September 10, 2015 6:15 AM EDT

The experts at Detroit’s Wayne State University saw the white exodus coming first. In February 1963 they predicted that Detroit’s population, then 1.6 million, would fall by a quarter in just seven years. The Detroit Free Press buried the story inside.

And why not? In early ’63, Detroit was booming, churning out 7 million cars a year. Ford’s blockbuster Mustang was taking shape in Dearborn, Mich. Motown was tuning up for a decade of hits. What could slow Detroit down?

The answer, revealed in David Maraniss’s elegantly written Once in a Great City, is a mix of good intentions, overconfidence and what the author calls “the American dilemma of race.” Maraniss carefully confines his story to an 18-month period between October 1962 and May 1964 when giants like Walter Reuther, Henry Ford II, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr. and Berry Gordy all gather onstage, backed by a colorful collection of local mobsters, saloon keepers and pro football players. Fifty years later, Motor City’s fall is summed up by a diagram in the front of the book, reminding readers where to find Detroit on a map.

–MICHAEL DUFFY

This appears in the September 21, 2015 issue of TIME.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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