The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

State and Nation

May 1, 2013

Wall that once divided races remains, teaches

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.

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