Walls have been built to separate us; to repel invading armies; to keep people in; to keep people out; to protect privacy; buffer expressway noise; and, sadly, to protect property values. In some modern cities, walls have been built to separate the races and the economically disadvantaged.
In Greater Lansing, a trip east on Lake Lansing Road provides a reminder of why certain walls were built. Driving east, you encounter the decorative brick grey wall near Whitehills School. It continues for about a mile and serves as a separation between Towar Gardens, a historically economically depressed area, and Whitehills neighborhood to the south, which was developed in the late-’40s by George and Albert White as an upscale housing complex with faux southern colonial mini-mansions.
The Towar Gardens wall was built to provide a demarcation between the two communities and to block what Albert thought was a depressing vista across the street from Whitehills. Towar Gardens in the ’40s and ’50s was a mixed-use area with small farms, horse barns and raspberry fields spread among less magisterial housing options. Nearby, families boarded their horses at the small farms, and you could buy burros for $50 each.
Albert White saw it a little differently. “Towar Gardens represents a slum area — everything I stand against, White wrote in a 1974 article. "I don’t mean to belittle the people living there. There are some fine people in Towar Gardens.”
In an effort to clean up the area, White went as far as to propose paying for the painting of homes in Towar Gardens that fronted Lake Lansing Road.
Detroit area author Gerald Van Dusen has written about another controversial wall in his new book, “Detroit’s Birwood Wall.” It was built in 1941 to separate white and black neighborhoods along Eight Mile Road in Detroit. The wall, which still stands today and serves as a reminder of the racial divide that confronted Detroit in the ’40s and continues to this day. The book was selected by the Library of Michigan as a Notable Book for 2020.
The 189-page book delves deeply into the complex racial history of Detroit. It focuses primarily on the impact of the Great Migration era, when southern blacks moved in great numbers to northern cities to work in the auto and manufacturing plants.
According to VanDusen, this migration placed great stress on the city’s evolving housing market.
That stress might be best symbolized by the Birwood Wall. Van Dusen recalled discovering it while visiting a friend from their private high school who lived near the wall. In preparation for writing the book, he walked the half-mile stretch of wall and its surrounding neighborhood numerous times. The concrete wall is 1 foot thick and stands 5 feet tall.
The Birwood Wall has an interesting and troubling history. In the ’30s, the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corp., or HOLC, was established to provide emergency loans and began rating neighborhoods in 200 cities across the United States to measure loan risk. Risk was represented by colors ranging from green for “best” to red for “hazardous.” This system later became known as redlining and it became code for neighborhoods populated by minority and marginalized populations.
The wall resulted when a developer proposed building a new housing complex on the east side of Eight Mile Road. HOLC refused to underwrite the new development until the developer offered to build a wall separating the two communities, which still stands today in its entirety, some of it covered with decorative murals.
Van Dusen writes: “As a symbol, the wall embodies the many daily barriers that African Americans have had to overcome in order to survive.”
Van Dusen explores other areas that created a separation in the city of Detroit including transportation, education and access to health care. Some of the problems that still exist today.
In researching his book, Van Dusen said he used a technique he learned in graduate school to look “left and right” and rely on serendipity. He did this while researching the Birwood Wall area.
On these trips, Van Dusen said he stopped and talked to neighbors. He recalled talking with a man out front of his home trimming bushes. He soon found himself inside talking with the man’s septuagenarian mother, who had gone to school with Betty Sanders, the eventual wife of Malcolm X.
“I interviewed 60-70 residents and chose to include in the book authentic stories which were representative. I became a familiar fixture in the neighborhood and, as I would stop to chit-chat, I would gain their trust. I got invited to backyard barbeques and neighborhood parties like the annual Eight Mile Forever celebration,” Van Dusen said.
“I met more people who didn’t know about the history of the wall and who were either shocked, amused or outraged. The memories of that era are pretty visceral and I was moved by the continuing distrust of the police,” he added.
This fall, he will continue with his research into the volatile racial relations in Detroit during the World War II era and publish a book on the bloody 1943 Sojourner Truth Housing Project riot. He also has begun research on STRESS, Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets, a brutal police unit formed in response to crime in Detroit during the ’70s.