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24 July 2013

Smoldering Core of a Slighted City: 'Devil's Night And Other True Tales Of Detroit' By Ze'ev Chafets

By Gary Blonston, 28 October 1990

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.

Devil's Night's roots reach back to the 1970s, when crooked real-estate people and crooked federal bureaucrats brought on one of the great housing scandals of the country, leaving thousands of inner-city Detroit homes in default and abandonment. The city fell years behind in demolishing dangerous structures, and cynics took to calling the growing number of arsons "urban renewal, Detroit-style."

More houses disappeared each year, and at the same time so did jobs, and so did people. Pheasants and other wildlife returned to share bulldozed, pastoral space with drug dealers in neighborhoods that, for half a century, had been densely urbanized. For those left behind, physical and psychological decline lay all around. It isn't quite accurate, later, when incredulous spectators marvel to Chafets, "They're burning down their own neighborhoods." To the dispossessed of Detroit, those connections had withered long before.

In 1984, the first Devil's Night eruption occurred, and in a city with such a tradition of anti-authoritarian defiance, local officials virtually assured that it would become an ongoing tradition by vowing to stop it.

The fires almost certainly will burn this Devil's Night once more, illuminating some of Detroit's most fundamental problems. But we don't get much discussions below the surface of "Devil's Night." And without more examination of the reasons behind the extremes of life in Detroit, big sections of Chafets' book serve only to reflect the region's baffled alienation.

Chafets does learn one important fact of Detroit-area life. In that swirl of hostility (and to the surprise of his suburban friends), he lives, works and socializes without being mugged, shot, stabbed, burglarized, lured into hard-drug addiction or even insulted very harshly. Part of the reason, he discovers, is that most of the region's whites and blacks live such effectively separate lives that in-your-face racial hostility is rare. Still, he writes, "Each side has an orthodox, almost ritual explanation for what has happened to the city they once shared and no longer do, and not surprisingly, each side blames the other."

Detroit's powerhouse of a mayor, Coleman Young, both gives and gets as much of that blame as anyone in town, but there is plenty to go around, the product of years of unrealized dreams and sometimes malevolent neglect. Activist priest William Cunningham, one of the most articulate and angry of Detroit's liberal white voices, tells Chafets: "If the enrollment of the Detroit schools was all white, industry and the state government would come down here and put the Board of Education in jail for fraud and failure. Corporations would be screaming. But in America there is a marvelous neglect of what is black."

Others in the book speak with hope, though. They predict a new kind of urban experience in a place sufficiently black not to be obstructed by white indifference or hostility as it pursues successful, separate self-government and economic recovery. That notion intrigues Chafets, and near the book's end, it seems to rise powerfully, as he revisits a childhood friend who has survived crime, drugs and failure to live a normal life.

The implicit parallel between friend and city is unavoidable, but it rings false. Detroit is a city struggling these days to find any clear avenue to the future, socially or economically. Optimism, implicit or otherwise, seems a bit out of place from someone who once found the devil in this place.

Don't miss:

 The Destruction of Detroit (Photo Essay)

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