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By Ze'ev Chafets
Random House
240 pages, $19.95

ON "THE Simpsons" the other night, Bart crossed some railroads tracks and found himself on the proverbial "other side of the tracks," strip joints, winos and all. The scene was a hoot, because it lampooned the us-and-them attitude so characteristic of American class and race relations.

The truth, of course, is that the distance between us and them is a continuum, not a wall. And for those who care about the fate of our cities, the sad case of Detroit can't be written off as unique.

Author Ze'ev Chafets is an Israeli journalist who grew up in Detroit. "Devil's Night" is Chafets' account of a year spent in his old hometown. As might be expected, the picture is bleak; but with touches of incongruous humor and even a few success stories, the book leaves open the possibility that even now, Detroit might save itself.

It will be a formidable challenge. The United States' sixth-largest city is battling an addiction to drugs and to violence. Since the 1967 riots that killed 43 people, white flight has segregated Detroit and its suburbs more severely than any other city; "Detroiters" and "suburbanites" have become antagonistic synonyms for "blacks" and "whites." The murder rate, though lower this year, remains shocking. Vast stretches of the city are deserted. From the outside, Detroit seems one step away from anarchy.

And yet Chafets, bringing to bear his perspective as a citizen of embattled Israel, points out that Detroit is now a place where blacks govern blacks -- as he puts it, "America's first postcolonial city." He expands on the comparison: "Israel, like Detroit, is a place where people with a history of persecution and dependence finally gave up on the dream of assimilation, and chose to try, for the first time, to rule themselves. Both are rough, somewhat crude places . . . and both have learned hard lessons about the limitations of going it alone."

In this context, Detroit's social problems can be seen as mere growing pains. But where other republics have built on vision and sacrifice, Detroit seems to run on bitterness. How else to explain Oct. 30, Devil's Night, when it has become a tradition for the people of Detroit to try to burn down their city?

Chafets explores all this with the help of various reporters, shopkeepers, activists, clergymen and city officials, including the redoubtable Mayor Coleman Young himself. The writing is lucid and graceful; the reporting seems solid. My only quibble, and it's a minor one, is that we meet few man-on-the-street Detroit people, only the authorities who purport to speak for them.

Overall, though, "Devil's Night" draws a convincing and disturbing portrait of an industrial city in transition. For the rest of us in the Rust Belt, Detroit can be seen as a lesson -- or a warning.

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