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PHOTOS: "Split," a photo essay by Fenton teacher, reveals racial barriers still haunting Detroit

Jul 27, 2017

Divisions, intolerance and a biased political process have influenced Detroit for several decades before and since the 1967 uprising. The idea for “Split” was born after meeting Detroiters who live behind the Wailing Wall, built in the 1940’s to separate white and black neighborhoods.

I found it compelling that these residents had such a blatant, physical reminder of racism literally in their backyards. This led me on a journey to learn more about how barriers of the past still haunt the city today. I wanted to let the people tell their city’s story themselves.

This photo essay is the result of research and dozens of interviews over the last five years that focused on the Wailing Wall and on the demolition of Paradise Valley, a culturally rich black neighborhood in the heart of Motown that was destroyed to build the Chrysler Freeway (I-75).

The lingering scars of housing segregation and other injustices relate to Detroit’s current crisis. Past struggles that have never been reconciled still trouble Motown. The story of Detroit is complex with no simple answers and “Split” aims to capture the stories of faith, survival and hope that remain.

See all 45 photos below, or click the first image to open a slideshow:

Nick Gregory is a teacher and basketball coach at Fenton Area Schools, as well as a prolific photographer and writer. His photo essay, "Split," was featured at the 2013 Grand Rapids Art Prize. It comes to Michigan Radio as a part of our series Summer of Rebellion: Looking Back at Detroit 1967.

This 6-feet-tall concrete wall is a blatant symbol of housing segregation, created in the 1940’s to separate blacks in the Eight Mile area from the adjoining white neighborhood. A developer was required to build the wall to meet the standards of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board.
Credit Nick Gregory

The wall, shown here with a mural of a bird, was intended to protect the adjoining white neighborhood from falling property values. Lenders would draw red lines on a map to mark areas with a high concentration of blacks, refusing to lend money in those areas. Lenders used the political process to promote segregation. Under the 1934 National Housing Act, red-lining was legal.
Credit Nick Gregory

Delois Magee, 86, has lived with the Wailing Wall in her backyard for 54 years. She tends a small garden next to the wall, reminding her of the Mississippi farm her family worked when she was a little girl. Her family migrated from the South for jobs in the factories. Magee’s fenced-in yard is immaculate even though her garden has been vandalized each of the last two summers.
Credit Nick Gregory

Delois Magee, 86, planted a garden next to the wall. Her hands are tired. “I’m glad the wall is there. That’s their side and this is our side. The wall helps keep the bad people out,” Magee’s daughter Lynn says. “It used to be like we lived in the suburbs, but now we got people selling drugs right outside our door. I got a gun for protection. This is self-preservation.”
Credit Nick Gregory

