8 Mile Wall, Detroit, MI
In 2015, I traveled to Detroit, MI to learn about and engage with art and history created by or about Detroit residents and life in this iconic American city. One of the most arresting sights I laid eyes on during my visit was the 8 Mile Wall on the North Side of Detroit.
The wall was proposed in 1941 by a real estate development company that was hoping to build and sell homes in a new development in the Wyoming and 8 Mile areas of Detroit. As in many Northern American cities that employed thousands of black workers and "welcomed" migrating black families from the Jim Crow South, the practice of redlining was prevalent in Detroit: the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) refused to grant housing mortgages to anyone seeking housing near or in neighborhoods that had become predominantly populated by black Americans (as well as by Jewish people), and literally drew red lines around maps of these neighborhoods. At this time in Detroit's history, Wyoming had already been considered a "redlined" black neighborhood for close to a decade when a housing shortage in Detroit inspired these developers to come up with the supposedly-ingenious idea of a "wall" to separate the already-established "black" part of the neighborhood from the newly proposed housing development they sought to build, which was intended for whites. The wall, which is made of concrete and is 6' tall and 1' thick, was not literally designed or intended to block travel from the black part of the neighborhood into the newly proposed area, but its visual and narrative symbolism of creating a demarcation line between the black and white parts of the neighborhood satisfied the criteria of the FHA, and they granted funding to the developers to construct their new housing. The 8 Mile Wall served as an official, racial housing boundary until 1968, when the Fair Housing Act legally abolished racist housing policies. As many residents of U.S. cities can attest, the effects of those policies have long lingered into current times.
My travel buddy and fellow photographer, Nina Rich, and I drove out to Wyoming, and parked near the Alfonso Wells Playground on a fragrant, sunny day in June. The neighborhood, like many parts of Detroit, was an unignorable patchwork of abandoned, burned, or destroyed houses, peppered with single houses, or clusters of houses, lived in and tidily maintained by its residents. We walked the length of the half-mile wall, which runs from 8 Mile Road to Pembroke Avenue. It was quiet by the wall, and birds chirped innocently as we took in the vibrant murals painted by local artists. Scenes of Detroit history, and important moments in the 1960's Civil Rights movement, cover the entire length of the wall. After having already been in Detroit for a few days, seeing the wall brutally tied together what we had taken in about how the auto industry had provided a direct path to the middle class for many African Americans, and the hope that the American dream could be achieved by those seeking out a new life in Detroit, but how federal and state racist policies and social attitudes sought to quarantine and prevent black Americans from achieving the same level of comfort and success as others living in Detroit during the auto boom.
I couldn't help but think about the Berlin Wall, as the 8 Mile Wall is often referred to in discussions and in public writing about Detroit. I lived in Germany briefly in 1987, and visited both the Western side of the Wall, where countless words and drawings of freedom against oppression were expressed, and I stayed for 3 days inside of East Berlin on a student visa. The differences between what life was like outside and inside of that Wall seemed like an apt comparison to Detroit's wall, as many city blocks inside of East Berlin were still burned out and in rubble from World War II, food quality, and the availability of healthy fresh food was minimal, and many of East Berlin's residents seemed to exude a sort of subdued, grim vibe, which was unsurprising given that they were trapped behind a wall with barbed wire and armed guards ordered to shoot anyone who crossed the demarcation zone.
In my adult life, I have lived for over 25 years in the urban, black-majority neighborhoods of the South End and Roxbury in Boston, and Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, and have done my best to observe, listen to, and engage with the perspectives of my black neighbors, friends, loved ones, and chosen "family." As a person with white skin, I will never know what it feels like to have this incredible, additional burden that de facto can curtail social trust, career and educational opportunity, physical and domestic safety, health, and the ability to continue breathing. I know I do not have to police MYSELF in the way that black Americans do, just to protect themselves, as they seek to enjoy the same life privileges that those of us with lighter skin have.
I stand with my neighbors, friends, loved ones and all black Americans in this moment of reckoning in U.S. culture, and I hope that more people will take the time to purposely seek out and engage with the history and creative expression of black Americans in this country. The 8 Mile Wall in Detroit, Michigan is both a prime and sobering example of everyday oppression and institutional racism, as well as an uplifting depiction of hope, community, and pride offered up by the artists who painted these murals.
Articles cited and to read more: