Oct 14. 2011

The Detroit 8 mile wall

by Hélène

For Europeans, Detroit is a lot like Berlin because of the amount of space that you find here, the fact that many artists are living in/coming to the city, and all its architectural jewels. Recently, we found out that like Berlin, Detroit also has its (painted) wall of shame. Close to the 8 Mileroad virtual boundary, this wall is today hidden in several backyards. Imagined by a developer in the early 40s, this concrete wall was built to segregate the Blacks from the Whites in the neighborhood. In 1968, the Civil Rights movement put into place the “Fair Housing Act,” a new law against housing discrimination. Yet getting away from decades of residential xenophobia took more than a mere legal “Act…”. Today both sides of the wall are “black” as a result of the “white” flights.

Nature and human creativity have taken over, at the intersection of Mendota and Birwood streets, by the Alfonso Wells Memorial Playground. Between weeds and ivy, you can now see a long colorful mural that portrays Detroit’s Black history. From his backyard, Jack’s calling his two pitbulls that are running towards us. “You wanna see the wall? Come over here, I’m gonna show you the best part.” His dogs don’t put us at ease but we follow them to Jack’s garden – where a piece of the wall borders a perfectly mowed lawn. Jack is warning us: “it’s not safe here, be careful ladies.” This 40-something doesn’t want us to take a picture of him; he also has a gun in his pocket, just in case… Jack’s in a rush but he takes time to explain what’s painted on his wall: a nightmarish scene on which the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is chasing a mother and her three children. Jack doesn’t know who’s painted the mural.

“Judge him not until you walk the block in his flip flops.”

Some parts of the wall makes one smile and cheer the African American emancipation, despite the racist origin the standing artifact.  Detroit is one of the most segregated cities in the US. Back in the 20s and 30s, thousands of African Americans left the Southern states (Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana among other states) and harsh agriculture jobs for Detroit’s automobile plants. Better salaries (Ford’s “revolutionary” $5/day) and the American dream drove migrants North. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and so many more have passed by Detroit; but the segregation level is still shocking in Motor City today. In Michigan and in the US as a whole, whites and “minorities” seldom live in the same neighborhoods. At the time of Detroit’s new gentrification, a growing “white hipster” crowd is coming to the city. Though the present situation has nothing to do with the past one, there’s some déjà vu in the air, as those “cool kids” (usually from the suburbs) move in up-and-coming areas between Downtown and Wayne State University, and are thus displacing the current Black residents.

In Berlin, the wall was broken by a revolution. In Detroit, the 8 Mile wall might still need one. Today is an opportunity to create a diverse and mixed society in the D. Detroit’s new movement, derived from Occupy Wall Street, is trying to answer this essential question. Occupy Detroit started last week. But a bunch of local Detroit activists don’t want the movement to be called “Occupy”. They think the city doesn’t need any more occupation. “Unify Detroit and Michigan” is claiming more neighborhood outreach, food justice, less racism and much more. These guys are trying to convince the current Occupy Detroit movement downtown to adjust to the city reality. Here is an extract of their manifesto.

In Detroit, “revolution” means “putting the neighbor back in the hood” through direct actions that restore community. It means maintaining public welfare programs for residents who are without income which protect said low income families from facing utility shut offs and homelessness. [...] It means artists who facilitate processes of community visioning and transformation, and organizers who approach social change as a work of art. In Detroit, the meaning of “revolution” continues to evolve and grow (…).

Today, Detroiters are setting the example for a community-geared city.

To see more Detroit je t’aime pictures of the 8 Mile wall, click here.


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