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A PORTRAIT OF DECAY

11:00 PM, Feb 25, 1996 • By FRED SIEGEL
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There's little point in arguing with such a vision, except to point out that vast stretches of Detroit's recent history go unmentioned in Vergara's accounting. The turning point was the race riot of 1967, a "rebellion" of such frightening intensity that federal troops had to be called in to halt it. All that remained 20 years later was what the Detroit News would describe as "inscrutable megaliths in a wilderness of rubble so desolate that you can stand in the middle of Woodward Ave., the heart of the riot, at midday and not see a single auto for miles in any direction." Nor does Vergara ever mention the extraordinary annual auto-da-fof Devil's Night, the night before Halloween, when bands of young Detroit men fan out to try to burn down their own neighborhoods. In Detroit, the riot not only never ended - - it has been institutionalized. By 1987, twice as many buildings were being lost each year to arson as were burned in the riot.


Vergara has been touted as a latter-day Jacob Riis, whose 1890 How the Other Half Lives helped awaken American elites to the parlous condition of the urban poor. But he has none of Riis's important concern for acculturating and Americanizing those racked by poverty. His true predecessor was the French Romantic the Vicomte de Chateaubriand, a famous critic of progress emotionally overwhelmed by the ruins of medieval churches.


"Man himself," said Chateaubriand, "is but a decayed edifice, a wreck of sin and death." The ruins of Detroit are our own monument to the pieties of a faith gone awry.



Fred Siegel is a professor at Cooper Union and is writing a book on American cities.