Redlining

The many lives of Detroit’s Berlin Wall

Revelers celebrating the destruction of the Berlin Wall. (Carol Guzy/The Washington Post)

In 1941, the city of Detroit finished construction on a six-foot-tall, half-mile-long wall near 8 Mile Road that would keep an African American neighborhood physically segregated from an adjacent white neighborhood to “preserve property values.” This was redlining in concrete form. Almost 80 years later, “Detroit’s Berlin Wall” still stands, but when the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles asked SHAN Wallace to photograph the area for its exhibition W|ALLS: DEFEND, DIVIDE, AND THE DIVINEˆ, she discovered that the structure had taken on unexpected meanings in the interim.

For elderly residents in their 90s, the wall remained an ugly embodiment of the housing loan practices of the 20th century. For those in their 50s, the wall represented a demarcation between “the cool black kids” who lived on one side and the “not so cool black kids” who dwelled on the other. “The wall was like a right of passage,” Wallace explained, relating what residents had told her about their experiences. “If you could walk the wall, you were cool, you could go meet your friend on the other side.”

Inmates looking towards the sky in a prison basketball court

Inside the walls of a prison in New Orleans. (Raymond Thompson Jr)

For children growing up in the neighborhood today, the wall has become a place to meet, a pragmatic landmark best known for its murals and proximity to a grassy park. “It was interesting to see how these different manifestations and interactions with the wall happened based on generations,” said Wallace.

The Annenberg exhibition, which runs through December 2019, explores the history and varied meanings of walls throughout the world, including Hadrian’s Wall, The Great Wall of China, and the current best-known incarnation of intolerance, the U.S./Mexico border wall. Yet Wallace’s accompanying video and still photographs of the Detroit Wall, and those who live with it, are perhaps one of the most affecting surprises within the show. On an intimate level, her work demonstrates that barriers, no matter how indomitable they seem, can never contain the scope of human imagination.

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