DETROIT – When Eva Nelson-McClendon first moved to Detroits Birwood Street in 1959, she didnt know much about the wall across the street. At 6 feet tall and 1 foot thick, it wasnt so imposing, running as it did between houses on her street and one over. Then she started to hear the talk.
Neighbors told her the wall was built two decades earlier with a simple aim: to separate homes planned for middle-class whites from blacks who had already built small houses or owned land with plans to build.
That was the division line, Nelson-McClendon, now 79, says from the kitchen of her tidy, one-story home on the citys northwest side. Blacks lived on this side, whites was living on the other side. That was the way it was.
Thats not the way it is anymore. But the wall remains, a physical embodiment of racial attitudes that the country long ago started trying to move beyond.
And slowly, in subtle ways, it is evolving into something else in its community, something unexpected: an inspiration.
‘Only 8 Mile’
To those in the know, it goes by different names. For some, its simply The Wall. Others call it Detroits Wailing Wall. Many like Birwood Wall, because it refers to the street and sounds like the Berlin Wall.
Its still a half-mile long, interrupted only by two streets, much as a developer envisioned it in the early 1940s. It couldnt separate people on its own – people and policies would see to that – but it was enough to satisfy the Federal Housing Administration to approve and back loans.
Aside from the mural that appears at the walls midpoint, much of it is easy to miss. In fact, its impossible to follow it completely as the wall disappears behind homes and in spots is overgrown by vegetation. Where its exposed, its whitewashed or a drab earth tone – and sometimes marred by gang graffiti. On one corner it says, Only 8 Mile, referring to the divisive road just yards to the north.
The wall never fell, but it didnt really have to. The area became primarily African-American in the decades to come, as most whites and even many blacks left. The pattern was replicated across much of the 139-square-mile city that was built for 2 million people but fell to about 700,000 in the 2010 census.
Race remains a flashpoint in a city beset by an interrelated stew of crime, corruption and high unemployment. And some accuse the state of further disenfranchising Detroits majority black population as Michigans governor recently declared a financial emergency in the city and the state took financial control.
Still, the wall is not forgotten. An artist descended on it several years ago with an army of about 100 fellow artists and community volunteers to create a vast, eye-popping mural with images and messages of equality and justice on a section overlooking a playground.
And now, a faith-based nonprofit is giving work to men who have struggled to keep a job or a home, having them make sets of coasters that incorporate images from the wall and use materials from abandoned homes that were razed in the city. Every sale of a $20 set of coasters helps to make something good out of something bad.
Its recycling, giving jobs to people who are having a tough time with unemployment and, at the same time, creating a very nice piece of art that could and should lead to some great discussions about race in the city of Detroit and in our country, says Faith Fowler, director of Cass Community Social Services and its Green Industries program.
Tightly clustered one-story homes dominate the neighborhood around the wall, which still has well-kept houses like Nelson-McClendons but also suffers from a rising number of vacant, gutted structures. More tear-downs in the making. And, perhaps, more wood for the coasters.
The homes on Birwood end at Alfonso Wells Memorial Playground, where the eye is immediately drawn to the massive mural.
Its impossible to take it all in at once, but certain images pop out in a slow pan: Rosa Parks boarding the bus that would make her a household name in the civil rights struggle, followed by a man carrying a sign that says, Fair Housing. Houses and more houses of all colors. A group of men singing a capella under a streetlight. Children blowing bubbles that pop up throughout the wall and contain various things, including an auto plant and words like peace and flowers.
Creating a new perspective was part of Millers goal with the mural, but he knew the wall had to delve into the past for those who didnt know history. He took them back to the early migration of blacks in Detroit, including to the Sojourner Truth Housing Project, which had been nearby and was named after the 19th-century abolitionist and womens suffragist. When the project opened, blacks moving in were harassed and assaulted, and many view the event as a catalyst for deadly riots the following year.
Sojourner Truth is coming out of the underground railroad at the very beginning of the wall, Miller says, pointing to the picture thats now behind a fence on private property. And in the very tiny corner theres a Ku Klux Klansman thats pissed because she got away, and he has a burning cross.
Of course, she has a light – and the light symbolizes leading the way, Miller says.
Not that the path forward would be bright and easy. Competition for housing and jobs between white and blacks was widespread in the citys boom years. Many blacks had moved into the area in the 1920s and 1930s because there was so much vacant land – a far cry from the overcrowded, unpleasant conditions in the two black enclaves near the city center.
But a lot of white housing developments started spreading north as well and pushing up against this black enclave on the far edge of the city, says Jeff Horner, a lecturer in Wayne State Universitys Department of Urban Studies and Planning.
By 1940, the gap had closed. A developer of a proposed all-white subdivision managed to hammer out a compromise with federal housing officials: The loans and mortgage guarantees would come in exchange for constructing a wall. This is the closest thing Detroit has to the segregated fountains or to the white-only swimming pools of the Deep South, Horner says.
Nobody had to tell Nelson-McClendon, who moved to Michigan from Alabama in 1951. It was the same thing, she says. Separation.
For muralist Miller, who sees the vacant and trashed homes behind the concrete canvas he painted, the promise of a new Detroit is still possible. But it wont happen, he says, without a continued push by those who remain in the neighborhood and others like it across the shrinking, struggling city.
Its really up to us to not cry on whats gone, Miller says. Lets focus on what we have. ... We need to get people out (to) do these kinds of projects so they can have conversations and get to know each other and find out who their neighbors are.