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Detroiters came together to solve the Devil's Night fires. Now how about rebuilding the city?

Jack Lessenberry

Detroit has barely half the number of people it did 30 years ago, and only about a third of its population 60 years ago.

The city is now waiting, as we all are, to see how federal Judge Steven Rhodes will rule on the city’s plan to get out of bankruptcy. Nobody has any illusions the future will be easy.

But here’s something to think about: there was no mass arson in the city last night. Devil’s Night seems truly a thing of the past.

Even that term is politically incorrect. They call it Angels’ Night now.

But though you can try to run from history, you can’t erase it.

Twenty-four years ago, Pontiac native Ze’ev Chafets, who long ago moved to Israel, returned to the Motor City and wrote a sensational best-seller: Devil’s Night and Other True Tales of Detroit.

The book opens with a friend saying:

“Spend the evening before Halloween with me and I’ll show you something you’ve never seen before. People try to burn down their own neighborhoods. They call it Devil’s Night.”

Detroiters may not actually have tried to burn down their own neighborhoods, but burn they did.

Thirty years ago, there were 800 fires in the three-day Halloween period. Embarrassed and outraged city officials cracked down.

Twenty years ago, thinking this was a thing of the past, new mayor Dennis Archer felt he didn’t have to worry about Devil’s Night.

He was dead wrong, and Detroit was ravaged by more than 200 fires. The city then decided to rename it Angels night, and make it a huge cooperative effort between police, fire department, and the community.

... this seems to be one problem that Detroiters have had the will to come together and solve. Rebuilding and reinventing the city may be much harder, but everyone is about to try.

This has seemed to work. They now don’t release fire statistics until the time period is over.

But indications are that while there may have been a few deliberately set blazes, there weren’t many more than on a normal weekend. This three-day period may see fewer than a hundred fires.

That’s especially gratifying, since there are far fewer people and cops and firefighters than when Devil’s Night was a national disgrace. There are far more vacant buildings, too, and no shortage of youngsters with little hope and less to do.

But this seems to be one problem that Detroiters have had the will to come together and solve.

Rebuilding and reinventing the city may be much harder, but everyone is about to try.

Chafets’ book Devil’s Night caused enormous controversy when it came out, and though it is now clearly dated, debate still rages as to whether it was racist. Certainly it depicts some of the worst excesses of life in majority black Detroit then.

Not that most whites in the book look so good either.

Essentially, I found his attitude patronizing, and designed to leave us with the impression that black society is largely an alien and unknowable world functioning under its own anarchistic rules.

The world is different now. Detroit is a black city with a white mayor in a nation with a black President.

And today, Detroiters are hoping that something they say in their churches comes true for their city:

“Lord, I ain’t what I should be, I ain’t what I’m going to be. But thank God, I ain’t what I was.”

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.