The Birwood Wall

Rachael Button

Detroit, Michigan: I found out about the Birwood Wall from a friend who studied social work in the city: A six-foot concrete barrier built in the 1940s to separate the city's black-and-white neighborhoods. She told me that if I wanted to research Detroit, I needed to see Birwood. She didn't remember the exact location but gave me basic directions: Go down Eight Mile until you see the Kroger. Then turn right. You might have to just start driving around the neighborhoods to find it.

I went to look for the wall for the first time in December with my mom. She grew up in Detroit, but had never heard of the Birwood Wall. We took Eight Mile toward Detroit. We passed a hand-painted storefront for a shop called, "Bottoms-Up Liquors" and a boarded-up bowling alley with shattered light-bulbs lining the entryway. We drove through the neighborhoods south of Eight Mile and saw snow-dusted houses on evenly spaced plots of land. We slowed by a park with a chain-linked fence and squinted, scanning the horizon for blocks of concrete. Neither of us saw the Birwood Wall. Neither of us knew what were looking for. She drove. I sat in the passenger's seat, palming the window as blocks passed. After almost twenty minutes of circling the neighborhoods across from Kroger, we got back on Eight Mile and continued to drive east toward Detroit.



Although people remember Detroit for the 1967 riots, in 1943 Detroit had another one of the worst race riots in 20th century America. The World War II demand for labor forced an integrated workplace and the tension between black and white workers played out on the streets of Detroit. In 1942, prior to this onset of racial violence, a Life Magazine headline read: Detroit is Dynamite, It can either Blow up Hitler or Blow up the US.  


I like facts. I listen to NPR and Howstuffworks.com podcasts the way normal people watch TV. My brother bought me The Upper Peninsula Almanac for my birthday. I buy and read old history books for fun. My shower curtain has a map of the world printed across it. I believe that knowing about something gives you stake in it—provides a grounding place. Facts build bridges. They fill in gaps in experience. Before I tried to find the Birwood Wall again I wanted information.

I read The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit and the geography section of the Detroit Free Press Almanac. I studied the intersection of Eight Mile and Wyoming and investigated housing segregation in Detroit. I learned about families from the south who moved to Detroit to find work and to escape Jim Crowe laws in the south. I read about how this influx of labor permeated the city at the same time the demand for jobs began to decrease. I learned about the segregation and eventual ghettoization of Detroit housing.

Detroit designated two neighborhoods for black southern migrant workers: Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. Slum landlords filled the neighborhood's wood-framed homes, splitting small homes into three of four different apartments. Nearly a third of Detroit's residential fires occurred within the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley regions. Property owners packed the neighborhoods to the point that families struggled to find landlords willing to rent to them. In 1950, The Detroit Free Press wrote about the 10,000 homeless families in the city: When places to rent are hard to find, prices go up, and landlords get extra fussy about children. In Black Bottom and Paradise Valley landlords often evicted expectant mothers.

Eight Mile was the escape: the rural border of the city—free from slum landlords. A place where a black family could buy property. Even a house without city services, without electricity, or running water—a shack with a water-pump—meant ownership and independence. A home.



In the summer of 1943, violence erupted on Belle Isle. Black Detroiters responded to the bullying by looting white-owned stores. Within several days, more than 10,000 white Detroiters swept through Paradise Valley, brutalizing the neighborhood. Thirty-four people were killed, 675 suffered serious injuries, 1,893 were arrested. Twenty-five of the thirty-four casualties were black. Headlines described the event as a "race war."


Roads have meaning in Detroit. Alter Road runs north and south between Grosse Pointe Park (92% white with median household income of over $80,000) and the city of Detroit (80% black with a median household income of $29,000). In some places, the city of Grosse Point Park constructed concrete barriers to reduce association with the city of Detroit.

Growing up, I knew Eight Mile marked the border between Detroit and the suburbs. It's also known as baseline road. When Mayor Coleman Young was elected, he told "all those pushers, rip-off artists, [and] muggers" to leave Detroit—"Hit 8 mile."

The Eminem movie, 8 Mile, came out while I was in high school, making the road notorious beyond Detroit. Filmmaker Curt Hanson called the film "his valentine to the city." In a USA Today review of the movie, a 44-year old Detroiter named Lamar Swanson said he planned to see the film the day it came out, But not because of that silly white guy; I don't even like that music. I just want to see if someone can make a movie about how life here really is. It hasn't happened yet.

