Starting at the northern boundary of Antwerp Park on Pembroke Avenue is a 6-foot high wall, known by many names. The Detroit Eight Mile Wall, Detroit’s Wailing Wall, The Birwood Wall, or the Wyoming Wall. The wall extends about half a mile north and stops just south of 8 Mile Road.
The wall served one purpose: To separate an already existent black neighborhood from a new all-white neighborhood.
But why? Money. And racially-charged federal housing policies.
You see, in the 1930s, that area of Detroit was rather remote. The city hadn’t yet extended sewer lines there, but black families were eager to get away from the Hasting Street neighborhoods. They saw this area as their chance to escape. So they moved to this little bit of land near Birwood and build their own small houses.
No one really took notice of the little community until the early 1940s. A white developer wanted to build a neighborhood for white people just west of the little black neighborhood. To do so, he would need the FHA, Federal Housing Administration (a new federal entity created by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration designed to help homeowners secure mortgages) to agree to it.
Unfortunately for him, the FHA refused to back mortgages in the new neighborhood because it was so close to the black neighborhood. The FHA held the view that the presence of minorities in a neighborhood would increase homeowners’ risk of default. The neighborhoods that the FHA deemed risky, they colored red on a map.
This action gave rise to the term “red-lining” and made it extremely difficult (and in some cases impossible) for black people to become homeowners.
The FHA’s refusal didn’t deter the developer. He had a solution. He would build a wall to separate the two neighborhoods. That would send a loud and clear signal that blacks and whites didn’t live in the same neighborhood.
After he built the wall, the FHA agreed to back mortgages in the all-white neighborhood, leading to an influx of white people in that specific area.
The Detroit Wall is one of the city’s relics, a reminder of a past in which blatant racism wasn’t met with cries of outrage.
But why does the existence of the wall even matter now? It’s 2016. The Civil Rights Movement has come and gone. It’s water under the bridge, right?
If this was just about a wall, we could simply knock it down and move on with our lives. The Detroit Wall isn’t the problem. It’s a physical manifestation of the problem. The true issue lies with faulty federal policy.
And policy has the potential to impact our neighborhoods for generations. What is the long-term effect of policy that inherently favors and empowers one group over another? What is the long-term effect of creating a physical barrier between neighborhoods and people?
Hint: It’s not good.
Vox’s Alvin Chang recently looked at the effects of living in a poor neighborhood. In the article, Chang opens with the story of the Detroit Wall and uses it as a prime example of the FHA’s policies and how they helped create two different Americas, one of upward mobility and one of stagnation. The data is fascinating.
Of the black children born between 1955 and 1970, 33 percent lived in areas of medium poverty and 29 percent lived in areas of high poverty. This is perhaps understandable, given the FHA’s housing policy and the ongoing Civil Rights Movement.
However, of black children born between 1985 and 2000, 35 percent lived in medium poverty areas and 31 percent lived in high poverty areas. Very little has changed, even after the Civil Rights Movement. Among black people, there is very little intergenerational mobility. If you’re born into a poor family, you’ll likely remain poor.
Children who grow up in poor neighborhoods are less likely to do well in school. They’re more likely to be overweight, and they’re more likely to have a lower I.Q. than their peers who grow up in wealthy neighborhoods.
Children who grow up in poor neighborhoods are also more likely to be black, but that often gets glossed over. It’s uncomfortable talking about race, because that means we must look into our country’s past and admit that there were federally endorsed policies that squelched specific minorities’ (if not all minorities’) abilities to move up in life.
But if we don’t acknowledge the true roots of the problem, we can’t fix the problem. And this is a problem that needs to be fixed. How? There are suggested solutions aplenty, some better than others. Whatever we choose, it needs to help in the long-term. Short-term thinking will only compound the present issues in the future.
Today sections of the Detroit Wall have been transformed into murals depicting justice and equality. Does this erase the painful past? No. Does it put to right what so many years of policy have harmed? Of course not.
But it does teach us that we can take what was once used for ill and use it for good.