The best books about Detroit’s hidden histories

Krysta Ryzewski Author Of Detroit Remains: Archaeology and Community Histories of Six Legendary Places
By Krysta Ryzewski

Who am I?

Few things bother me more than the negative stereotypes that portray Detroit as a deserted city in ruins - a crime-infested, neglected place where residents don’t care about their connections to the city’s history or its future. Detroit is a proud, living city. As a historical archaeologist at Wayne State University, I’ve been on the front lines of leading community-based archaeology projects in Detroit for the past decade. These projects involve advocacy for more inclusive historic preservation efforts, youth training initiatives, collaborative exhibits, and lots of interactions with the media and public. I view historical archaeology as a tool for serving local community interests, unearthing underrepresented histories, and addressing the legacies of social justice issues.

I wrote...

Detroit Remains: Archaeology and Community Histories of Six Legendary Places

By Krysta Ryzewski,

Book cover of Detroit Remains: Archaeology and Community Histories of Six Legendary Places

What is my book about?

Detroit Remains: Archaeology and Community Histories of Six Legendary Places presents six archaeological case studies of legendary Detroit institutions – Little Harry speakeasy, the Ransom Gillis house, the Blue Bird Inn jazz club, Gordon Park, the Grande Ballroom, and the Halleck Street log cabin – to trace the contours of the city’s underrepresented communities and their relationships to the local currents of capitalism and social justice over the course of the past century. I combine rigorous historical archaeological research with narrative storytelling to breathe life back into the forgotten or underappreciated accomplishments of everyday Detroiters.

My stories illustrate how they exercised power in shaping their communities in ways that have left lasting, tangible remains. This is the first historical archaeology book focused on Detroit, and one of the few to foreground the archaeology of the Great Migration era (ca. 1915-1970).

The books I picked & why

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A People's Atlas of Detroit

By Linda Campbell (editor), Andrew Newman (editor), Sara Safransky (editor), Tim Stallmann (editor)

Book cover of A People's Atlas of Detroit

Why this book?

Detroit is a city shaped by social movements. Even in the city’s darkest times of violent uprisings, outmigration, and bankruptcy, ordinary Detroiters remained committed to transformative change - banding together to challenge issues of racial injustice, housing access, food sovereignty, workers’ rights, and accountable governance. A People’s Atlas of Detroit is community-based scholar-activism at its best.

The brilliantly illustrated collection of maps, essays, photographs, poetry, and interviews is the outcome of a multi-year project involving over fifty residents from all walks of life who are at the forefront of local social justice initiatives. Through its combination of radical cartography, historical perspectives, and firsthand reflections, A People’s Atlas elevates the voices of the underrecognized people who are actively charting courses for a more equitable urban future. 

Detroit's Hidden Channels: The Power of French-Indigenous Families in the Eighteenth Century

By Karen L. Marrero,

Book cover of Detroit's Hidden Channels: The Power of French-Indigenous Families in the Eighteenth Century

Why this book?

If one were to travel in a time machine back to the early 1700s, to the French colony of Detroit, they’d arrive at a village inhabited by mixed French-indigenous families, where women were power-brokers and family ties were the basis for structuring business relationships. The village would be totally unrecognizable to those of us who have been taught to envision French colonial Detroit as a male-dominated outpost, where European soldiers and fur traders operated in the service of the Crown. Historian Karen Marrero digs deep into the archives to assemble an account that completely reorients our understandings of the cultural landscape and gender dynamics of early Detroit.

Drawing on a vast array of sources – from colonial records and oral histories to songs and indigenous stories – Detroit’s Hidden Channels is a remarkably inclusive history that unearths the enduring role French women and indigenous people played in the city’s development, even decades after French rule ended.  

The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits

By Tiya Miles,

Book cover of The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits

Why this book?

Slavery and its legacy is a northern problem too. Detroiters were slaveholders, but that is a fact that we’ve collectively spent decades, if not centuries, denying and neglecting. Tiya Miles’ gripping history of slavery and freedom reveals the stories of the enslaved Native and African American people who were present in Detroit since the city’s initial decades of European colonization. Her historical narratives, crafted from meticulous archival research, reintroduce readers to the long-forgotten people whose coerced labor laid the foundation for the city’s physical infrastructure and scaffolded the livelihoods of its free residents. The Dawn of Detroit is a stark reminder of how the roots of contemporary inequities run deep through the city’s history.  

Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies

By Joel Stone (editor),

Book cover of Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies

Why this book?

Detroit 1967 is a compilation of twenty essays and reflections about the racially-charged uprising that began on July 23, 1967 and was, at the time, the deadliest civil disturbance in United States history. Until this volume was published during the uprising’s 50th anniversary year, there were few, if any, attempts by scholars to confront the falsehoods that confused understandings of the events and their lasting consequences. Fifty years on, there is no consensus about exactly how the uprising started. In fact, we’re not even at a point of agreement on what to call the events. The terms “rebellion”, “riot”, “uprising”, “disturbance”, and “insurrection” are used differentially, often according to one’s race, age, and place of residence. Detroit 1967 is one of the first conversations about the uprising to cross racial and generational lines, and to recognize the experiences of those involved on both sides. The volume is a critical first step towards healing the wounds of conflict, which are still visible on the city’s landscape and present in the inter-generational memories of local and Metro-area residents. 

The Grande Ballroom: Detroit's Rock 'n' Roll Palace

By Leo Early,

Book cover of The Grande Ballroom: Detroit's Rock 'n' Roll Palace

Why this book?

From Motown to techno, twentieth-century Detroit was an incubator for world-famous popular music, yet the city has not followed the lead of Memphis and New Orleans by investing in preserving its music heritage sites. Meanwhile, memories of the city’s once-vibrant music scenes are fading as the generations who experienced them pass. The Grande Ballroom: Detroit’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Palace is a tribute to the fierce ingenuity, creativity, and activism of Detroit’s music-loving baby boomers. Between 1966 and 1972 the ballroom was the city’s most iconic counterculture music venue. Local legends Iggy Pop and the MC5 took to the Grande’s psychedelic stage alongside soon-to-be world-famous groups, including Led Zeppelin, the Who, and Fleetwood Mac. In 2003, as the long-vacant building fell into a seemingly irreversible state of decay, musician and local historian Leo Early established the Friends of the Grande group.

Now with over 2,000 members, Early and the Friends have worked tirelessly to gather firsthand accounts of concerts, commemorate the musical and activist heritage of the Grande, and preserve the building itself – which, thanks to their efforts, is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The firsthand stories Early presents about the Grande’s rock ‘n’ roll heyday are written with such high-resolution detail that readers will feel like they’ve shared in the epic “Grande Experience”. 

5 book lists we think you will like!

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