In 1958, the “Spirit of Detroit” statue was installed downtown. While a concrete wall separated neighbors on the north end of the city, the Spirit of Detroit stood as a symbol signifying the importance of human relationships. The statue includes a passage that reads, “Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”
Credit Nick Gregory
Gloria Johnson, 83, stares out the bedroom window of her home at the Wailing Wall in her backyard near Eight Mile Road. She says, “The quality of life has diminished here. You have to be careful and cautious because bad things happen.” Then she asks, “What am I doing here in the city? I just want to pack my bags and go and then I realize there are a lot of good things.”
Credit Nick Gregory
Gloria Johnson, 83, has lived with the Wailing Wall in the backyard of her Detroit home for more than 50 years. She sleeps with a rifle near her bedside. “I used to feel safe here. We used to leave our doors unlocked,” she says of her neighborhood, once lined with manicured lawns and well-kept homes. In 2013, there were more than 600 reported crimes in her neighborhood.
Credit Nick Gregory
Detroit is 139-square miles with six straight decades of declining population, leaving more than 80,000 abandoned buildings and residential lots within its city limits. Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy making it the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history.
Credit Nick Gregory
This stretch of I-75 was Paradise Valley, home to 75% of Detroit’s blacks in the 1940’s. The Housing Act of 1949 made federal money available for Detroit to implement a slum clearance plan. Home to more than 400 black-owned businesses, Paradise Valley was demolished in 1958. The one-mile stretch of I-375 was completed in 1964 and wiped out Black Bottom, also a black enclave.
Credit Nick Gregory
From 1958 - 1968, thousands of black Detroiters were uprooted from their homes only to face discrimination while searching for new homes. The Brewster-Douglas Housing Projects pictured in the background became home to many of the displaced people. Shortly after freeway construction ended, the 1967 Detroit race riots left 43 dead, 467 injured and more than $50 million in damages.
Credit Nick Gregory
This pedestrian walkway over the Chrysler Freeway (I-75) near Mack Ave. overlooks what was Paradise Valley, a black neighborhood and business district that was home to 75% of all the blacks living in Detroit in the 1940’s.
Credit Nick Gregory
Michael was Detroit’s most recognizable panhandler as a fixture outside games and concerts. He was the victim of a fatal hit and run accident in the early morning hours of July 2013. To date, no suspects have been named and his death, like many crimes in Detroit, remains unsolved. Another photograph of Michael in his wheelchair is part of this exhibit.
Credit Nick Gregory
Michael lost both of his feet to frostbite during a harsh Detroit winter when he was homeless. Before he was killed, he went to the streets daily to collect donations. On this day, temperatures hit single-digits. Homelessness continues to plague Detroit, which has a dark history of housing prejudice. Michael graciously gave me permission to photograph him and share these images.
Credit Nick Gregory
An hourly worker sits outside the New Center Stamping Plant on Hastings Street. As the only operating factory in the area, the desolate location includes workers milling about and little else. Once the main corridor of Paradise Valley, most of the street was demolished for urban renewal. Famous blues musician John Lee Hooker referenced the wild Hastings Street scene in his songs.
Credit Nick Gregory
Charlie makes regular rounds in some of the abandoned factories near Hastings Street. “I gotta do what I gotta do to get by,” Charlie says, as he pushes this shopping cart through the streets. Detroit has experienced power outages caused by people cutting down live telephone wires for the copper found inside. Scrappers have even stolen copper grave plates from Detroit cemeteries.
Credit Nick Gregory
Facing the remaining two blocks of Hastings Street, Fisher Body Plant 21 stands empty in the background. Berry Gordy, of Motown Record fame, used to visit the clubs on Hastings Street to see his favorite performers. All black visitors needing a hotel in Detroit had to stay in Paradise Valley due to Jim Crow.
Credit Nick Gregory
This vacant lot near Paradise Valley serves as the meeting point for hundreds of Detroit residents who imbibe weekly to celebrate with live jazz and blues. The neighborhood celebration draws people of all ages and races.
Credit Nick Gregory
“Squirrel” plays the saxophone just four blocks from the birthplace of Detroit jazz on Hastings Street.“Hastings Street was the Mecca of black entertainment,” according to fellow-Detroit musician Thomas Pablo. “This [live music in the neighborhood] is about the experience for people, the atmosphere and the joy.”
Credit Nick Gregory
“People connect with the blues because it’s the truth,” says Detroit musician Thomas Pablo. “The blues are about love lost and love hoped for. There is no in-between.” Pablo plays the harmonica at a neighborhood jam session that draws a crowd of hundreds every Sunday in the summer, just four blocks east of where Hastings Street stood.
Credit Nick Gregory
A boy, 4, dances with his grandfather as “Lady Champagne” sings on stage at John’s Carpet House. The boy’s father says the family lives on the East side of town, and they try to see the live performances often because their son is happiest when he is dancing.
Credit Nick Gregory
The great jazz and blues clubs of Paradise Valley were lost when Hastings Street was demolished in 1958, but the Detroit sound still lives today. Baker’s Keyboard Lounge at Eight Mile and Livernois claims to be the world’s oldest jazz club and they have a full line-up of entertainment every weekend.
Credit Nick Gregory
Geographically large enough to fit San Francisco, Boston and Manhattan within its borders, Detroit and its abandoned canvases are attracting artists from around the world. Historically known as a hub for creative expression, the Detroit art scene is vibrant.
Credit Nick Gregory
This house in Detroit’s oldest neighborhood of Corktown has since been razed. Detroit faces about 14 arson-related fires a day. With about 30,000 EMS and fire calls per year, the bankrupt city does not have the resources to investigate most of the suspicious fires. Detroit garnered national media attention when arsonists set more than 800 fires on the eve of Halloween in 1984.
Credit Nick Gregory
These Detroit residents tend one of the estimated 750 gardens in Detroit in an effort to change negative trends. About 80% of the city’s residents purchase their food at fringe food retailers such as liquor stores, gas stations and dollar stores (reference: Mari Gallagher). A poor economy, unemployment rates above 25% and poor public transportation contribute to the food crisis.
Credit Nick Gregory
The lower East side of Paradise Valley earned the nickname “The Rat Belt” because rats ran the streets without fear of humans. Overcrowding and a lack of government services, such as garbage pick-up, made the black East side neighborhoods in Detroit fertile ground for rats. Today, feral cats, stray dogs and even pheasants are a common sight in East side neighborhoods.
