Five compelling books about Detroit's tragic decline, history

As Detroit plunges into bankruptcy, many people are asking, “How could this happen to a once-mighty city?”

The answers are complex and the subject of voluminous research. Below are five compelling, informative books about the Motor City and its tragic decline.

Arc of JusticeArc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, And Murder in the Jazz Age by Kevin Boyle

This is the gripping story of Ossian Sweet, a friendly doctor who was charged with murder for trying to defend his family and east-side home from a white mob in the 1920s. Meticulously researched, the book dives into the African American experience in Detroit in the 1920s, when black people migrating from the south to escape Jim Crow laws were confined to substandard housing and treated like second-rate citizens.

Detroit an american autopsyDetroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff

Perhaps no one captures life in Detroit better than Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charlie LeDuff. The Fox 2 reporter and former writer at the Detroit News and New York Times chronicles contemporary life in the city through compelling stories about the people who live here. His account of his family’s life in the Motor City is heartbreaking and poignant. You won’t find a better book about Detroit in the 21st century.

Orignis_urban_crisisThe Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race And Inequality in Postwar Detroit by Thomas J. Sugrue

Richly detailed and exhaustively researched, this book chronicles how racial inequality and segregation created poverty and divisions in postwar Detroit. Often taught in college classes, the dense book traces the migration of African Americans to Detroit and eventually into neighborhoods that had been segregated. The result of the discrimination, Sugrue argued, was the large driving force behind racial violence and deindustrialization. This is a must-read for anyone serious about Detroit’s history.

Forgotten Landmarks of DetroitForgotten Landmarks of Detroit by Dan Austin

In his second book about Detroit’s under-appreciated buildings, “Forgotten Landmarks of Detroit,” journalist and historian Dan Austin unearths the tragic demise of some of the city’s most storied buildings in engrossing prose and exquisite historic photos. As much about the gorgeous architecture as it is about the city’s fascinating history and the people who occupied the buildings, Austin’s second book is nothing short of captivating. From the neo-Gothic Graystone Ballroom that hosted jazz greats Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald to the elegant Old City Hall that attracted kissing couples on New Year’s Eve, “Forgotten Landmarks of Detroit” uncovers long-buried details about Detroit’s most treasured buildings.
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Ruins of DetroitThe Ruins of Detroit by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

No photography book captures Detroit’s demise as tactfully and intimately as “The Ruins of Detroit.” Photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre may be accused of “ruin porn,” but this is anything but. The beautifully captured, dramatic photos show the extent of Detroit’s decline over the past five decades. Explore the interiors of Michigan Central Station, the United Artists Theater and long-forgotten hotels and industrial buildings. Anyone who appreciates grand architecture won’t be disappointed.

Reimagining DetroitReimagining Detroit: Opportunities for Redefining an American Cities by John Gallagher

So where does the Motor City city go from here? Journalist John Gallagher lays out a series of realistic steps to revive a city that has lost more than a quarter of its population since 2000. And could his timing be any better? Drawing off his own expertise of Detroit and the practical solutions taken by other cities, Gallagher makes a convincing argument that the city needs to rethink how it uses land. With sparsely populated neighborhoods spread across 139 square miles, the city cannot afford to adequately provide police, fire, trash and other services across such a large area riddled with abandonment, Gallagher wrote. Gallagher suggests creating green space and consolidating services into select, revived neighborhoods.

What books would you suggest?

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.