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]

Background[edit]

The Detroit Wall shortly after construction in 1941

The 8-mile wall is the product of widespread housing discrimination in the city of Detroit.

As homeownership became increasingly synonymous with American citizenship, a series of government programs were implemented to make private housing accessible to more citizens. The New Deal, issued by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, created the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) in 1933, followed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in 1934. In short, these programs issued loans to Americans that could be given for a significantly lower down payment than what was previously required and that could be paid off over the course of 20 or 30 years – something that was unheard of at the time. These policies significantly improved homeownership accessibility for working-class Detroiters and promoted single-family units. 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.[1]

— Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis (1996)

However, these programs had extremely detrimental effects. The HOLC identified areas that were “safe” for banks to issue loans to by giving each neighborhood a rating: A, B, C, or D. A or “green” neighborhoods were homogeneously white and well-off; homeowners in these areas were practically guaranteed a loan. In turn, D or “red” neighborhoods were areas occupied by black residents who were now systematically locked out from receiving a loan. This became a phenomenon across the United States known as red-lining. In Detroit specifically, it preserved racial homogeneity and increased racial tensions. If a black family moved into a white neighborhood, the rating of the neighborhood changed, and everyone’s home value decreased. 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.[2]

With this in mind, it is important to note that public housing for black Detroiters denied of loans was not much of an option, as the idea of public housing grew to represent a threat to the private sector. 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.

The 8-mile/Wyoming neighborhood was one of many that was significantly affected by these issues. As residents could not receive a loan, oftentimes they would save for years to build a home themselves. The homes were small – only around the size of a garage – but the residents were proud of their homes they built up from nothing. Although it was a "red" neighborhood, it became a black community.

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." [2]

The eight mile wall today[edit]

The wall still stands in the eight mile area to this day. Current residents are certainly aware that the wall was meant to be racially divisive, but today, there are black families living on both sides. In 2006, a portion of the wall was converted into a mural by Detroit residents and community activists.[3]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Karoub, Jeff. "Wall that once divided races in Detroit remains, teaches." USA Today, May 1, 2013. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/05/01/detroit-race-wall/2127165/
  2. ^ Sugrue, Thomas, and Eric Foner. Origins of the Urban Crisis. New York: n.p., n.d. Print.
  3. ^ "In Detroit, A Colorful Mural Stands As A Reminder Of The City's 'Segregation Wall'". NPR.org. Retrieved 2018-11-16.

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