Author: Mary Anne McMahon

Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform


The bankruptcy of Detroit last month, long after the implosion of the auto industry, has taught us that a city without Plan B is unsustainable. Mary Anne McMahon, who lived in Detroit from her birth in 1944 until 1976, has written about the city’s impact on her life when it was the richest city in America. The Detroit of THE MOTOR CITY AND ME provides an iconic backdrop to a quintessentially American drama in which the players are members of an ambitious, middle-class, extended family.

McMahon provides salient facts about Detroit from the influx of her German and Irish ancestors coming down through Canada, part of the stew of immigrants seeking to better themselves in the Midwest. The author describes their daily lives and contributions. While this is a deeply personal memoir, much of it is familiar to me: I am McMahon’s age, so enjoy being reminded of air raid drills, “silver” pennies, black and white TV, saddle shoes, the shock of Elvis Presley, and The Pill. It was when McMahon mentioned in passing that J. L. Hudson’s department store closed, and that malls proliferated that I started to look for her thesis, and she didn’t seem to have one. Then why was I thinking this book deserves a permanent place on my nonfiction bookshelf? Unique details such as Michigan’s reputation for manufacturing high quality furniture are important to chronicle, but there was something deeper here, a kind of undertow that made me feel that our generation went through much more chaos than we could blame on Asian enterprise.

McMahon misses many opportunities to make that clear. She relates the struggles of her ethnic ancestors to gain a foothold in this country during two world wars and the Great Depression, yet she is an adult before she hears about race riots -- because she went to a Catholic school surrounded by pale European faces. Her innocence of blacks (except for her mother’s housecleaner) is revealing of that time; she might have observed how our narrow, perfect lives -- near-sightedness as much as prejudice -- contributed to 20th century conflicts. Later, she relates her unhappiness when she left Detroit to live with her husband on a military base in Germany. When her parents visited, they were uncomfortable until they found some Germans who spoke English. What I took from this unapologetic reporting is that our post-war generation, aka the “apathetic” or “do-nothing” generation, explained our experience by looking inward.

The lens for those of us who came of age in the 1950s was psychology. Freud’s “psychoanalytic theory” gave us an excuse for our failings: we believed childhood events could influence our mental functioning and emotional health as adults. The second half of McMahon’s story carries a heavy burden of this, her mistake entering a second marriage with an unstable man; and her own growth through therapy, friendships, and women’s liberation. (Plan B?)

The author, armed with statistics, continues to refer back to Detroit and what it was up against in the 1980s and 90s. She briefly mentions the Clean Air Act and the Middle East oil embargo. At one point she has an epiphany: her new home, Houston, was a boom town much like Detroit had been thirty years earlier. I wish she had seen the irony: Detroit’s automobiles made oil-rich Houston possible, and made possible a whole new industry of migration to new look-alike, shining cities and sun-kissed suburbs, inviting people to escape from troubled cities like Detroit.

THE MOTOR CITY AND ME is valid as a portrait of growing up in America, but can be much, much more if you read between the lines. Most obviously, it demonstrates an individual’s strong feelings of indebtedness to a community left behind. This evokes more than nostalgia; it allows grieving. We now are so mobile that few children can claim a “hometown,” nor even, probably, a life-shaping geography. McMahon has provided us with a springboard to wonder what the future relationships between people and places will be. Can any city remain unique? Have we reached a point in American history when we live longer than our cities do? Does it matter? Will we “settle” on one vast, constantly morphing wilderness we call the Internet? Time will tell.

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