Detroit is one of the those cities that demands to be written about. Whether cataloguing its impressive buildings, impactful socio-political movements, or the cautionary tale of its economic decline, there’s no end of material.
But nonetheless, we took on the task of identifying the 40 essential books about Detroit—the works that provide a starting point for anyone who wants to understand how Detroit became Detroit. While resulting list is not comprehensive, it is diverse, with fiction, non-fiction, and ones heavy on illustration. We hope you enjoy—and if your favorite is not on the list, chime in with your picks in the comments.
And a couple more things to note: We chose books that were about or feature Detroit, but not necessarily those written by a Detroit author. We also mention options for further reading of books by the same author or on a very similar topic. Also, books are separated by theme, but are otherwise in no particular order.
Lastly, we’ve linked mainly to Amazon out of convenience, but we of course recommend seeking these out at one of Detroit’s amazing independent and used bookstores: Source Booksellers, John K. King, Pages Bookshop, Book Suey, and Book Beat to name a few.
For History Nerds
The Dawn of Detroit by Tiya Miles
A book chronicling the fascinating and disturbing history of slavery in early Detroit. Miles delves in detail into why and how many slaves were owned by the city’s elite, relationships between the races, and individual stories about freed and enslaved people.
Detroit: I Do Mind Dying by Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin
This engrossing book covers the little-known history of the radical labor movement and its Detroit origins in the 1960s and 70s.
Terror in the City of Champions by Tom Stanton
A striking portrait of Depression-era Detroit. As the Detroit Tigers were once again becoming a championship baseball team under manager Mickey Cochrane, a dark undercurrent swept the city in the form of a Klan-esque secret society.
The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow
An epic novel (690 pages) about a Kentucky family that migrates to Detroit at the promise of employment in the automobile industry. The Guardian calls it “a terrifying lesson in US history—and a haunting tragedy.”
This Is Detroit by Arthur M. Woodford
A sweeping but brisk history of Detroit, beginning with its founding by Cadillac through the year 2001 when it was published.
Freer: A Legacy of Art by Thomas Lawton and Linda Merrill
A biography of the industrialist Charles Lang Freer, who spent much of his life in Detroit. One of the renowned art collectors of his time, he brought James McNeill Whistler to prominence and a heightened awareness to east Asian art. His gorgeous Detroit mansion still stands, but his extensive collection lives in D.C. at the Smithsonian Institution that he helped found.
For Detroit Newbies
The Origins of the Urban Crisis by Thomas J. Sugrue
Also for history nerds, this book is essential reading for understanding Detroit’s present racial and economic dynamics. Sugrue brings forth historical facts and figures to show why—through housing, employment, other forms of discrimination—Detroit became a place of profound inequity.
How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass by Aaron Foley
A book written specifically for newbies. Published in 2015 at the height of Detroit’s gentrification, Foley provides guidelines to newcomers, in biting and hilarious prose, on a variety of subjects, such as how not to offend people, how to party, and how to be white.
(Further reading: The Detroit Neighborhood Guidebook by Aaron Foley)
Binelli, a journalist who grew up in Metro Detroit, looks to discover “what happens to a once-great place after it has been used up and discarded.” The hopeful (though at times skeptical) book looks back on the city’s past, but mostly to its future through people-centric stories.
Expensive People by Joyce Carol Oates
The great author Oates lived and taught in Detroit for several years. Part of her Wonderland Quartet exploring class in America, Expensive People is a disturbing memoir-style novel about a child who grows up in suburban Detroit and becomes a killer.
Detroit: A Biography by Scott Martelle
From a great review by urbanist and Detroit native Pete Saunders: “The book reads a lot like Detroit’s history—slow yet building over the city’s first two centuries; fast-paced and chaotic after the introduction and rapid growth of the auto industry; slower-paced, exasperated yet reflective as decline sets in.”
For Architecture Buffs
Building the Modern World: Albert Kahn in Detroit by Michael H. Hodges
A biography of “The Architect of Detroit.” Hodges tells the story of how a German-Jewish immigrant came to design hundreds of buildings in Detroit, the metro area, and around the world. It’s also accompanied by 170 photos and illustrations.
(Further reading: The Legacy of Albert Kahn by W. Hawkins Ferry)
Designing Detroit: Wirt Rowland and the Rise of Modern American Architecture by Michael G. Smith
A beautifully illustrated biography and study of one of Detroit’s architectural masters: Wirt C. Rowland. The Michigan native worked for all the city’s biggest firms and had a hand in many of its iconic skyscrapers, most especially the jaw-dropping Guardian Building.
The Buildings of Detroit: A History by W. Hawkins Ferry
The book about buildings in Detroit (though it can be kind of hard to find). Comprehensive in its scope and written by one of the city’s great historians, it covers the city’s built environment from its inception through the 1960s.
Where Today Meets Tomorrow by Susan Skarsgard
A comprehensive, illustrated history of General Motors’s stunning Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. The research and design campus was the first major commission for the great architect Eero Saarinen and a seminal work in the era of midcentury design.