I never saw it. But I watched boys I went to high school with sing along to the soundtrack: Skinny football players who rode the bench most of the season—suburban boys who wore khaki-cargo pants and took AP Calculus. They lowered their voices and moved their arms up and down as they bounced to the beat at parties. I sat on the arm of Jason Smith's basement-couch and watched them dance, unable to understand the connection they felt with the film or the songs. It felt disingenuous. No one understood Detroit. No one tried—we just lived near its border.

When one of my friends brought her British fiancé home he wanted his photo taken by the Eight Mile road sign. He bent his legs and crossed his arms at the corner of Eight Mile and Lujon in Northville, MI, almost thirty miles from Detroit's city center.



As of the 2000 census, Detroit was the second most segregated city in America, after Milwaukee. Every city listed in the top ten was in the rust belt.


What right do any of us have to this history? Is it a kind of cultural colonization for men from London to get their photograph taken by the Eight Mile road sign? For kids from the suburbs to sing along with the 8 Mile soundtrack? For a girl from Farmington to write essays about the racial and economic divide in Detroit? I don't know. In Metro Detroit we have roads and walls and city boundaries that divide us—not only geographically, but culturally, socio-economically, racially. But we rarely talk about the separation.

When a friend moved to Detroit he asked someone in his art class about cool places to hang out. The boy hesitated before saying: I only know black places. The bluntness of the boy's statement stunned my friend. In the suburbs, we use words like "diverse" or "multi-cultural." We tip-toe around Detroit's racial rift.



In 1950, Detroit Mayor Albert E. Cobo tore down Paradise Valley and Black Bottom, burying the region beneath several layers of concrete to build Interstate 75. In the same year, Cobo vetoed plans for integrated public housing. Historians link the devastating housing situation Cobo created to the 1967 riots.


It's not easy to find facts on the Birwood Wall. It's not part of the public consciousness. Most people who live in the city don't know about the wall or the history that surrounds it. Thomas Sugrue, author of The Origins the Urban Crisis, was among the first historians to bring the Birwood Wall into the conversation about race in Detroit. In an interview with The Detroit Metro Times, Surgue says seeing the structure for the first time didn't surprise him: I got in my car and drove to Eight Mile and found the wall still standing. … I suppose it [is surprising] to many folks shocking because it gives physical form to the racial segregation that's so pervasive in metropolitan Detroit. It's the most obvious, most blatant symbol of division.

In the 1920s, one thousand black Detroiters moved to Eight Mile, building temporary structures for their families on the city's border. By the 1940s, the land at Eight Mile and Wyoming had become a commodity for the growing city. Developers hoped to take advantage of the vacant land around the city's edges but struggled to get financial backing. The Home Owners Loan Corporation coded the land as "red" making it impossible for builders to get federal loans. The Federal Housing Administration agreed to mortgage the land only if a six foot concrete wall divided black and white neighborhoods. Developers built Birwood Wall and a collection of white suburban neighborhoods on the west side of the divider.

In one of The Detroit Metro Times' articles about the Birwood Wall, writer Kim Heron interviewed 47-year old Glenn Wilson, who grew up near the structure. Wilson recalls walking along the wall as a child: It was like a grown-up stage to be able to walk that wall. Anybody couldn't walk that wall; you had to have some skills. 

The piece featured a photograph of Wilson, standing in knee-deep grass next to his dog, wearing a windbreaker and sweats. I tried to imagine him as a child, balancing on Birwood Wall. I pictured a slender boy wearing a baseball cap squinting against the sunlight, chewing the inside of his cheek as he inched forward—feet brushing the concrete as he extended one foot in front of the other. Did he know he was straddling one of the city's most blatant symbols of division? What did he see from six feet above the ground, as he tight-rope-walked the border?



Even before the 1967 riots Detroit real estate agents encouraged white flight. Brokers engaged in a process called speculation. The housing industry created false fear about integration in order to buy expensive homes at a lower cost. They then re-inflated the prices and sold the houses to black families.


