And Other True Tales of Detroit

By Ze'ev Chafets

Random House. 240 pp. $19.95

During World War II, Detroit was the Arsenal of Democracy, the bustling symbol of America's power to produce. In the 1950s, the city was still an economic giant, the source of practically anything that had to do with automobiles. In 1960, 1.6 million people lived there.

Then, on July 23, 1967, the world turned upside down. A police raid in the heart of the black ghetto blew up into the worst race riot in American history. Before it was over, 4,700 Airborne troops occupied Detroit, tanks were in the streets and smoke was in the air. Forty-three people died.

And more than a half-million other people hit the road.

Detroit's population today is around 970,000, mainly blacks left behind by the unparalleled white exodus after 1967. Money left town too and jobs and industry. Now what Detroit symbolizes to the rest of the country is mostly decay and disgrace, a place where crime, drugs, poverty and unemployment are epidemic.

When author Ze'ev Chafets came home to the Detroit area in 1986 after 20 years in Israel, he was stunned by the changes. He found a city sharply divided, electric with interracial suspicion and fear.

He remembered what Detroiters call "Devil's Night," the night before Halloween, as a time of harmless pranks. He rediscovered it as an occasion for teenage mayhem. Devil's Night seemed to stand for a growing internal rottenness that threatened the city's very survival. So Chafets began talking to people -- the religious and political elite (in Detroit, the distinction is often fuzzy), people of quieter influence, members of the urban proletariat. Out of his effort to understand what had happened comes "Devil's Night and Other True Tales of Detroit."

Unfortunately, the title is a bit misleading, conjuring up an assembly of horror stories. Too bad, for Chafets is dealing here with an enormous and intricate tragedy, and he makes a sensitive effort to present it fairly. For the foreseeable future, anyone who wants even to begin to fathom the social calamity that is recent Detroit history, and what that may portend for other cities, will have to come to this book.

There are awful questions to be dealt with: Is Detroit really such a hellhole? And if it is, how did it get that way? Is its nemesis an oppressive society, as is suggested more than once here, or a loss of pride and purpose?

Locally, at least, white flight usually gets the opening mouthful of blame. Since his first election in 1973, Mayor Coleman A. Young has fired the multitudes with tales of how the lily-white suburbs and their toadies, the media, have conspired against both him and the city. But some community leaders maintain with equal eloquence that if Detroit finally dies, its people will have only themselves to blame.

Many people speak in "Devil's Night," and many anecdotes are told, but the dominating figure throughout is Young, who by his own cunning and intelligence rose to Detroit's highest office. The suburbs disdain him as profane, bad-tempered and paranoid; the city knows him as its champion. His popularity has been little affected either by personal scandal or an inability to make much of a difference in the lives of ordinary citizens.

Coleman Young's failure to fix Detroit makes him an easy target for editorial writers, but for too long, Detroiters in general seem to have felt they could leave the fixing to him alone. Perhaps he can be excused for believing them; there are famous attractions to both power and messiah-ship. But as useful as Coleman Young has been as a charismatic symbol of black achievement and defiance, resolving Detroit's maelstrom of adversity is beyond the gumption of one man.

It would be simple to blame white desertion for Detroit's predicament; it would be as simple to blame the mayor's refusal to sue for peace with the affluent suburbs. But Chafets does neither; nor does he directly blame drugs, the departure of Motown, crime or Japanese automakers. Lots of blame is affixed in these pages, but none of it is by him, though at times his outrage is barely concealed. The voices heard most clearly are those of Detroiters themselves speaking of their dread and their dreams for their town.

Some of those voices have a visionary ring. A white inner-city priest, for example, describes the city as "the center of an American revolution," while a black newspaper columnist proposes that Detroit "is where more big cities will be in coming decades." Both are right on the money.

Which is to say, Detroit is the first large U.S. city -- but not the last -- to become a true black metropolis. A revolution, certainly. And what is at stake for that revolution is no less than its ability to survive. The odds are long and nasty by any graph. But Chafets found more than rancor, anomie and venomous bluster when he came home; he also found hope that Detroit can be made to work again.

Detroit is an unprecedented experiment in black political self-determination in this country, in the ability of a black polis to solve its problems and to replace a climate of anxiety and aimlessness with realistic pride and effective power. The most striking lesson of this provocative book is its implication that if Detroiters have the courage to overcome the anger and despair that create Devil's Nights and even worse things, their city could change the presently ominous course of urban history forever.

If they don't there'll be the Devil to pay, indeed. The reviewer lives in Northville, Mich. His first novel, "The Rattlesnake Master," was published this year.