Forgotten Landmarks of Detroit by Dan Austin
From the start, Detroit has had an unhealthy need to demolish its buildings. By the historian and former journalist who runs the indispensable resource Historic Detroit, this book details the construction and eventual destruction of 15 former buildings, like Old City Hall and the Detroit Times Building.
(Further reading: Lost Detroit by Dan Austin)
Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies edited by Danielle Aubert, Lana Cavar, Natasha Chandani
A kaleidoscopic, people-centric portrait of the Mies van der Rohe–designed neighborhood around Lafayette Park. The book contains some history and important facts about the development (so it is also very much for architecture buffs), but is mostly a unique, varied look at the neighborhood’s residents and how they live.
The Next American Revolution by Grace Lee Boggs
A book of essays by the legendary Detroit activist that not only critically analyzes the ails of modern capitalism, but also offers solutions for a sustainable future.
(Further reading: Pages from a Black Radical’s Notebook by James Boggs)
Detroit Resurrected: To Bankruptcy and Back by Nathan Bomey
The inside story of the largest municipal bankruptcy in the history of the United States, filed in 2013. Written by a former Detroit Free Press reporter, it lays out the intricate and controversial “grand bargain” that allowed the city to emerge debt-free.
Mapping Detroit: Land, Community, and Shaping a City edited by June Manning Thomas and Henco Bekkering
The urban planners’ “textbook” to Detroit, Mapping Detroit takes readers through a cartographical tour of the city, exploring historical and developmental changes over the years.
Detroit: The Dream Is Now by Michel Arnaud
From Curbed’s list of the 101 essential books about cities: “This book-length appreciation of Detroit’s current wave of development, done with considerable style by a French photographer, doesn’t traffic in trite images or wonder if the city may ‘bounce back.’ Taking Detroit as it is now, a dynamic, multi-faceted city, this collection of photos and essays offers plenty of insight and inspiration.”
Whose Detroit?: Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City by Heather Ann Thompson
Similar to I Do Mind Dying, this book covers the various movements—political, labor, and racial—that emerged out of the turmoil in the 1960s and 70s.
For Your Book Club
City Primeval by Elmore Leonard
From the great novelist who spent most of his formative years in Detroit. Considered by many to be Leonard’s best, City Primeval is a classic noir murder story that takes place in Detroit and told by a master of the craft.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
An instant classic when it was published in 2002, Middlesex tells the story of Calliope Stephanides, an intersex man who has a personal awakening. The novel also chronicles three generations of a Greek-American family who emigrated to Detroit and then lived in the metro area.
Wrestling with the Muse by Melba Joyce Boyd
Part-memoir, part-biography, Wrestling tells the story of Dudley Randall, owner of Broadside Press, an important publishing house that brought many black writers to prominence.
A Detroit Anthology edited by Anna Clark
A collection of essays, stories, and poems on a wide range of topics, all by passionate Detroit writers—including a few others on this list like Aaron Foley and Thomas Sugrue. (Disclaimer: Aaron Mondry co-wrote an essay in this book)
Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff
The subtitle says it all in this book by the controversial journalist and media personality. It’s a depressing—perhaps clear-eyed, perhaps overly pessimistic—look at the tragedies that Detroit has faced over the years, interwoven with personal experiences and opinions.
Dopefiend by Donald Goines
An unflinching novel about Detroit’s underground drug world. Part-autobiographical, it’s often considered Goines’s best work.
The Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle
The story on perhaps the most important case of housing discrimination. Ossian Sweet, a black man who moved his family into a white neighborhood in Detroit, shot a member of a violent mob outside his house. The book details the ensuing trial, where Sweet was defended by legendary attorney Clarence Darrow, and the broader fight against housing segregation.
Hard Stuff: The Autobiography of Mayor Coleman Young by Coleman A. Young
An entertaining autobiography by Detroit’s boisterous former mayor. Young led a fascinating life, which he tells with great alacrity, including how he eventually became the city’s first African-American mayor, holding office for 20 years.
(Further reading: The Quotations of Mayor Coleman A. Young edited by Bill McGraw)
Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit by Suzanne E. Smith
Not only a history of the legendary Motown Records label that was a huge global hitmaker, but also an examination of the way it interacted with the civil rights movement taking place in Detroit and America at the time.
Hidden History of Detroit by Amy Elliott Bragg
For those who need to know as much as they can about Detroit history, Hidden details a number of obscure stories from the city’s pre-automobile era.
It’s incredible how many black political movements either had their origins in Detroit or played an important role here. This book tells the history of Detroit through narratives of its black citizens—former slaves, politicians, civil rights leaders, labor organizers, and more.
Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line by Ben Hamper
The Kitchen Confidential of the assembly line, Rivethead is the inside story of working in a factory. While the action takes place at a General Motors plant in Flint, Hamper’s story, both in and out of the factory, says a lot about life in Southeast Michigan.
Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story by David Maraniss
From the outside, the early 1960s was full of promise for Detroit. Its auto industry was booming, Motown was revolutionizing music, and activists seemed on a path towards civil rights victories. Painting a broad portrait at this time, Maraniss writes about a city filled with optimism—but also tension, whose sources sowed the seeds of its eventual decline.