Credit Nick Gregory
A four-year-old boy plays at Forest Park in Detroit with his mother nearby. This once-abandoned park near Mack Ave. has been adopted by two elementary school classrooms whose final project for the 2011 school year was to “Be the Change” in Detroit. Mack Ave. was the southern border of Paradise Valley, once home to 75% of Detroit blacks and more than 400 black-owned businesses.
Credit Nick Gregory
Weeping graffiti, near Paradise Valley, illustrates Detroit’s complexity - tough and fragile. Contradiction makes its home in Motown. There is a conflicted spirit embodied by optimism and hope along with frustration and fear. Many Detroiters are determined in the face of adversity and the challenge could not be more stark.
Credit Nick Gregory
A teenage boy waits on the corner in a city where high school graduation rates are among the lowest in the nation. Detroit Public Schools shrunk dramatically after losing 45% of their student population since 1999. Less than 4% of Detroit graduates are “College Ready” according to the ACT test. One quarter of Detroiters aged 25 or higher do not have a high school diploma or GED.
Credit Nick Gregory
With temperatures soaring, these children from Detroit’s East side cool off with the help of a fire hydrant. Sadly, scrappers have stripped the brass threads from many of the fire hydrants, rendering them useless even for recreation.
Credit Nick Gregory
Stuffed animals serve as memorials to children slain in Detroit. In a city where there were 144 youth homicide victims from 2008-2010, the struggle is hard to miss as it is witnessed throughout the entire city.
Credit Nick Gregory
Ford Field, seen in the background, sits on a portion of Paradise Valley. Within a block of Detroit’s surging Mid-Town area, skeletons of neighborhoods exist. In some areas, pockets of new development border scattered abandoned buildings and empty lots in bizarre fashion.
Credit Nick Gregory
Only New York and Chicago received more immigrants than Detroit from 1900-1929. Religious institutions , immigration trends and employment connected to shape Detroit. Matthew Bode, pastor of Spirit of Hope Detroit wrote, “Of course faith communities are not the only places these relationships happen, but they are among the oldest, most stable and most reliable.”
Credit Nick Gregory
Glenn Lovel, 82, attends church at Pilgrim Rest on Detroit’s East side. As a City of Detroit worker, he poured concrete for the urban renewal project that destroyed Paradise Valley. “It was a good time for working,” he says of the 1940’s and 1950’s.
Credit Nick Gregory
Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a speech in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood in 1954. He said, “It’s necessary to go backward in order to go forward. In other words, we’ve got to go back and rediscover the principle that there is a God behind the process.” This empty pew is within of a three-block stretch, that includes five small churches on Detroit’s East side.
Credit Nick Gregory
Traces of beauty can still be found in the East side neighborhoods that were split by freeway construction during the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Credit Nick Gregory
The Michigan Theatre, built in 1926, was transformed into a parking garage in the 1970’s. Before parked cars filled the space Bob Hope, Jimmy Dorsey and the Marx Brothers, among others, packed the large theatre. There was seating for about 4,000 and the opulent French Renaissance design was unrivaled in Detroit.
Credit Nick Gregory
Maya Angelou’s 1969 autobiography title, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," can be found along the bottom of an abandoned building just a block from the freeway.
Credit Nick Gregory
At one time there were more than 3,000 African-American churches in Detroit and many of them were small churches similar in size to the one pictured above. It is difficult to get an accurate report of how many churches currently exist. In many neighborhoods, the schools and the churches still serve as the recreation and community outreach centers for families and the elderly.
Credit Nick Gregory
Noted Detroit historian Thomas Sugrue claims that Detroit has ranked among the 10 most segregated metropolitan areas in the United States since the mid-20th century. According to an analysis of 2010 Census data, Detroit is the second most segregated city in the country. (Professors John Logan, Brown University and Brian Stults, Florida State University)
Credit Nick Gregory
The Heidelberg Project was created by artist Tyree Guyton in 1986 in response to the decay in his Detroit neighborhood. The re-purposed abandoned homes and unique displays have garnered world-wide attention. The public art exhibit has constantly faced challenges. Six houses were demolished by the city between 1990-2000 and a recent string of fires claimed another eight houses.
Credit Nick Gregory
In an eight month span in 2013-2014, eight fires destroyed significant parts of the Heidelberg Project. Arson claimed popular houses with names like, “The Clock House”, “The Doll House” and “The Penny House”. This picture was taken through a burnt out window of the “Obstruction of Justice House” two days after a fire destroyed most of the art.
Credit Nick Gregory
This art installment is part of the Heidelberg Project in Detroit. “Art is a medicine to cure people of the issues they are facing,” says Jessica Williams, 29, a Heidelberg employee. “It’s taken crisis level for people to respond.” The front of the piano reads, “The Voice of Hope.”
Credit Nick Gregory
Art or vandalism? This graffiti is an abandoned industrial area. In high traffic areas, graffiti and “tags” can end up costing taxpayers money. The state spent a half-million dollars removing graffiti from roadways in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and St. Clair counties in 2012 and $150,000 alone was spent removing graffiti from expressway overpasses, according to MLive.
Credit Nick Gregory
Soul Saving Church, located on the edge of Paradise Valley, sits directly across from Henry Ford’s first car assembly plant. Attendance at Sunday services has drastically declined in the last decade.
Credit Nick Gregory
In other words, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God.” The message on the door appears to be from the King James Version of the Bible. This door was found just a few blocks away from the location where the 1967 race riots began. Facing the remains of arson and vandalism, this door is one of many expressions of faith found in Detroit.
Credit Nick Gregory

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Gregory has been a social studies teacher in Michigan since 2000 and he has been a National Writing Project Teacher consultant and a high school basketball coach since 2002. Gregory is an America Achieves Lead Fellow and he has exhibited photography related to Detroit and Flint social justice causes since 2011. Gregory, who has a Masters degree in Educational Leadership, believes that students need to learn from honest accounts of American history in order to tackle today's challenges. You can follow Nick Gregory on Twitter @CivicsEngaged or read his blog at https://civicsengaged.blogspot.com