting the history of the Hudson and Nash firms, firms that merged in the 1950s in hopes of remaining in business.  These manufacturers have interesting histories and introduce some engineering innovations that were later adopted by the Big Three car makers.  Charles Hyde points out that era following World War II was not a death spiral for the independents.  The introduced new products and tried a variety of innovations ranging from mini-cars to sporty two-seaters.  American Motors—the Nash-Hudson combine—survived long enough to be purchased by Renault, the French firm that briefly assembled cars at the Kenosha, Wisconsin plant.  And then the firm was sold to Chrysler.  This is a straightforward history with an emphasis upon key figures and innovative cars.

Trial and Error: The Detroit School Segregation Case. Eleanor P. Wolf, Detroit : Wayne State University Press, 1981.

To end racial segregation in Detroit’s public schools, the NAACP brought suit in 1970,  Eventually, the district and circuit federal courts ordered the racial  integration of public schools through a plan that would have pooled white suburban and black central city students for purposes of fulfilling the mandate of Brown. The Supreme Court, in 1973, overturned that remedy, thereby ratifying the high levels of school segregation that persist. This is an account of that litigation.

Uncle Henry’s Ford Rouge: One Man’s Perspective: 1965-1998 by R. L. Moore, Onaway, Michigan: R. L. Moore Publishing, 2008

This is an interesting book describing the experiences of Mr. Moore who spent 34 years as a skilled tradesman at the Ford River Rouge complex.  It does not deal with large issues such as labor-management conflict or the role of unions in the national political system.  Rather it provides an insightful description of what it was like to work for Ford during this period.  As the author notes, blacks were numerous among the labor force but there were few, if any, women performing blue collar jobs or supervising production workers.  He provides quite extensive information about the talents of craftsmen and the great pride that many of them took in their work while also pointing out that slackers, bullies and misfits could be found on every shift. 

Up the Rouge: Paddling Detroit’s Hidden River. Text by Joel Thurtell, Photographs by Patricia Beck, (Detroit: Painted Turtle Books, No date)

When you think about rivers in Detroit, you image the city’s beautiful waterfront, views of the location where Cadillac disembarked and the skyline of Windsor.  But there is another Detroit river: the Rouge.  It extends for 127 miles and its drainage basin includes much of Wayne County and a substantial fraction of southern Oakland County.  Joel Thurtell and Patricia Beck set out to canoe the main branch of the River Rouge from its mouth at Zug Island to Oakland County.  They did so in a mere five days; that is 27 miles of paddling in 53 hours.  It took them so long because that had to lug their canoe over or around 72 log jams, one active dam and three dilapidated dams.  The book – with marvelous pictures – describes their painful journey.  But it is much more than that.  The Rouge, after leaving Dearborn where it is confined on concrete for four miles, passes through very attractive parks and neighborhoods in Detroit and southern Oakland County.  The Huron River in Washtenaw County and, to a lesser degree, the Clinton River in Oakland County has been refurbished so that they are environmentally sound and attractive to those who may use them or their parks along their banks for recreation.  No such renovation has been done with the River Rouge.  However, there is the possibility that the City of Detroit and those who care about local rivers could make the Rouge into a very appealing waterway appealing to those who might canoe, fish, watch birds or enjoy picnics and games along the parks that adjoin the river.

Violence in the Model City : The Cavanaugh Administration, Race Relations, and the Detroit Riot of 1967. Sidney Fine. Ann Arbor , University of Michigan Press, 1989

This historian provides the most comprehensive account of Detroit's political leaders in the 1960s and during the riot of 1967. This is the best account of Detroit's most recent racial riot.

Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company and a Century of Progress: 1901-2003.  Douglas Brinkley , New York , Viking, 2003.

There may be several thousand books about Henry Ford, his tremendous contributions and his ideas.  This is an excellent recent volume about him.

 Who Killed Detroit ? Other Cities Beware!  Johannes F. Spreen and Diane Holloway, New York : Universe, Inc., 2005. 

Johannes Spreen served as commissioner of Detroit ’s police from 1968 to 1973.  This is a rather bitter book about his experiences and, in his view, the unwillingness of many Detroit residents and Detroit political leaders to face the serious problems of crime in the city.  He argues that there was an extremely elevated rate of black-on-black crime in Detroit during his years as commissioners.  However, many black leaders attributed this to white racism and believe that black criminal should not be severely punished because of pervasive racism in policing and in the criminal justice system.

Whose Detroit ? Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City . Heather Ann Thompson, Ithaca , N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001.

This is an excellent and extremely informative description of how labor issues, political issues and racial issues played out in Detroit from the end of World War II to the Coleman Young years.   We often overlook the history and contributions of political and labor leaders who were at the very far left.