On the north side of Detroit, there is a concrete wall. Standing 6 feet high and 1 foot thick, it extends a half-mile south from 8 Mile Road to Pembroke Avenue through the back yards of houses along Birwood and Mendota Streets. In a city full of walls, fences, and gates, many drive past it on a daily basis without giving it a second thought. But while barriers usually serve a practical purpose, the "8 Mile Wall," also known as the Wailing Wall of Detroit, or Birwood Wall, was built to be symbolic, and today is an especially visible reminder of racial segregation in the City of Detroit.
The first large-scale migration of southern blacks to Detroit came with the First World War in 1914. The city had already become an economic and industrial center, fueled in large part by European immigrant laborers who sought a higher standard of living than could be found in their home countries. When the war in Europe all but stopped the flow of immigrants, southern blacks found new opportunities in the factories and mills throughout northern cities like Detroit. They settled in large numbers in segregated downtown neighborhoods such as Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, and in the countryside north and west of the city, areas that would later be known as Brightmoor and Wyoming Avenue.
Through the 1920's and 30's as the city continued to grow, what was once rural farmland on the outer edges of the city was rapidly consumed by housing developments, financed in part by housing loans by the Federal Housing Authority. But there was a catch – the FHA would often not offer or guarantee loans in neighborhoods that were considered "undesirable" or "distressed" – code words for neighborhoods with significant numbers of blacks or Jews. Without these loans, Wyoming and 8 Mile remained relatively undeveloped.
Eventually though, as the remaining available parcels of vacant land in the city were bought up and turned into factories or housing, developers began looking into building in neighborhoods that had previously been off-limits. In 1941, a company looking to develop part of the Wyoming and 8 Mile area proposed building a wall that would separate the new housing for whites from the existing black neighborhood. The wall would be mostly symbolic – it wasn't especially tall, or very long, and had several streets that ran through it - but it would make clear that on one side blacks would not be welcome to build or live. This was enough to satisfy the FHA, which approved the loans, and the housing development was built.
Over time Detroit's segregated neighborhoods would integrate, as the virtual barriers to black home ownership were felled by the civil rights movement, the growing black middle class, and eventually, white flight. The Wyoming and 8 Mile neighborhood is now majority black, as is most of the city, and the wall meant to segregate the communities receded into the background. But in the minds of residents who had grown up on one side of the wall, it remains a very visible part of the city's segregationist past.
Like other barriers designed to keep populations separate, like the Berlin Wall and the Israeli West Bank barrier, the 8 Mile Wall has attracted artists who have painted large murals, particularly on an exposed part of the wall that faces the Alfonso Wells Memorial Playground. Depicted on the wall are scenes from the civil rights struggle, housing, and works imploring unity. In a fittingly poetic way, the wall remains symbolic today, though the message is one of remembrance and harmony, rather than segregation.