By Jeff Karoub / Associated Press
Detroit — When Eva Nelson-McClendon first moved to Detroit’s Birwood Street in 1959, she didn’t know much about the wall across the street. At 6 feet tall and a foot thick, it wasn’t 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 city’s northwest side. “Blacks lived on this side, whites was living on the other side. … That was the way it was.”
That’s 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.
To those in the know, it goes by different names. For some, it’s simply “The Wall.” Others call it “Detroit’s Wailing Wall.” Many like “Birwood Wall,” because it refers to the street and sounds like the “Berlin Wall.”
It’s still a half-mile long, interrupted only by two streets, much as a developer envisioned it in the early 1940s. It couldn’t 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 wall’s midpoint, much of it is easy to miss. In fact, it’s impossible to follow it completely as the wall disappears behind homes and in spots is overgrown by vegetation. Where it’s exposed, it’s 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 didn’t 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 two million people but fell to about 700,000 in the 2010 Census.
The story of the wall has been largely lost in larger narratives, such as the 1943 and 1967 race riots and Eight Mile Road. The wall ends, almost invisible, just shy of the thoroughfare that serves as the boundary between Detroit and its suburbs and symbolically represents the divide between black and white.
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 Detroit’s majority black population as Michigan’s 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.
“It’s 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-McClendon’s 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.
It’s 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.”
“Bubbles are a form of creation. Children’s imaginations create the future,” says Chazz Miller, the artist who designed the mural and teamed up with the Motor City Blight Busters in 2006 on the community project. “Also, bubbles capture images and distort them and give you a new perspective.”
Creating a new perspective was part of Miller’s goal with the mural, but he knew the wall had to delve into the past for those who didn’t 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 women’s 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 that’s now behind a fence on private property. “And in the very tiny corner there’s a Ku Klux Klansman that’s 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 city’s 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 University’s 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.”
In an old warehouse a few miles to the southeast, several men are busy working at Green Industries. Among them is Jason Garland, who says he does “mostly everything” related to making the coaster sets. On this particular day, he’s trying his hand at some of the final touches: spreading glue on the square pieces of paper containing images from the mural and affixing them to a small block of glass donated by a local windshield manufacturer.
Garland, 26, had been out of work for a year before coming to work for Green Industries in January. He says he had “gotten lazy at one point,” but in his new job he often comes in early and on days off. The former automotive worker says he and his co-workers look out for each other, and he never wants to leave.
Garland is also learning history. He used to live near the wall but had no idea about why it was built or the meaning of the mural. “I used to always say, ‘What is that?’” he says.
Cass launched Green Industries in 2007, after some clients couldn’t get jobs anymore because of the worsening economy and lack of reliable mass transportation. The nonprofit started with welcome mats made from illegally dumped tires, then added a paper-shredding operation employing people with developmental disabilities.
The coaster idea grew out of collaboration between Cass and the University of Michigan. A class for business, art, design and engineering students called “Integrated Product Development” was challenged to come up with a new product for Cass that could be launched quickly and cheaply, and made with materials that would otherwise go to waste.
After months of near-miss attempts, class professor William Lovejoy devised the idea of the Detroit-branded coasters and fashioned prototypes. He presented the idea to Fowler, who says the men have made about 200 four-coaster sets and sold about 100 so far. Anytime she takes a boxful to a speaking engagement or event, she usually sells out — and gets people talking about the wall and, sometimes, their experiences with it. For most, it’s a revelation.
“It gives them permission to have that kind of discussion — both black and white, young and old,” Fowler says.
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 won’t happen, he says, without a continued push by those who remain in the neighborhood and others like it across the shrinking, struggling city.
“It’s really up to us to not cry on what’s gone,” Miller says. “Let’s focus on what we have. … We need to get people out to these kinds of projects so they can have conversations and get to know each other and find out who their neighbors are.”
A metaphor from his mural is within arm’s reach: A depiction of the city’s famous Spirit of Detroit statue is on a cut-out board that extended above the wall but since has fallen off and is propped against the wall. The original Spirit of Detroit is lifting up a family; Miller’s Spirit emerges from flames and rubble and holds up a migrant family to symbolize the migration of workers from the South to Detroit to fill its burgeoning factories.
“What is the Spirit of Detroit, and what does it motivate us to do? It motivates us to work hard and to persevere, and to keep going,” he says.
When it comes to the wall, Eva Nelson-McClendon knows about perseverance. For her, it was and remains the only option.
“Did it make me angry to see that wall up there? It was something you grow accustomed to seeing, you know, although you don’t like it. Getting angry over it is not going to solve anything,” McClendon says. “What was important to me was bringing up my kids and getting them to get an education so they wouldn’t have to be bothered with things like that in the future.”
She thinks about progress, and acknowledges some. But she knows there are still neighborhoods, mostly in the suburbs now, where African-Americans can move but they aren’t welcomed with open arms.
But on this day, she takes solace that people didn’t stay in place. Even if the wall did.
“It all depends on the people, the individual, the heart,” she says. “You’re not going to stop progress, don’t care how hard you try.”