It’s a little after 3pm in Detroit’s 8 Mile neighbourhood, 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 neighbourhood 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 realised the audacity that they had to build it.”
In 1942, 8 Mile was a black neighbourhood – 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 colours, 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 neighbourhood”. 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 neighbourhood 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 neighbour, 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.”
Today, policymakers are making plans to revamp the nation’s infrastructure. The Trump administration has pledged to create a $1tn infrastructure renewal plan, and came to power, after all, on the promise of building a massive wall. But, like Trump’s wall and the 8-mile wall, infrastructure is not value-free – and the decisions made now will affect the future of inequality in our cities.
To get an understanding of how infrastructure transforms communities, there’s no better place to start than the Federal Housing Authority “redlining” housing maps. Commissioned by the federal government in the 1930s, these maps were critical to decisions of where and what type of infrastructure, lending and housing each neighbourhood of each American city would be able to receive.
“The FHA promoted home ownership in new – and primarily suburban – neighbourhoods so long as they were white and not ethnically or economically diverse,” writes Antero Pietila in Not in My Neighbourhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City.
If your neighbourhood had the misfortune to be “redlined”, it was often doomed to a future of stillborn investment and decay. Specifically, it would be impossible to secure federally backed mortgages, a sort of scarlet letter branded across huge swaths of the city. Developers avoided these areas and concentrated investment into white areas, and services stagnated. The seeds of the future ghettos of America had been sown.
Read more at The Guardian.