The second time I tried to find Birwood Wall, I went by myself. I turned off Eight Mile to loop the neighborhoods where I'd driven with Mom three months before. I retraced our route, circling Bates Middle school and Washburn Street where Mom said Nana had lived. A street-sign read This Neighborhood is being watched. Someone had spray-painted Not in blue letters across the top. When I couldn't find anything that looked like the photos I'd seen on Birwood, I turned on Wyoming and drove south toward the city. Unfamiliar territory. I passed a red sign for hair braiding and a brick building with The Hood Drycleaners printed across the window. I drove for three blocks until the buildings stopped having signs. Until almost every storefront was boarded-up. Until blank businesses bordered both sides of the potholed road.

I turned around in a parking lot with milkweed growing through the seams in the cement. My Honda scraped the pavement as I moved back over the curb. At a red light, I glanced at the car next to me, which bounced to amped-up stereo music. It had wooden boards sticking out its open windows. Bullet holes punctured its side door. If I'd leaned out my window I could have touched the pierces in the car's white skin.

I kept my radio off. I felt my face tighten as I strained to keep staring straight ahead. But I still felt conspicuous—skinny arms clenching the steering wheel of my orange Honda. Sweat gathered against the back of my t-shirt. I turned left into a neighborhood at the next intersection.



In 1968, one year after the riot, 125 teenagers gathered to protest crime coverage in Detroit. The protestors contended that the paper over-covered black violence in order to create racial fear. They cited the front-page six-day-long coverage of a black man stabbing a white policeman's son as evidence. During the same week, a gang of white teenagers killed a black man and raped his wife. The incident only received one mention in The Detroit News. 


I found the Birwood Wall by accident—by driving down a dead-end road by a playground. I don't remember the moment I saw the wall. I don't remember what I thought as I swung my car door shut and began to walk toward it. Did I wonder if it was safe to leave my car parked on the street? Did I worry about being by myself in a vacant park, in a neighborhood I didn't know? I don't think I did. I think I decided to not be afraid as I pushed the button on my car-key and moved across the matted grass toward the six-foot cement structure.

I walked until I stood in the shadow of wall, hesitated for a moment then pressed my palm against its surface. Skin against concrete. At first, I didn't even see the Birwood murals. I was wrapped-up in the substance of the wall—somehow shocked that it cast an outline on the grass, stunned that I could feel its coldness on my skin—that I could run my fingers over it. Sixty years of segregation. When I removed my palm from the Birwood Wall, I had to catch my breath. My heart raced. I heaved forward, putting my hands on my knees.




Photo taken November 2002, by Ren Farley


I'd seen photographs taken in the 1990s of the graffiti that peppered the Birwood Wall. I'd seen images from Thomas Sugrue's book of the wall in the 1940s, newly built and stretching across the Eight Mile grassland—telephone wires looping over the concrete. I'd even seen images of trees painted by children in the center of the wall, surrounded by blank stretches of white cement and peeling paint-petals. I wasn't prepared for the murals.

Someone had painted a block-long history of Detroit on the concrete—a history that included Birwood Wall. In the mural Birwood Wall was broken, with a suburban patio, deck, and grill visible through the crumbling structure. Green letters read Judge him not until u walk a block in his flip-flops. Painted footprints led to an image of Coleman Young, a pile of burning bricks, a bus protest, and a dove. Shards of mirror encircled the dove. I dragged my fingers along the wall as I walked, following the red, blue, and green footprints which spiraled the fists and fires of Detroit's last fifty years. Standing in front of the fragments of broken mirror, I could see my reflection—pale-faced and pony-tailed amongst the chaos.



When the first black family moved into Levittown, Pennsylvania, one white man said that, nice family or not, he couldn't stand to look at them: Every time I see their faces I imagine $2,000 falling off the value of my home. In Oak Park, Illinois, the city decided to combat financial fear of integration by offering free insurance policies. If housing prices fell, the city would pay the difference. Integration happened with no white flight. Housing prices stayed steady. No one collected money from the city. The gamble paid off.


"What are you doing?"

A middle-aged black man stood in his driveway staring at me.

"I came to see the wall. I'm writing a book about Detroit and my cousin's wife said I should come see it." My voice fumbled as I walked toward his yard. His dogs bound toward the chain-linked fence which bordered his property, wiggling and wagging their tails.

