Tales of three cities: a trio of books about decay and revival

From Detroit to Pittsburgh to Atlanta, from the rise and fall of industry to resurrection and environmental awareness, at least for some

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emergency gibberishTORONTO, Ont., April 25, 2017 /Troy Media/ – Writing styles can inform, entertain or put up barriers. Some make a connection between reader and writer. Others are bloodless.

Three recent and important books about cities illustrate the point.

Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story (2015) is by journalist David Maraniss.

Beyond Rust: Metropolitan Pittsburgh and the Fate of Industrial America (2015) is by historian Allen Dieterich-Ward.

Where We Want to Live: Reclaiming Infrastructure for a New Generation of Cities (2016) is about Atlanta’s BeltLine Trail and is by urban planner and architect Ryan Gravel.

First the issues.

Detroit’s story is America’s story – the rise and fall of the auto industry, and thus Detroit, and thus big manufacturing and good union jobs in America.

Pittsburgh’s story is also America’s in that the consolidation of the steel industry, coal wars between labour and management, the rise of the power of unions, and environmentalism all played out in Pittsburgh.

A later story is Atlanta’s, in which a 35-km circle of railroad lines morphed as trucking took over the movement of goods, and eventually became a walking, biking and transport trail. Industrialization came full circle.

This story has played out in New York with the High Line trail which, as in Paris, is an old elevated industrial railroad morphed into a beautiful trail. Indeed, the rails-to-trails movement helped this transition all over North America.

In Detroit, we also hear of the development of the Mustang sports car, the Motown sound, an early version of John Kennedy’s “ask not …” phrasing, Martin Luther King’s first version of his I Have a Dream speech, Malcolm X on the Kennedy assassination, and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society speech. Lots of good things happened in Detroit.

Then lots of bad things.

In the Pittsburgh story, we find that union leader Walter Reuther came from good labour roots via his mother Valentine, and sought higher wages in the auto industry in Detroit. He was a veteran of the battle of the overpass, in which management goons roughed up labour activists. He survived an assassination attempt and his United Auto Workers helped fund the civil rights movement.

Atlanta’s story is of deindustrialization and its effect on neighbourhoods, and then a revival via the BeltLine Trail.

All are important stories and together they cover 150 or so years of settlement and industrialization.

But back to style.

The historian Dieterich-Ward is historical. We learn fascinating facts about industrialists Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, J.P. Morgan, Andrew Mellon, Charles Schwab and others. We learn of mammoth industrial equipment, and the efforts to restore strip-mined land for parks and recreation. We read about the building of highways to connect people to jobs.

But we don’t get much analysis about the ill-effects of highway building. Nor do we get much of a definition of the Allegheny Conference, the Renaissance Partners, the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, or groups or public private partnerships. It would be nice to know more.

Gravel, being a youngish planner and architect, makes a lot in his book about his own story, not just Atlanta’s. We read of his graduate studies in Paris, return to Atlanta, real-estate woes, marriage and agitation for the BeltLine. Funnily, we hear a little about Robert Caro and his book The Power Broker, and we sure learn how to lobby, finance and finagle. The lessons from Pittsburgh and Atlanta would have been welcome.

Odd that the journalist Maraniss appears to provide the greatest depth and understanding of an era, a city and where all the diverse facts fit in. It’s odd because we often malign journalist for their superficiality – especially if we’re academics or professionals.

You might make other judgments but all three books are worth the read, regardless of their styles.

Troy Media columnist Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our time on five continents over 25 years. He is the author of Safer Cities. Allan is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by all Troy Media columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Troy Media.

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