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Dividing wall now unifies Detroiters and sparks improvements along the 8 Mile corridor

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It was all about being cool.

Far from symbolic of racism, the span of wall Teresa Moon could see from her west-side home on Detroit’s Griggs Street represented a pastime for children in the 1960s.

“As kids, we didn’t know what it was,” says Moon, 63. “We didn’t know it was a wall to keep people from being around us. For us it was a rite of passage. If you walked the wall a certain distance, you were a cool kid.”

It wasn’t until she was a teen that Moon learned the barrier built in her Eight Mile Road-area neighborhood was designed to separate white residents from black ones. In fact, by the time she was old enough to begin understanding racism, the phenomenon known as “white flight” from Detroit neighborhoods had already begun.

Hakeem Weatherspoon connects with the “Wailing Wall,” a border of Alfonso Wells Memorial

Hakeem Weatherspoon connects with the “Wailing Wall,” a border of Alfonso Wells Memorial

While the wall still stands, less than a football field’s length from the childhood home Moon still occupies, its legacy has been largely erased. Meanwhile, the Eight Mile Community Organization has launched a revitalization plan for nearby Alfonso Wells Memorial Playground, to add even more optimism to the neighborhood’s future.

“One of the reasons we do what we do is to bring the neighborhood back together,” says Moon, who helps lead Eight Mile Community volunteers. “A lot of the neighbors don’t even talk to each other, so we want to get people out into the park.”

Known as the Wailing Wall, the one-foot-wide, six-foot-tall barrier at the edge of Alfonso Wells Memorial was built in 1940 as a landmark to separate properties the Federal Housing Administration would support with mortgages for white families from others in the neighborhood.

Houses occupied by blacks once filled the area that became the playground on the wall’s opposite side.

Since the early 1990s it has served as a colorful mural made over with images of children playing, flowers, and historical symbols, like civil rights demonstrators – one carrying a sign that reads, “Fair Housing.” The depictions, including a running theme of homes painted in every color of the rainbow, fit the welcoming mood Eight Mile Community Organization members will promote at the site throughout the summer.

eresa Moon (left) and Eight Mile Community Organization

eresa Moon (left) and Eight Mile Community Organization

Plans for Alfonso Wells were discussed as part of a recent neighborhood tour hosted by Impact Detroit, as part its “Blight Boot Camp” program. A vegetable garden and youth basketball tournament on the playground court are part of the vision, Moon says. Twenty bikes will be awarded to youth who help tend and weed the garden area.

Moon’s neighborhood pride has evolved over decades, since her parents bought the Griggs house for $10,000 in 1959. She remembers when the subdivision was filled with dirt roads, and one particular cock-a-doodle-do sound resembled what one might hear in a rural, southern town.

“That rooster was loud,” she says, smiling.

Hakeem Weatherspoon, a Denby High School graduate and Blight Boot Camp speaker, toured Alfonso Wells Memorial with about a dozen other Boot Camp guests. He was moved by the Eight Mile volunteers’ effort to recreate a sense of community.

“In order to build the community you need the community,” says Weatherspoon. “It all starts at home.

“Everybody can play a part in blight, whether you’re 72 and in a wheelchair, walking or talking. You can navigate.”

Alfonso Wells will serve as a location for Meet Up and Eat Up, the United Way-driven campaign to reduce hunger among school-aged children during summer when cafeteria meals aren’t available.

The attractions and activities will serve to create new energy in an area of Detroit that once discriminated against dozens of its own neighbors, Moon says. She and her fellow Eight Mile Community Organization members are perfectly content with the irony that growth and advancement will be generated in the shadow of a Wailing Wall.

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