Detroit Wall

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The Detroit Wall as seen from Alfonso Wells Playground in August 2011

The Detroit Eight Mile Wall, also referred to as Detroit's Wailing Wall, Berlin Wall or The Birwood Wall; is a 1 foot (0.30 m) thick, 6 feet (1.8 m) high wall that stretches about 0.5 miles (0.80 km) in length. At the time of its construction in 1941, it was intended to serve as a wall of racial separation as a physical barrier between white and black homeowners in northwest Detroit. The neighborhoods on both sides of the wall have been predominantly black since the early 1970s.

The wall originates across the street from the northern boundary of Van Antwerp Park, on Pembroke Avenue between Birwood and Mendota Streets. It extends north until just south of 8 Mile Road. An exposed stretch of the wall with no homes to the east runs through Alfonso Wells Memorial Playground, between Chippewa Avenue and Norfolk Street. Community activists and Detroit residents collaborated in 2006 to paint on this portion of the wall a mural depicting, for example, neighborhood children blowing bubbles, a group of a cappella singers, Rosa Parks's boarding the bus from which she would help catalyze the Civil Rights Movement, and citizens protesting for equitable housing policy.[1]


In the 1930s, in order to stabilize the housing market, the Home Owners Loan Corporation was created. The Corporation's mission was to create areas that were safe for banks to offer loans to homeowners and create areas that were unsafe. Areas were considered unsafe or ‘red’ because they had African Americans living in them and had low household incomes. These areas were given red ratings and had zero investment put into them for 30 years. The 1930s and 1940s were times of great growth for the city of Detroit and the inner-suburbs. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), founded in 1934, pushed the idea of home ownership as an accessible goal for the average working class. Private home ownership soon became a building block for the "American Dream". Thomas J. Sugrue outlines Detroit's unique housing crisis and how the FHA's policies helped shape the face of the city: "New Deal rhetoric touched a deep nerve among Detroiters who had struggled, usually without the benefit of loans or mortgages, to build their own homes in the city. It reinforced the deeply rooted values of home ownership and family stability held by striving immigrants in the early twentieth century, and appealed to the seldom-met aspirations for landownership and independence held by blacks since emancipation. With government backed loans, they were able to attain the dream of property ownership with relative ease."[2] This push for private instead of public housing strengthened the outmigration from the city to the suburbs, sparking what was later coined as white flight.

The Detroit Wall shortly after construction in 1941

Housing became a racially charged issue, as the idea of public housing grew to represent a threat to private housing. Affordable living for the lower class, usually minorities, meant interference with a successful, free market real estate. Community groups determined to keep their neighborhoods segregated lobbied against public housing projects, while contractors found construction business in private housing. In addition to the racial tensions already present, the FHA's policies of mandated racial homogeneity in housing developments and redlining made it difficult for African Americans to become home owners. Mortgage loans and other assistance was typically denied to African American neighborhoods and was unfavorably granted to the settlements of close proximity. Between 1930 and 1950, three out of five homes purchased in the United States were financed by FHA, yet less than two percent of the FHA loans were made to non-white home buyers.[3]

In Detroit one of the areas that was affected the most was the eight mile area, these residents tried to build homes without loans attempting to fulfill the "American Dream." The homes were small, only the size of a garage. But the residents were proud of their homes they built up from nothing.

Eight mile community and construction[edit]

Because of redlining the eight-mile area was extremely poor and was considered a "blighted area," after World War II, the United States Housing Authority saw the area as a new spot to construct public housing and a spot they could redevelop. But whites in the surrounding neighborhoods did not want African Americans moving in and lowering their property values. In order to keep property values high the wall was created to keep the neighborhoods racially separated. Contractors and Realtors were able to attract whites to this area because the wall would "protect them." [4]


  1. ^ Karoub, Jeff. "Wall that once divided races in Detroit remains, teaches." USA Today, May 1, 2013.
  2. ^ Sugrue, Thomas J. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1996. Print
  3. ^ J. Land Use & EnvtlL. 92 (1998-1999)Perpetuation of Residential Racial Segregation in America: Historical Discrimination, Modern Forms of Exclusion, and Inclusionary Remedies, The; Seitles, Marc
  4. ^ Sugrue, Thomas, and Eric Foner. Origins of the Urban Crisis. New York: n.p., n.d. Print.

Coordinates: 42°26′24″N 83°09′58″W / 42.43999°N 83.166204°W / 42.43999; -83.166204