Race Walls in Detroit

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In the past, Victoria Hattam has written extensively about the militarized southern border wall of the U.S. settler colony. In Detroit, she encountered other politically-charged walls, which spatially enforced the racial redlining of U.S. cities against its Black residents.

Article published in The Funambulist 31 (September-October 2020) Politics of Food. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

I had heard about it. A race wall in the outskirts of Detroit. The U.S. southern border gone inland?

 

Hattam Victoria (1)
The 8 Mile Wall, Detroit. / Photo by Victoria Hattam, June 2, 2019.

It is known variously as the 8 Mile Wall, the Birwood Wall, the segregation wall. I call it the “race wall” as it was a materialization of racist mortgage lending practices adopted in the United States at mid-20th-century. Redlining, as the policy is known, involved government officials, banks and real estate offices literally drawing lines on maps to guide bank lending. Race undergirded the whole system: Blackness equaled risk. Federal housing funds flowed unevenly depending on the racial composition of neighborhoods. The 8 Mile Wall — its bricks and mortar — were integral to the race-based mortgage programs. It was built to reassure the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) that white and Black neighborhoods, although proximate, would remain physically separate. Black residents were supposed to live on one side of the wall, and white residents in the new development for whites would reside on the other. In a quite literal sense, then, the 8 Mile Wall is redlining materialized from maps to walls.

 

Built in 1941, the wall is a half-mile long, six feet high and a foot thick nestled in amongst the houses in a northern neighborhood in Detroit. It is a solid construction, built out of cement blocks with square cement posts designating wall segments every five or six feet. Some parts of the wall are painted off-white; others are left cement grey. In 2006, an artist and Detroit non-profit, painted a brightly colored mural on a section of the wall that runs alongside the Alfonso Wells Memorial Playground. The wall still stands. The Michigan State Historic Preservation Office is trying to have the wall placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

Monies flowed unevenly to adjacent neighborhoods. Live on the Black side of the wall and banks would not lend; live on the other side and monies flowed easily to the new housing development for whites. Race determined whether one had access to capital through the race based mortgage system. The FHA mortgage programs did more than just shape access to housing; it structured long term inequalities in the U.S., because wealth, scholars agree, generally is generated through property rather than work.

The wall is redlining made flesh.