The Fire This Time

On a sweltering evening in July 1967 I sat at the window of a Canadian steakhouse and watched my country burn. Only hours before I had arrived in Detroit to write for The New York Times Magazine about the most destructive "civil disorder" in American history (43 killed, 386 injured, 477 buildings destroyed or damaged). At my hotel, I found Gene Roberts, who was covering the story for the daily New York Times and, with a couple of Detroit reporters, we set out for dinner. But on that, the second day of rioting, there was scarcely a restaurant open downtown. So, crossing the Detroit River to Windsor, Canada, we took refuge in a venerable tavern at water's edge.

From our table, we gazed across the oily river to the towers of Detroit's business district, out along the city's grand boulevard, Woodward Avenue, toward the relentlessly white suburbs of Bloomfield Hills and Grosse Point. Over the city hung murky billows of soot from conflagrations now guttering in tenements across the city's black belt. And, here and there, pillars of flame rose from the gloom, scattering showers of glowing embers against the darkling sky. As the fires subsided that week, and I began to move around the city, talking with survivors of the apocalypse, a question began to take shape: why Detroit? In those years, the Motor City scarcely seemed a prime candidate for such a paroxysm of rage. Its mayor, Jerome P. Cavanagh, whom Newsweek had called "urban America's most articulate spokesman,

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