I didn't feel afraid. I felt embarrassed. Called-out. Caught. What was I doing? I didn't want to run—I wanted to remedy the situation. So I got as close as I could to his fence, planted my knees on the damp grass, and eased my arm through the links. The metal edge of the fence punctured my wrist, peeling-back skin. Blood gathered along the whitened surface of the scrape.

The dogs squirmed, tails slapping each other. Two blonde boxers. They wormed their bodies around my arm. I wove my fingers behind velvet-soft ears. Fur tufted against the links in the fence.

I looked up at the man, who stood on the opposite side of the yard, watching me with his dogs. He wore navy blue sweatpants, sunglasses, and a Detroit Lions baseball cap with a sun faded logo embroidered across the front. His face was round, not frowning, not smiling. I felt him figuring me out.

He gestured toward to the painted portion of the wall behind him, "I think I have the best part of the wall in my backyard."

I could see an image of four people and a lantern painted on the wall behind his house.

"Do you mind if I come closer to look at it?"

He nodded, pulling his dogs away from the fence by their collars. "Don't step in dog-shit."



"It's not easy growing away from your roots."
—Keith Owens, in his Detroit Metro Times editorial, "A Mural's Message for Detroit."


Later, when I told this story to a friend over the phone, she asked me if my mother knew about all this research. I could hear her shaking her head as she envisioned me entering a stranger's fenced-in yard in Detroit. I imagined her imagining me. She pictured the girl who wanders out in front of traffic—the girl who gets lost because she's turned East instead of West on the expressway, the girl who runs red lights while fiddling with the radio: a five-foot-one brunette with a bobbing pony-tail, meandering into a stranger's yard a block from eight mile.

Hearing the waver in her voice and the way she drew out the syllables of "moth-er" and "re-search" I wondered what the man I met thought when he saw me standing in the park, bent forward in front of the Birwood Wall. I imagined him looking then me: A white girl wearing blue-jeans, moccasins, and a Stanford Athletics t-shirt. Part of me fears, even now, that he thought the worst of me.



In 2006, artist Chazz Miller and the Motor City Blight Busters painted the murals on the Birwood Wall. Before the Motor City Blight Busters began painting, they had to repair a portion of the wall that had been destroyed by vandals. More than 100 volunteers gathered in Alfonso Wells Memorial Park to help rebuild and reclaim the Birwood Wall.


I stepped forward, made eye contact, and offered my palm. When he slipped his hand into mine, I gave it one solid shake, "I'm Rachael."

"I'm Emory." His voice sounded huskier when I got close.

"I moved here six months ago," he said. "Sometimes city tours come here—but I don't think many people know about it. I didn't know about it before I moved here."

I listened. He told me that he was forty-six, that he'd had lived in Detroit his entire life and raised his son by himself. He paused, stopping to study my face. "You know this wall was built to separate the black and white neighborhoods."

I didn't say what I knew about the wall's history. I didn't offer any of my research. I didn't tell him that my mother grew up in Detroit—that as a little girl she'd stayed up late watching military tanks crawl down her street during the 1967 riots. I didn't tell him that my grandfather had moved from the city to the suburbs within two years of the riots because of falling re-estate prices or that in Farmington Papa bought a boxy-beige house with a pool, for almost twice as much as the brick two–story historic Tudor he'd left behind in the city. I didn't tell him that I'd been reading about Detroit's racial history for months trying to place my family in late sixties early seventies population shift that led to economic decline in Detroit.

Instead, I held eye contact and nodded, arms crossed over my chest.

"I've seen pictures of it online." I told him.

"There are pictures of this on the internet?"

Emory stared straight ahead then gestured toward to the stretch of concrete in front of us: the painting of four figures huddled around a lantern.

"I don't know exactly what it means," he said.

I studied the image. On the left side of the lantern, a woman and her son huddled together. The boy clutched the woman's waist, pressing his cheek against her belly. The woman had her fingers wrapped around the lantern's handle. She wore a head wrap and kept her face pointed forward, toward the far-side of the lantern's beam. On the right side of the lantern, two teenage boys stood close together. They had close cropped hair and wore t-shirts. One boy was behind the other. The boy in back had his arm around the stomach of the boy in front. They both looked down, toward blue-blankness barely illuminated by the lantern.

