Along Detroit's Eight Mile Road, a stark racial split

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Last weekend, "8 Mile," a film starring local hip-hop artist Eminem and filmed in this city, sold out more than 40 times at The Phoenix theater.

The movie, a pseudobiographical story about the white rapper's rise, offers a hopeful glimpse of this city's longtime racial tension: Eminem's character has black and white friends, and he gains acceptance for his talent despite his skin color.

The scene at the Phoenix this week, however, bore little resemblance to the storyline. The crowds have been overwhelmingly African-American. That is not remarkable. The Phoenix is the only first-run movie theater in this city where 81 percent of the citizenry is black.

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But the cinema, which sits on Eight Mile Road, the avenue for which the movie is named, is directly across the street from Warren, a city that is 91 percent white. And though the theater is newly remodeled and Eminem is popular with blacks and whites, few of Warren's residents have been crossing the road to see the movie.

Michael Rhodes, who is black, says he isn't surprised. "That's the way it is here," he says, as he exits the cinema. "We stay on our side and they usually stay on theirs."

The problem of racial segregation is not unique to Detroit. Indeed, 40 years after the death of Jim Crow, blacks and whites often live separate lives in separate communities all over the United States.

But the problem is especially ingrained in the Detroit area. It is, according to the 2000 Census, the most segregated metropolitan region in the country.

And on Eight Mile, the divisions are the most stark. There are eight lanes of asphalt and concrete separating one side of the street from the other, but as a racial divide it might as well be the Grand Canyon.

At first glance, the road looks like nothing special. The flatness of the landscape and the straightness of the street means that when one is driving on it, the road is the horizon line both in front and behind. It can appear endless. There are few residences. It is generally a commercial thoroughfare with one small storefront after another, ranging from auto-repair shops to fast-food restaurants. In between strip malls there are occasional vacant lots, manufacturing plants, and, inevitably, strip clubs.

But from the very beginning the street has defined the region - and in fact the entire state - metaphorically as well as factually.

In 1785 it was drawn as the baseline for maps of the entire territory on Michigan. And while Detroit's annexation of land left its boundaries jagged along its other borders, the northern border of Eight Mile Road remained a straight line.

The city's racial tensions have long roots.

As southern blacks moved north to cities like Detroit in the 1930s and 1940s, many whites simply left the city and built communities that developed exclusionary policies, says Robin Boyle, an urban expert at Wayne State University. Michigan law allowed for particularly strong home rule, which, he says, included "conspiracies particularly between the real estate and finance industries."

The city's population shifted from 43 percent black in 1970 to 63 percent in 1980. And though federal laws eventually outlawed discriminatory housing practices, the history already in place in Detroit has been hard to overcome.

"What creates the high level of segregation in this area is that whites don't stick around long enough for integration to occur," says Cliff Schrepp, executive director of the Fair Housing Center of Metropolitan Detroit. "When blacks come into the neighborhood, they leave."

Institutional apartheid?

Even with laws in place, subtler exclusionary real estate practices still go on, says E'toile Libbett, president of the Detroit Board of Realtors. Racism is something that is felt if not always seen.

"There are a lot of stories and it is done much more quietly now," she says. "If something like a black couple look in a white neighborhood and they hear, 'Oh, there's a sales agreement on that [house],' and then two or three weeks later it is still on the market and nothing has happened."

Beyond rumor there are occasional hard-fact cases.

Just two years ago, a local real-estate agent was honored for reporting a white seller, a former state judge, who refused to sell to a black family in nearby River Rouge. The seller lived in another home on the street and did not want the first property to go to a black family.

In cities like Warren the racial contrast is remarkable. The small subdivisions just north of Eight Mile look almost like replicas of the neighborhoods on the south side in Detroit. The streets on both sides are lined with small, largely well-kept houses populated mostly by blue-collar workers.

But color line remains marked. When a Warren high school put up new basketball hoops here and blacks began coming north to use them, the district's response was to take the rims down. The school said neighborhood complaints about noise were the reason, but many suspected subtle racism.

A problem of property values

However, whites who live in the area maintain they face complicated issues. Even if they harbor no racial animosity, they say they are hostage to the environment. Because area whites don't want to live near blacks, the arrival of a single black family in their neighborhood means their property values will likely drop.

And, of course, the long-standing racial tensions here also mean blacks are not particularly interested in living near whites - particularly in some areas.

Some see hopeful signs of change

Sipping a cup of coffee at a mall food court, Rosie Willoughby, who is black, says the racial tensions in the area are at times daunting.

"We all have to get along," she says. "And I think a lot of things have gotten better. I don't think there is as much harassment as there used to be in those areas. But the truth is, I don't go to those places too much. I'd rather just stay in Detroit and mind my own business."

Many blacks, even those with the money to leave the city of Detroit, decide to do the same thing.

While the picture often painted of this city by the national media is one of utter devastation, there are pockets that look as though they were preserved from the 1950s, where large, well-kept homes remain and black families live.

When black families do move out into the suburbs they often face unique challenges. Kenneth Mitchell, who is black and grew up in a house just south of Eight Mile, now lives in a large home in the city of Sterling Heights, which is 91 percent white, with his wife and two young sons, seven miles out from Detroit. "We've got great neighbors and everyone knows the kids," he says. "Overall it's been wonderful."

Mitchell moved back to the area three years ago after living in a Los Angeles suburb where "people lived where they wanted" and race issues were largely nonexistent. He was determined to live the same way when he moved back to the Detroit area. "This is the most racially charged area I have ever seen," he says. "People don't talk about it, but it hangs over everything. But I don't want to live that way."

Still, Mitchell faces problems. One neighbor refuses to let his daughter play with Mitchell's sons. And Mitchell's own relatives, who still live in Detroit, tell him he shouldn't have moved out of the city.

"There is this thing that goes back years and years and years, that when you cross Eight Mile you've got to watch your back," he says. "For some of them it's been so long they now have no desire to cross Eight Mile." He shakes his head and smiles. "It's going to take time. It's going to take a long time."

In some areas, more diversity

Looking around this city there are signs of hope that Detroit's history of segregation may eventually wear down.

Cliff Schrepp, of the Fair Housing Center, says he's beginning to see changes.

On Woodward Avenue in the downtown area, for instance, young whites are moving into lofts and condos. The computer company Compuware is building its new world headquarters in that vicinity. That may draw young, creative computer workers to the booming spot where, increasingly, blacks and whites eat, drink, and dance together.

Some of the city's grand old areas - Indian Village, Palmer Woods, Edison Park - are also starting to take on a multiracial diversity.

"I've had some listings in those areas and we're starting to get some young white couples interested in moving down there," says Ms. Libbett, of the real estate board. "We're starting to get some people looking to live in a more diverse area."

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