Detroit has emerged from a decades-long slide and America's largest municipal bankruptcy into something of a darling. "America's Comeback City: The Rebirth of Detroit" blares the headline of a recent article in Forbes, one of hundreds that clog the airwaves with tales of renaissance and economic transformation. And things, at least in some parts of the city, do look undeniably rosy. Boutique coffee roasters compete with chic soul food cafes in beautifully restored art deco skyscrapers. Starbucks and Whole Foods abound, as do craft breweries, in a type of "softening of the battlefield" before the waves of gentrifying hipsters from New York, LA, and Berlin move in. A new hockey stadium, complete with an opening 6-night residency from Detroit native Kid Rock, just opened.
But narratives of rebirth are much like the massive statue of Joe Louis' fist - mythic, outsize, and contained to the city center. In fact, a recent study released by Michigan State University states that the modest improvements in the midtown area "do nothing to address the city's core problem: disinvestment and abandonment propelled by corporate decisions framed and aided by government policies, from housing and free trade, with an overlay of stubbornly persistent racism."
Detroit is a vast, sprawling metro area, with a significant tax delinquency problem, high crime, and poor services. Those that do have money live in one of several wealthy enclaves dotted around the city; the rest have fled to surrounding counties. Racial prejudice, disenfranchisement, and the promise of a better future - those are things that people in Detroit struggle to believe will change, which no amount of government bailouts will do easily or quickly.
Grosse Pointe Park / Detroit
Grosse Pointe/Detroit is the boundary perhaps most emblematic of the divide between affluent white suburbs and the African-American urban core of Detroit (8 Mile Road is another more famous example, though not as photographically distinct).
Gross Pointe was, and still is, a wealthy enclave bordering Lake St. Clair. Houses are large and expensive, the asphalt smooth, the lawns nicely manicured. The projected reputation of the area was a carefully managed strategy, as evidenced by the discovery in 1960 of the "Grosse Pointe System", a ranking system developed by the community to be carried out on prospective home buyers (rankings were based on complexion, religion, "way of living" and "reputation"). Blacks, Mexicans, and people of "Oriental descent" were not even considered.
The westernmost section is known as "Grosse Pointe Park", separated from Detroit by one two-lane road: Alter Road.
Alter Road has a long strange history of spatial segregation which continues to this day. For example, many roads which lead from Detroit to Grosse Pointe and cross Alter Road have just been walled off completely, including Goethe, Brooks, and Korte. Other roads, such as Kercheval, have been famously re-engineered (currently a narrow roundabout exists with a large steel sculpture in the middle, but previously it was blockaded multiple times by gigantic planters, sheds for a farmer's market (facing towards Grosse Pointe), and mounds of snow). That's not the only boundary road, either. To the north, Mack Avenue does the same thing, with the same blockades (Wayburn, Grayton, and multiple alleyways) and traffic diversions (Somerset, Beaconsfield).
The southwestern corner of Grosse Pointe Park is removed even further from Detroit by the Fox Canal, a road-width body of water which extends for 1.28 miles from Jefferson Road to the Detroit River. There is only one bridge that crosses the canal with direct access to Gross Pointe Park, but that crossing has been closed since the 1980s (there is a narrow sidewalk though).
At the point where the canal joins the river, a further split occurs, with a private beach on the Grosse Pointe side (which was very aggressively policed on the day I tried to enter) and dingy Mariner's Park (grounds of a former army hospital / trailer park) on the other.
The divide between Grosse Pointe Park and Detroit has been featured many times in many other excellent photo projects, including The Other America, and that Martin Luther King even gave a speech there in 1968 decrying the racial and economic imbalance of the neighborhoods (this was three weeks before his assassination, and only months after the Detroit Riots). It's also worthwhile to note that Jefferson Chalmers itself is undergoing something of a renaissance, and there are large gated communities wholly within Detroit which have perpetuated road closures and fenced-off access to the surrounding community just as dramatically.
It’s a little after 3pm in Detroit’s 8 Mile neighborhood, and the cicadas are buzzing loudly in the trees. Children weave down the pavements on bicycles, while a pickup basketball game gets under way in a nearby park. The sky is a deep blue with only a hint of an approaching thunderstorm – in other words, a muggy, typical summer Sunday in Michigan’s largest city.
“8 Mile”, as the locals call it, is far from the much-touted economic “renaissance” taking place in Detroit’s centre. Tax delinquency and debt are still major issues, as they are in most places in the city. Crime and blight exist side by side with carefully trimmed hedgerows and mowed lawns, a patchwork that changes from block to block. In many ways it resembles every other blighted neighborhood in the city – but with one significant difference. Hidden behind the oak-lined streets is an insidious piece of history that most Detroiters, let alone Americans, don’t even know exists: a half mile-long, 5ft tall concrete barrier that locals simply call “The Wall”.
“Growing up, we didn’t know what that wall was for,” says Teresa Moon, President of the 8 Mile Community Organization. “It used to be a rite of passage to walk on top of the wall, like a balancing beam. You know, just kids having fun, that kind of thing. It was only later when I found out what it was for, and when I realized the audacity that they had to build it.”
In 1942, 8 Mile was a black neighborhood – segregated by law, segregated by culture, segregated from white Oakland County by the eponymous 8 Mile Road. It was a self-contained community, filled with not only African Americans but immigrants of all colors, some of whom had built their houses with their own hands.
It was also adjacent to empty land – valuable land that developers were rapaciously turning into homes for a surging postwar population. Land that one housing developer wanted to use to build a “whites-only neighborhood”. The only problem was, he couldn’t get federal funding to develop the land unless he could prove he had a strategy to prevent black people and white people from mixing. His answer: wall off the white neighborhood with a concrete barrier.
“That wall is a monument,” says Moon. “We survived it. It’s a part of what happened, and no one feels any negativity towards what happened.”
Her neighbor, Lou Ross, agrees. “What that Wall was intended for, it didn’t work that way. It did for a minute – but it didn’t last.”
(This piece and photographs also featured in a Guardian article that I wrote on American infrastructure called "Roads To Nowhere".)
Detroit has always had a love affair with the automobile. After all, this is where they were mass-produced, where America's very first road was paved, and where firms such as GM, Ford, and Chrysler made their fortunes and caused the city to greatly prosper in the early 20th century. So in the mid-1950s, when President Eisenhower launched an ambitious plan to connect the country with massive interstates Detroit was fully prepared to offer up neighborhoods like sacrificial lambs to the excavators.
The problem was, many of those neighborhoods were historically African-American neighborhoods, and due to a history of redlining many of them were in a dilapidated condition, making them perfect targets for destruction (and fitting into a narrative of "urban renewal" and "social cleansing").
One such area was the historically African American neighborhood that used to be known as Black Bottom, a vibrant, dense area in a prime location just north-east of downtown. Black Bottom had a nationally renowned music scene, and was home to many famous residents, including boxer Joe Louis and the first African American mayor of Detroit, Coleman Young. The area was economically and racially mixed, with migrants from Syria, Poland and Germany co-existing in a bustling urban area that ran from the Detroit river all the way up to Grand Ave. Young called it a “thrilling convergence of people, a wonderfully versatile and self-contained society”.
While some improvements were applauded and created highly valuable land, like Lafayette Park, almost all of the beneficiaries of the improved housing stock were white. Tens of thousands of African Americans were either forced into high-rent properties or high-rise public housing projects. Moreover, white landowners often prevented African Americans from renting in “white communities”. The forced removals of the 1950s remain one of the single biggest upheavals in the city’s modern history, and Black Bottom was completely destroyed. All that remains today are some vacant industrial buildings, empty fields and, of course, the interstate.