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Wall that once divided races remains, teaches

Wednesday - 5/1/2013, 11:00am  ET

In this 1941 photo supplied by the United States Library of Congress, a half mile concrete wall in Detroit is shown. The wall was built with a simple aim: separate homes planned for middle-class whites from blacks who had already built small houses or owned land with plans to build in the neighborhood.It couldn't separate people on its own, people and policies would see to that, but it was enough to satisfy the Federal Housing Administration to approve and back loans. (AP Photo/United States Library of Congress)

JEFF KAROUB
Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) -- When Eva Nelson-McClendon first moved to Detroit's Birwood Street in 1959, she didn't know much about the wall across the street. At 6 feet tall and a foot thick, it wasn't so imposing, running as it did between houses on her street and one over. Then she started to hear the talk.

Neighbors told her the wall was built two decades earlier with a simple aim: to separate homes planned for middle-class whites from blacks who had already built small houses or owned land with plans to build.

"That was the division line," Nelson-McClendon, now, 79, says from the kitchen of her tidy, one-story home on the city's northwest side. "Blacks lived on this side, whites was living on the other side. ... That was the way it was."

That's not the way it is anymore. But the wall remains, a physical embodiment of racial attitudes that the country long ago started trying to move beyond.

And slowly, in subtle ways, it is evolving into something else in its community, something unexpected: an inspiration.

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To those in the know, it goes by different names. For some, it's simply "The Wall." Others call it "Detroit's Wailing Wall." Many like "Birwood Wall," because it refers to the street and sounds like the "Berlin Wall."

It's still a half-mile long, interrupted only by two streets, much as a developer envisioned it in the early 1940s. It couldn't separate people on its own -- people and policies would see to that -- but it was enough to satisfy the Federal Housing Administration to approve and back loans.

Aside from the mural that appears at the wall's midpoint, much of it is easy to miss. In fact, it's impossible to follow it completely as the wall disappears behind homes and in spots is overgrown by vegetation. Where it's exposed, it's whitewashed or a drab earth tone -- and sometimes marred by gang graffiti. On one corner it says, "Only 8 Mile," referring to the divisive road just yards to the north.

The wall never fell, but it didn't really have to. The area became primarily African-American in the decades to come, as most whites and even many blacks left. The pattern was replicated across much of the 139-square-mile city that was built for two million people but fell to about 700,000 in the 2010 Census.

The story of the wall has been largely lost in larger narratives, such as the 1943 and 1967 race riots and Eight Mile Road. The wall ends, almost invisible, just shy of the thoroughfare that serves as the boundary between Detroit and its suburbs and symbolically represents the divide between black and white.

Race remains a flashpoint in a city beset by an interrelated stew of crime, corruption and high unemployment. And some accuse the state of further disenfranchising Detroit's majority black population as Michigan's governor recently declared a financial emergency in the city and the state took financial control.

Still, the wall is not forgotten. An artist descended on it several years ago with an army of about 100 fellow artists and community volunteers to create a vast, eye-popping mural with images and messages of equality and justice on a section overlooking a playground. And now, a faith-based nonprofit is giving work to men who have struggled to keep a job or a home, having them make sets of coasters that incorporate images from the wall and use materials from abandoned homes that were razed in the city. Every sale of a $20 set of coasters helps to make something good out of something bad.

"It's recycling, giving jobs to people who are having a tough time with unemployment and, at the same time, creating a very nice piece of art that could and should lead to some great discussions about race in the city of Detroit and in our country," says Faith Fowler, director of Cass Community Social Services and its Green Industries program.

Tightly clustered one-story homes dominate the neighborhood around the wall, which still has well-kept houses like Nelson-McClendon's but also suffers from a rising number of vacant, gutted structures. More tear-downs in the making. And, perhaps, more wood for the coasters.

The homes on Birwood end at Alfonso Wells Memorial Playground, where the eye is immediately drawn to the massive mural.

It's impossible to take it all in at once, but certain images pop out in a slow pan: Rosa Parks boarding the bus that would make her a household name in the civil rights struggle, followed by a man carrying a sign that says, "Fair Housing." Houses and more houses of all colors. A group of men singing a capella under a streetlight. Children blowing bubbles that pop up throughout the wall and contain various things, including an auto plant and words like "peace" and "flowers."

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