The Ruins of Racism
Detroit’s 8 Mile Road is perhaps today best known as the thoroughfare bordering the neighborhood where Marshall Mathers grew up. Eminem’s 2002 film 8 Mile told his story of life adjoining the roadway that has often loomed as the line separating White and Black Detroit. The neighborhood’s residents and decline have routinely been reduced to shallow clichés, like USA Today’s 2002 conclusion that “8 Mile Road remains what it was three decades ago: a catch basin for the city’s human flotsam”; in 2006 The Guardian called 8 Mile Road “America’s most notorious highway, the road that divides black from white.” Such rhetoric provides little insight into Detroit, but it does underscore the emotion if not irrationality that shapes how we imagine landscapes along and across color lines. Many of these landscapes today are in ruins or are prosaic declining spaces like stretches of 8 Mile Road, so they are easy to ignore or reduce to shallow analyses. Nevertheless, viewed simply as dehistoricized ruins these places risk being divorced from a legion of racist inequalities that have shaped the contemporary American city.
Eminem spent much of his teen years on the south side of 8 Mile Road. He grew up in a home that stood vacant in 2013 when it graced the cover of his Marshall Mathers 2 LP 13 years after appearing on the cover of his Marshall Mathers album. Constructed in about 1945 in an area now known as Osborn, Eminem’s house was typical of a legion of American homes built in the immediate wake of World War II on a state-engineered racist landscape that reached into numerous neighborhoods laying along 8 Mile Road. In 1942, for instance, an exclusively Black public housing project, the Sojourner Truth Homes, opened in Detroit near the African-American Conant Gardens community. White neighbors in the Seven Mile-Fenelon Improvement Association immediately led a fevered charge against the new development. A cross was set afire in a field beside Sojourner Truth on February 27th, 1942, and a riot broke out the next day when the first residents arrived, greeted by 1200 angry Whites including the Improvement Association and the National Workers League. Repelled by violent protesters, a second effort to move in Black residents in April required thousands of National Guardsmen and Detroit police officers as escorts.
Such tensions expanded throughout the city in the subsequent year, and in a 1942 assessment of racist violence in the Motor City Life concluded that “Detroit is Dynamite. . . Detroit can either blow up Hitler or it can blow up the U.S.” Over 1000 White employees of the US Rubber Company walked off the job in March, 1943 protesting the hiring of Black workers, and in May 750 went on strike after the Hudson Naval Arsenal hired Black laborers (repeating a similar strike the following month). The most prominent of these “hate strikes” came in June 1943, when over 26,000 White workers walked off the Packard Motor Company assembly line because they had been forced to work alongside three Black laborers producing aircraft and marine engines. Three weeks later, mob fights triggered a massive citywide riot. Over three days 34 people died in the nation’s worst wartime racist violence, and the Army was forced to quell the unrest (compare Life’s 1943 coverage of the anti-Black violence in Detroit).
The long-term decline of Detroit and many more cities bears a significant debt to federal housing policies that began in the 1930s. Created in 1934, the Federal Housing Administration developed guidelines that restricted housing loans to racially homogenous communities, and this federal law, a patchwork of local housing covenants, and deep-seated xenophobia ensured that many American neighborhoods remain racially segregated today. In 1939 a Residential Security Map rated the perceived loan risks of Detroit neighborhoods, identifying properties’ loan risk on a scale of A-D. The FHA’s Home Owner’s Loan Corporation defined “A” neighborhoods as mostly newly built suburbs: “The First Grade or A areas are `hot spots’; they are not yet fully built up. In nearly all instances they are the new, well-planned sections of the city. . . They are homogenous; in demand as residential locations in `good times’ or `bad.’” In contrast, the lowest-ranked “D” neighborhoods were “characterized by detrimental influences to a pronounced degree, undesirable population or an infiltration of it. Low percentage of homeownership, very poor maintenance, and often vandalism prevail. Unstable incomes of the people and difficult collections are usually prevalent.” Such neighborhoods were disproportionately Black and outlined in red (hence the later term “redlining”).
In 1939 Eminem’s future home site sat in an unrated “sparsely settled” space, but it was near neighborhoods given a “B” rating and declined most significantly after 2000. Between 2000 and 2010 Eminem’s former neighborhood lost 27.3% of its population, and in 2010 21.5% of all Osborn housing stood empty. Like much of the postwar housing it once stood alongside, the Mathers’ home and about 70 other vacant houses stood deteriorating along Dresden Street in 2013 when Eminem visited it to film the video for “Survival.” The structure was razed not long afterward following a November 2013 fire.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating examples of racist urban engineering lies near 8 Mile Road, where developers launched an especially novel negotiation of federal housing law in a neighborhood along Birwood Street. African Americans had settled the area around Wyoming Avenue and 8 Mile Road by the late 1930s, when developers began to eye neighboring open space to construct new homes. The 1939 Residential Security Map rated the area developers targeted along Birwood and Mendota Streets (just west of Wyoming Street) as a high-risk “D” on a scale of A-D. The presence of Black neighbors along Birwood Street meant new White residents would not be extended FHA loans, so developers placed a half-mile long, six-feet high wall through the neighborhood dividing Black and White homes. The wall ran between the back yards of White and Black houses, with breaks at each street crossing, and it remains in place today. The easily scalable wall was a material symbol of exclusion meant less to check physical movement or subdue racism than to project racial divides further into collective imagination. Within a decade both sides of the wall were overwhelmingly African-American homes, and they remain so today.
Today one stretch of the wall’s eastern side faces Alfonso Wells Playground and has been covered with murals, much like the densely painted “peace line” walls in Belfast. Laura McAtackney’s study of the northern Irish walls examines their simultaneous roles as communicative mechanisms, material things shaping local and group security, and formidable physical barriers that prevent interaction and even heighten existing tensions. Ultimately, the Detroit wall was a hollow effort to separate Black and White residents, reflecting racism’s irrationality more than a successful strategic mechanism among many more anti-Black practices.
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Urban and Regional Planning Program, University of Michigan
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Children at Detroit Wall, circa 1942 image from Library of Congress
Eminem’s childhood home site image from MLive
House along Detroit Wall, circa 1942 image from Library of Congress