Eight Mile Road and the 8 Mile Boulevard Association

Created by: Carter Berg
Time Period: 20th Century, Postwar
Topic: Infrastructure, Poverty, Race and Ethnicity

Blue dots indicate black people, red dots are white people. Eight Mile Road runs East-to-West, splitting the two demographics.

Eight Mile Road, originally utilized as a surveying line in the 1700s, evolved into a phycological and physical barrier between the traditionally black city to the south off Eight Mile Road and the white suburbs to the north. Prior to World War II, the area around the road was mostly farmland, especially to the north, and black and white workers were mostly segregated in Detroit, with black people generally assigned to menial work. When the war hit, however, many white men were drafted. Replacing them in the Detroit workforce were black men included in the major industries of the city for the first time. White and black people working in close proximity caused increased animosity between the two, and these tensions spilled over into the 1943 race riot – essentially a miniature race war which killed over thirty people in a three-day period. The racial tensions intensified even more following the war, as black people continued to flood the city in search of the same jobs that became available to them during the war. At the same time, white people began to flee the city into the suburbs into neighborhoods inaccessible to black people for financial reasons as well as due to racially restrictive practices by white real estate agents. This was the beginning of the “white flight” which deeply segregated the racial topography of Detroit on either side of Eight Mile Road. Another race riot in 1967 and a widely misconstrued comment telling criminals to “hit Eight Mile Road” from newly-elected mayor Coleman Young, a black man, in 1973 further expedited this white flight.

A Christmas display in Northland Mall in front of an entrance sign indicating the “Eight Mile Road side” of the mall. The mall was a feature of the suburban boom as white people could live and shop without having to enter the city.

The mid 1970s are when Eight Mile Road solidified its reputation as a physical, social, and racial barrier between the run-down black city and the well-kept white suburbs. The area surrounding the road devolved into a crime-ridden place of boarded-up windows and topless bars. Worth noting, too, is the physical distance across the road, as it has three or more lanes on either side with a sizable median. There are no public transit route that cross the road, further increasing the inaccessibility of the suburbs to black urban-goers. Between 1980 and 1992, Wayne County, just to the south of Eight Mile Road, lost more residents than any other county in the United States. In 1993, community leaders from the area came together to attempt to change the perception of the street, forming the 8 Mile Boulevard Association (8MBA). Partnering with the Michigan Department of Transportation, they produced a revitalization plan for the 27-mile road, with stated goals not of solving the racial differences, but of developing safe neighborhoods, office centers, and businesses along the street. In the thirty years since its founding, the 8MBA has made progress on their goals just as other revitalization efforts have made progress in reenergizing Detroit. Eight Mile Road is still a divider of race, but the communities around the road are safer and better-looking than during the era of white flight. Eight Mile Road has been the frontline of racial tension in Detroit, and its health has been indicative of the health of Detroit throughout its history.

A parade of firetrucks drives down Eight Mile Road in the 1960s, demonstrating the liveliness of the road before the 1970s.