With so much talk recently (from a certain politician) about building walls I thought it appropriate to talk about a wall we have right here in Detroit. I am not talking about a metaphorical wall of divide between classes, races, or sexes but an actual wall that was built to divide a white neighborhood from a black neighborhood in the 1940’s. It’s inspiring to see people standing up, and coming together through movements such as Black Lives Matter. It’s similarly inspiring to see a neighborhood that was once physically and mentally divided using what once divided them to unite people and bring them together.
The Birwood Wall is located on the northern border of Detroit within the Eight Mile/Wyoming neighborhood. The map below depicts the walls location in red. The wall stretches approximately 2,200 feet and takes up three residential blocks. The wall can be seen and experienced best from Alfonso Wells Memorial Park, the rest of the wall is mostly hidden from the street behind the rows of homes. The wall was created by a real estate developer in the early 1940’s to gain approval from the United States Federal Housing Authority to build single-family homes for white residents adjacent to an established black neighborhood. Still today, it clearly marks a dividing line between single-story ranch style homes to the east in the 1920’s/1930’s and two-story bungalows built in the 1940’s by the same developer who built the wall. When the wall was first constructed it was painted a stark white as shown in the historical photos below.
Within the last couple decades residents of the area have transformed the formerly stark white dividing wall into a colorful works of art that is tells a story, and unites and inspires those who see it. Motor City Blight Busters, a non-profit Detroit organization that works within communities to deconstruct abandoned houses and beautify neighborhoods held a clean-up of Alfonso Wells Memorial Park in May of 2006 during which some of the murals shown were painted. The paintings are vibrant depictions of the struggle of African Americans to gain human rights and political equality in the 20th Century alongside rudimentary and abstracted depictions of houses, bubbles, and other symbols of equality. The most detailed murals depict Harriet Tubman leading a group of enslaved African Americans to freedom by moonlight while running from the Ku Klux Klan, and a depiction of working-class African Americans marching through a hole painted in the wall picketing for fair housing and jobs while boarding yellow buses with Rosa Parks. A motif of sandals also runs along a length of a wall, anchored by the phrase “Judge him not until u walk a block in his flip flops…”
It is important for Detroiter’s and Americans alike to realize that this wall was built only 75 years ago. We still have a long way to go if we are to tear down the physical and mental walls that separate our society. As someone who designs physical space it is important to remember how spaces can be used to separate or to bring people together. The Birwood Wall serves as an inspiration artwork can transform a wall originally used to separate to bring together, educate and empower future generations of Detroiters.
Button, Rachel. “The Birwood Wall.” Dzanc Books – The Collagist.
Daines, Marvel. “Be It Ever So Tumbled – The Story of A Suburban Slum.” University of Michigan. 1940.
Seitles, Marc. “The Perpetuation of Residential Racial Segregation In America: Historical Discrimination, Modern Forms of
Exclusion, and Inclusionary Remedies.” Journal of Land Use and Environmental Law. 1996.
Sugrue, Thomas J. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton University Press.
Princeton, New Jersey. 1996, 2005.9 Sep ’16 by Mollie Decker