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Smoldering Core of a Slighted City : DEVIL'S NIGHT AND OTHER TRUE TALES OF DETROIT By Ze'ev Chafets (Random House: $19.95; 256 pp. )

October 28, 1990|Gary Blonston | Blonston, a Washington-based national correspondent for Knight-Ridder Newspapers, spent much of his career with the Detroit Free Press. and

Like so many urban white kids in the 1960s, Detroit teen-ager Ze'ev Chafets was captivated by the black people around him. He embraced their music, imitated the cool cadences of their lives, affected a walk and a talk and an insouciant worldliness that was as close as a Jewish teen-ager of Russian immigrant heritage could come to changing color.

It was kid stuff, but even after Chafets grew up, left Detroit and lived 20 years amid the more pressing concerns of his adopted Israel, the fascination lingered. Eventually, it lured him back again to become an explorer in his old hometown, part journalist, part anthropologist, part wide-eyed white man in a city that, during his absence, had turned overwhelmingly, uncompromisingly black.

Detroit had, in fact, become so racially troubled and criminally beset by the late 1980s that when Chafets told white suburban friends he was going to live there to gather material for a book, they were aghast. They told him he was risking his life and urged him at least to buy a gun.

That is how it is these days around Detroit, the Rust Belt's archetype of urban decline. It isn't the South Bronx, it isn't Beirut, but the symptoms of its blight, the crime and decay and disillusionment, have created a kind of antipathy between city and suburbs that is arguably unique in America.

As Chafets describes it in his book, "Devil's Night and Other True Tales of Detroit," the Motor Capital is the first big American city to demonstrate what can happen when, in just one generation, an industrial center loses its employment base, loses its middle class, shrinks in population by half, turns from majority white to majority black and watches most of its money, power and expertise move fearfully and angrily to the suburbs and beyond.

Chafets reports all that anecdotally in a book that is part personal adventure and part sociological travelogue. Wherever he goes--whether to inner-city neighborhoods he likens to Nairobi because so few whites venture in, or to places two counties away where the Ku Klux Klan still has a passably good reputation--Chafets is buffeted by differences of black versus white and class versus class. Mutual racial stereotyping and class consciousness seem to provide the city's essential energy, without which there would be no politics, no passion, no competition, no conversation. In "Devil's Night," whites and blacks rage about one another with a fierce, goading anger.

"People in the suburbs want us to fail," city Planning Director Ron Hewitt tells Chafets. "The situation here is very similar to post-colonial situations in the Third World. People always say, 'The Africans can't govern themselves,' and that's what they say about us, too."

As if to confirm Hewitt's view, Richard Sabaugh, a city councilman in the bordering city of Warren, says, "We view the values of Detroit as completely foreign. To us it's like a foreign country and culture. The language is different and the way people think there is different. We just want to live in peace. And we feel that anybody coming from Detroit is going to cause problems."

The book is full of such forthright quotes, but as Chafets declares at the outset, he is neither sociologist, political scientist nor any other kind of urban analyst, and when it comes to wrapping meaning around the words, the book falls short. As admirably as he documents the disturbing clash of hopes and humanity that typify Detroit, what Chafets sees and hears cries out for more context, explanation and insight.

Take the phenomenon of Devil's Night for which his book is named: that notorious night before Halloween when arsonists annually make national news by setting fire to hundreds of mostly vacant structures around Detroit. Superficially it seems an example of a city gone mad, so much so that Chafets opens his book with the outrageously lurid sentence, "It was in the fall of 1986 that I first saw the devil on the streets of Detroit." After a night watching buildings burn, Chafets asks a white Detroit newspaper reporter why it happens, and the response is, "Frustration, anger, boredom. I only work here. I stopped trying to figure out this city a long time ago."

That's about all we learn of Devil's Night, other than the fact that white suburban fire buffs find it sufficiently seductive that they dare come into the city on this particular night so they can watch. But Devil's Night represents much more than just inexplicable destruction, a good book title and a melodramatic lead sentence. Those neighborhoods didn't go bad all by themselves, and all those Detroiters didn't become pyromaniacs by spontaneous combustion.

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