Emory pointed to a portion of the mural just below the woman's shape, where a white robed figure held a cross. A ghost of a man, barely visible behind the woman's broad body. "Did you see the KKK?"

 "I didn't." I squinted toward the shadows, looking for other signs of fear—shadows of what the four figures might be fleeing.

As I moved forward Emory turned toward me, watching my face for understanding. "To me they look like a family—and the light means hope."



Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in Detroit two months before he addressed Washington. He marched on Woodward with union leader Walter Reuther and Reverend C.L Franklin.


I turned to Emory, with my hands pressed into the fabric of my pockets, and said that I thought the darkness might symbolize fear.

 "I think fear is one of the biggest issues this city faces."

"What kind of fear?"

His face tightened. I looked for some sign of the answer he wanted to hear. I searched for movement in his eye, a shift in the way he distributed his weight, or a turn in his mouth. I saw nothing.

I hesitated, feeling the weight of each word I chose: "Economic. Social."

Then I stopped: "Racial."

The word stayed in the air. The sun beat down on my back. I pressed my finger against my scraped wrist, which was already beginning to bruise. I could hear the lady across the street's broom scouring the pavement in front of her porch. I could feel sweat gathering around the lose strands of hair that had slipped from my ponytail.

He looked at me, "Are you a racist?"

I answered right away: "No."

He paused. "Me either."



There is no biological basis for race. It's a social construct, not rooted in our DNA. According to George M. Fredrickson's book, Racism: A Short History, the word "racism" didn't come into common usage until the 1930s. It was first used to describe the rationale the Nazis used in their persecution of the Jews.


It's not easy to talk about race without feeling racist. When I called my friend Lee, who went to college in Detroit, to ask him about his how he experienced race in the city. He didn't say anything at first.

"What do you mean?"

I told him that I hate how no one talks about the segregation that still exists in Detroit—that when Time Magazine covers Detroit, they point to schools like U of D Jesuit High as shining examples of education in the city without mentioning that the school is over 80% white and costs over $10,000 dollars a year—in a 80% black city with a per capita income of just over $14,000. It's a cop-out to not talk about race, I said. But how do you talk about race? How do you write about race?

Lee started slowly. He drew his experiences out, one sentence at a time. He told me about his classmate who only knew black places in the city. He said that within the Center for Creative Studies, his art college, the demographic felt similar to Farmington, where we grew-up. But walking downtown at night, he felt conspicuous. An Italian kid with glasses wearing a hooded sweatshirt. There were times when I just wanted to blend in.

In her book Notes from No Man's Land Eula Biss describes the experience of "feeling" her race for the first time when she moved to a primarily black neighborhood in Harlem. She described the sensation of being "trapped in her identity as a white woman"—an identity had not chosen but "grudgingly defaulted to." She knew, even as she articulated this feeling, that in most parts of the country, her black neighbors would feel this bound to their race all the time.

I told Lee about my encounter with Emory.

"'Are you a racist?' Why do you think he asked? Hadn't you been in his yard petting his dog at this point? Did he think you were visiting it as some racist monument, commemorating the 'good ole days of segregation?"

I slid down on the floor, curling my knees into my stomach. I brushed loose strands of hair behind my ear. I chose my words carefully.

"Part of me is still afraid of that. But I think he may have been letting me off the hook by asking. He gave me the opportunity to tell him I wasn't racist—and took the chance to tell me that he wasn't either. It was a relief to get it out in the open. We could go on and talk about other things."



In a survey done by The Detroit News in July of 2007, three out of four white Metro-Detroiters surveyed that they believed black Metro-Detroiters have an equal opportunity to find good housing and jobs. However, the 2000 census indicated income for black Metro-Detroiters was only 56% the income of white Detroiters.

If we don't discuss these differences how can we address them?


Before I left the Birwood Wall Emory told me I should photograph it. He told me how to frame the pictures I took in his backyard—instructing me how to center each shot. He wanted me to photograph both the details of the wall and the scope of it. The way the colors shift as the wall moved forward. The way his fence intersected with the wall. The way the decaying houses on the wall's far side became visible once you stepped back from the concrete. He wanted me to capture it all on my camera.

He asked me to post the photographs on the internet.

"People should know about this."