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The Motown Sound Came From Single-Family Homes

Would the Motor City have produced Motown without pianos in every living room?
October 22, 2015, 8am PDT | Emily Calhoun
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Justin Hollander

"The history of American music was literally shaped by the single family housing character of Detroit," writes Aaron M. Renn. 

David Maraniss's new book, Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story, points to the signs of decline as early as 1963 when the city was in its economic and artistic heyday. (As Adam Gopnik keenly describes it in The New Yorker, "Humpty Dumpty's most poignant moment [was] just before he toppled over.") But here Renn zeroes in on a housing lesson that runs counterintuitive to today's thinking about urban planning. The single-family homes of Detroit allowed working- and middle-class families to accommodate pianos; and the piano was the springboard for the great musical energy that would become known around the world as Motown.

Renn cautions against making too much of the connection. "As Gordy was founding Motown, Jane Jacobs was pointing out the trouble with Detroit’s 'gray belts' of single families that were already being abandoned." Certainly, Detroit was not the only city of its time with a predominance of single-family homes. Gopnik points to in-group competition, as studied by art historian E.H. Gombrich, as a likely cause of such renaissance, likening it more to 13th-century Florence than other Rust Belt cities. "If Detroit got it worse, it was partly because it had it better," Gopnik writes.

Renn's point is that cities would do well to think creatively about their unique sets of constraints and circumstances. "What this suggests is that cities shouldn’t despair too much about their existing built form, even if in many cases they are struggling with it. The question might be, what does that form enable that you can’t get elsewhere?"

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Published on Tuesday, October 13, 2015 in Urbanophile
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