Newspaper clipping from 1939 that mentions a wall and buffer strip in the Liberty City neighborhood in Miami, FL
Since 2017, Chat Travieso, past Participatory Design Fellow of Design Trust's Under the Elevated project, has been working on a research entitled, A Nation of Walls, investigating the history of segregation walls, fences, road barricades, and buffer strips—physical barriers constructed throughout the United States to separate black and white communities. Mr. Travieso is in the process of developing an interactive website to present his research, map these structures, and provide a platform for community members to share their stories. This article offers an overview of his process and some of his findings. The research is supported by Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature with fiscal sponsorship from Storefront for Art and Architecture.
Chat Travieso is an artist, designer, and educator who creates community-engaged, architectural, and research-based art and design projects.
As an artist/designer who often creates works that subvert urban objects of exclusion (like walls and fences) into places where community members can gather, discovering the existence and pervasiveness of segregation walls spurred me to investigate further. I saw these physical structures as an overt reminder of how racism and real estate interests have intersected to shape the built environment, as well as a potent entry point to discuss other, more invisible forms of systemic discrimination. In a political climate saturated in rhetoric of walls and racial exclusion, this topic felt especially timely and necessary.
Though such books as Connolly's A World More Concrete and Thomas J. Sugrue's The Origin of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton University Press, 2005) touch on specific walls in Miami and Detroit respectively, I found that there is no comprehensive study of these structures, and whenever certain walls are discussed, it is usually in passing. So began my research project—A Nation of Walls, to excavate this overlooked history and provide a platform for community members to share their stories. Over the past two years, I have uncovered evidence of twenty-six existing, demolished or planned (but never built) segregation walls, fences, road barricades/closures, and buffer strips in Alabama, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, and Virginia. Much of this research was conducted by reviewing archival news articles, as well as relevant books, essays, and supreme court briefs. I also visited five sites where there are still fragments visible and where I interviewed local historians and stakeholders.
While my research began by looking at concrete walls built primarily in the 1930s and 40s, I eventually expanded my scope to also include additional barriers as well as later eras. It became evident that the public agencies, residents, and/or developers who built these barriers intended similar effects regardless if they built a wall, fence, road barricade, or buffer strip. I saw these structures as having the same explicit and singular function to separate and divide. Moreover, objecting residents and/or the press often referred to any barrier, whether it was a traditional wall or not, as a “wall” in order to emphasize the structure’s exclusionary nature. In fact, for barriers constructed after 1961, these structures were frequently nicknamed that city’s “Berlin Wall.” For example, road barricades erected in 1962 in a white neighborhood in Atlanta to discourage black residents from moving in after an African American surgeon purchased a house in the area was deemed “Atlanta’s Berlin Wall” by protesters.
Over the course of my research, it also became clear that the practice of erecting physical barriers to segregate neighborhoods, was not contained to just the 1930s and 40s. It continues to this day. Many of the same arguments made for the necessity of a barrier in recent years are very similar to those that were made in earlier decades, oftentimes stressing concerns with falling property values or rising crime rates. Countless communities across America have closed public streets to thru traffic in the name of crime prevention and traffic control. While the language used to justify these actions often does not explicitly mention race, many of these structures still function as de facto segregation barriers.
For instance, residents of Miami’s affluent Morningside neighborhood, a majority white area located immediately east of the majority black community of Little Haiti, have chosen to block every road leading into Morningside with landscaped barricades (mostly installed in the early 1990s) or security gates (installed in the early 2000s), despite the fact there is a public park within the borders of the neighborhood.
Though physical barriers have not been the principal apparatus for racial segregation, they reinforced exclusionary policies such as redlining--a practice that began in the 1930s in which black neighborhoods were labeled “hazardous” and painted red on government-commissioned color-coded maps used by lenders to exclude these communities from federally-insured mortgage loans. Realty companies would sometimes build walls in conjunction with new residential developments to delineate racial boundaries and qualify for these loans, as was the case in Detroit in the early 1940s when a white developer wishing to build a white-only subdivision just to the west of an existing black enclave made a deal with the Federal Housing Administration to erect a race wall in return for FHA-approved financing.
The history of these structures underscores the symbolic weight of walls and brings into relief the racist assumptions and arbitrary nature embedded in property value. This spatial demarcation and the systems of oppression it bolstered have had real lasting consequences over generations, depriving an immeasurable number of communities access to home ownership which has significantly contributed to our persistent racial wealth gap.White municipalities also built walls, fences, and road barricades as tools of intimidation. These barriers represented the limits of where black residents could travel safely. As recounted in James Loewen’s book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism (Touchstone, 2006), well into the 1960s black residents knew not to cross a road barricade that divided North Brentwood, an African American suburb in Maryland near Washington DC, from the white neighborhood of Brentwood, or risk violence from the KKK and other hostile white residents.
In addition to marking the border between black and white neighborhoods, these barriers were often physical obstructions as well, forcing black residents to take circuitous routes to reach critical amenities. For instance, a ten-block segregation fence built in the 1940s in Fort Worth, Texas impeded African American residents of the Como neighborhood from accessing the nearest public library and grocery store into the 1970s, and a half-mile race wall in Melbourne, FL to this day blocks a more direct path to the nearest elementary school, requiring black school children to walk around the north or south end of the wall.
ONGOING DOCUMENTATION AND RESEARCH
There is a myriad of ways public institutions and private actors have created and sustained racial apartheid in the United States, such as through sundown towns, redlining, restrictive covenants, contract selling, block busting, real estate steering, exclusionary zoning, and the placement and construction of highways (among many other methods). Yet, there is no clearer and more visible embodiment of exclusion and division than a wall. These structures erase all doubt and ambiguity (if any remained) that much of what has governed U.S. housing policy has been founded on racism and planned disenfranchisement.
Currently, I am developing a website that maps the history of all these barriers and presents archival materials and information for each structure. I intend to include an interactive function that invites visitors to post markers on the map for barriers not listed. Since there is so little documentation of these structures, this participatory research tool would give historians and community-members the opportunity to add to this work and share their experience. I want to emphasize with this function that the story of these walls and its effects belongs to the communities that have been most impacted by these structures and the racist policies that put them there.
Many of the same arguments made for the necessity of a barrier in recent years are very similar to those that were made in earlier decades, oftentimes stressing concerns with falling property values or rising crime rates. Countless communities across America have closed public streets to thru traffic in the name of crime prevention and traffic control.