Rachel Button searches for The Birwood Wall

Button contemplates the physical and historical boundaries between black and white Detroit @ The Collagist.

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.

Fact:

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 Detroitand 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.

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