Detroiter takes sorrowful look at his city

January 06, 1991|By S. M. KHALID

Devil's Night

and Other True Tales of Detroit.

Ze'ev Chafets.

Random House.

240 pages. $19.95. Whatever became of Detroit, the once vibrant metropolis, which gave birth to Joe Louis, the automotive industry and the rhythm-and-blues sound of Motown? What happened to the "city of the future"?

Many of the answers are contained in Ze'ev Chafets' readable and moving "Devil's Night." It effectively chronicles the urban decay of present-day Detroit, which still struggles to rise from the ashes of the nation's worst race riot of 1967.

The title of the book seizes upon the annual ritualistic torching that occurs in several sections of my devastated hometown before each Halloween, drawing nationwide attention to the symptoms of urban decay that afflict all major American cities -- although arguably none as deeply as Detroit.

Mr. Chafets' book, however, is not only about what Detroit has become or will be. It also recalls the greatness of Detroit during its heyday in the early 1960s. It mentions the city's civic pride, imagination, and cultural and racial diversity, as well as the underbelly of racial tension and violence that led to its present demise.

Mr. Chafets is no voyeur. His grandfather immigrated to Detroit from Russia, after a brief stopover in Windsor, Ontario, across the Detroit River. His family ran a grocery store in a black neighborhood. Unlike his parents, he became immersed in the culture of the city, its people and its music at about the same time his grandfather was beaten to death in his store by two black robbers.

While his experiences didn't transform him racially, they did give him an appreciation for the many influences that shaped his immediate environment. Thus, it was plain to see that he was used to bridging the cultural, emotional and racial gap that separated Detroit after 1967, when the white abandonment of the city to the suburbs began in earnest.

Mr. Chafets returned to Detroit two decades later, with his eye, ear and mind honed by 20 years of living in his adopted home of Israel as a journalist. His experiences obviously served him well, as "Devil's Night" comes across as a sensitive, informative and insightful work.

His brilliantly understated writing takes us from middle-class prosperity born of the 1960s that made Detroit a boom town, all the way to the virtual collapse of a city facing the plague of crime and crack.

The author takes the reader on a literary odyssey through the physical and human landscape of the nation's sixth largest city -- through the decaying and neglected urban prairies of the present-day, mostly black city to the insular, well-to-do vanilla suburbs surrounding it.

"Most of all the city and suburbs are separated by a cultural and emotional gap as wide as any that divides hostile nations," Mr. Chafets writes. "The suburbs purr with the contented sounds of post-Reagan America while the city teeters on the brink of separatism and seethes with the resentments of postcolonial Africa."

As the author points out, black and white have not stopped talking at each other, but they have stopped listening to each other. Mr. Chafets' work helps reconstruct a dialogue between the principals.

The author introduces the reader to a wide variety of people: Chaldean store merchants surviving in the besieged inner city; battle-weary police fighting a losing war against drugs; single mothers trying to save their children from violent early deaths; and the politicians and their supporters in Detroit's mayoral campaign.

Mr. Chafets covers a wide range of emotions, including love, hate, jealousy, resentment, contentment, anger, irony, despair and optimism. He not only scratches the surface of the collective racial paranoia hovering over the city and the suburbs, he also gives the reader a glimpse at the spirit that makes Detroiters so resilient.

The reader tags along with Mr. Chafets inside the barbershop of Melvindale Mayor Tom Coogan, where white customers freely vent their fears, misconceptions and hatred of Detroit and its controversial black mayor,Coleman Young.

Then he jumps across the scarred political and racial landscape to the campaign trail with Mayor Young for a speech to close supporters at the black City Residence Club, then a visit to the mayor's official residence at the Manoogian Mansion.

Mr. Chafets always returns to the "them-against-us" theme that typifies relationship between the black Motor City and its lily-white suburbs, the unresolved political turf battle between Mayor Young and his rivals beyond Eight Mile Road, which separates the city from the northern suburbs.

Beyond portraying the political tong wars, Mr. Chafets shows the soft heart of Detroit that pushes on despite adversity.

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