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A Detroit story of single family homes and pianos

NO MORE MUSIC by Shawn Whitehead on

I was reading Aaron Renn’s blog this morning and a post called, How Urban Planning Made Motown Records Possible, caught my attention. 

His argument – taken from a book called Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story – is that the prevalence of pianos in black working class and middle class families was a key ingredient in Detroit ultimately punching above its weight musically.

Here’s an excerpt that Aaron Renn shared on his blog:

The family piano’s role in the music that flowed out of the residential streets of Detroit cannot be overstated. The piano, and its availability to children of the black working class and middle class, is essential to understanding what happened in that time and place, and why it happened, not just with Berry Gordy, Jr. but with so many other young black musicians who came of age there from the late forties to the early sixties. What was special then about pianos and Detroit? First, because of the auto plants and related industries, most Detroiters had steady salaries and families enjoyed a measure of disposable income they could use to listen to music in clubs and at home. Second, the economic geography of the city meant that the vast majority of residents lived in single family homes, not high-rise apartments, making it easier to deliver pianos and find room for them. And third, Detroit had the egalitarian advantage of a remarkable piano enterprise, the Grinnell Brothers Music House.

Detroit is obviously not the only city with lots of single family homes. But it’s fascinating to think that this housing typology, combined with a number of other socioeconomic factors, could be what ultimately led to the creation of the Motown Sound.

It’s also interesting to think about what kind of talent we might be squandering in our cities. I mean, look what happens when people have access to things like pianos (in the case of Detroit), computers (in the case of people like Bill Gates), and cheap/vacant space (in the case of Berlin and its clubs). They create amazing things.

This is one of the reasons why I think we sometimes underestimate the importance of small scale moves when it comes to spurring innovation in cities. We forget that people will do incredible things when they are, quite simply, given the freedom to work on projects they are passionate about.

If we could harness these passions instead of focusing so often on big political announcements, I think we’d all be better off.

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