- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 24, 2002

DETROIT For almost as long as there has been a Detroit, there has been an Eight Mile Road.
The road began as a baseline for the U.S. Land Survey in 1785 and has evolved as a physical and metaphorical border eight miles north of downtown. It grew into a symbol separating urban and suburban, black and white.
Eight Mile Road forms Detroit's northern border for 18 miles, between the city and the suburbs of Eastpointe, Warren, Hazel Park, Ferndale, Royal Oak Township, Oak Park and Southfield. Detroit's population is 83 percent black. These suburbs vary in racial makeup, but four are more than 90 percent white.
Now eight lanes wide, Eight Mile is dotted with industrial buildings, retail businesses, churches, liquor stores, topless clubs and homes.
In the new movie "8 Mile," starring Grammy-award winning rapper Eminem, the road serves as a metaphor for his character's search for identity as a white person in a predominantly black culture. Eminem, born Marshall Mathers, lived for a time on each side of Eight Mile Road.
"Basically, both sides had pretty much the same income, but when I was growing up, it was literally black on one side and white on the other," the rapper has said. "Me growing up on both sides, it was interesting to see."
Walking down Eight Mile Road today, there is a perpetual sense of border. It bears the scars and stigmas of a time when there was open hostility between classes and races. For many, it is simply a place to live or work.
At 15216 E. Eight Mile Road, Sue Joy has been reading palms at Mrs. West Psychic Reader on the Detroit side of the road for 25 years. She has watched the neighborhood deteriorate.
"People aren't keeping up with their buildings," she says, ignoring the peeling paint on her own storefront. "Either they're discouraged or planning to move."
Moving is what made Eight Mile a part of the vernacular. White flight began in the 1950s as a trickle and became a torrent after blacks rioted in 1967. It culminated during the administration of Coleman A. Young, the city's first black mayor, who was acutely aware of the border and one of the first to voice it openly:
"I issue an open warning now to all those pushers, to all rip-off artists, to all muggers: It's time to leave Detroit; hit Eight Mile Road!" he exclaimed in his first inaugural address in 1974.
"Coleman wasn't dissing the suburbs. He was just saying, 'Crooks, hit the road.' The euphemism was Eight Mile," says Rep. John Conyers, who grew up in Detroit and represents Michigan's 14th District, which covers part of the road.
"Moving into a white neighborhood and especially a suburban neighborhood was an act of courage," Mr. Conyers says. "You had to be ready to take forms of violence against yourself and your family. That's a historical perspective, and it's not true just for suburban Detroit."
Lisa Labelle hopes to use the money she has made in four years as a topless dancer at Tycoons, on the Detroit side of the road, to attend law school. When she finishes her happy-hour shift, it is raining, creating a traffic backup in the nearby intersection. So she waits and talks about Eight Mile's reputation.
"They should change the name. They changed the name of Eastpointe from East Detroit, and there are a lot of people moving there," Miss Labelle says.
Most of the patrons at the club come from the nearby manufacturing plants and machine shops, and they all smile when they recognize Miss Labelle as they leave the club.
"I don't expect to meet a husband here," she says, rolling her eyes when they're gone.
In his song "Lose Yourself," on the "8 Mile" soundtrack, Eminem sings:
"If you had one shot, one opportunity/To seize everything you ever wanted/In one moment/Would you capture it/Or just let it slip?"
Tagliavia's Hitching Post (11203 E. Eight Mile Road) is a blue-collar bar in Warren, a suburb that is still heavily white. Many of the Hitching Post's customers work at the nearby Chrysler plant.
"I don't live around here," most of them say when asked about the border. They just work there.
But Leonard Tagliavia does live around here. He moved to Warren in 1961, when it was mostly fields and trees. Now, the community looks like much of the Eight Mile corridor.
"I wanted to move to the sticks, but I stayed here. I like it," he says as an after-work crowd files in.
There are few houses right on Eight Mile, but residential streets branch off. Most neighborhoods have rows of single-story, one-family houses, and many evenings when the weather is good, streets are filled with children.
Fifteen-year-old Kristopher Sams is playing basketball in the street with about 10 other neighborhood boys. The hoop is a bottomless milk crate nailed to a telephone pole. The boys readily point out crack houses on the street.
"Mostly people come from the suburbs to buy drugs," Kristopher says. "There used to be a lot of white people over here. They started moving out when the drugs started coming in. Now there's one white guy left on the block."
Police Cmdr. Stacy Brackens is in charge of Detroit's 8th Precinct, which covers part of Eight Mile. He grew up in Detroit, sees the road as mainly a busy commuter route and says the idea of a sharp border is outmoded.
"It's a carryover that I think still lives on. I would venture to say that if you go into the southern part of Warren, you can buy crack over there," he says.
"We see pretty much the same types of crime on both sides."
In another song, "Amity," Eminem sings: "That's why we don't call it 'Detroit'/We call it 'Amityville.'/You can get capped after just having a cavity filled./That's why they're crowned the murder capital still /This ain't Detroit, this is Hamburger Hill."
Continental Mobile Village is a trailer park on the Warren side of the road, and part of Eminem's movie was filmed here.
Michael Marcum, who moved out of Detroit 17 years ago, lives here with his family.
Deterioration of the school system and a rising crime rate prompted the move. "It wasn't just 'cause of blacks. It was because of the whole scene. It wasn't just one race. Everybody had a hand in it," he says.
And now? "Life's the same over here as it is over there. Everyone's just trying to survive. But some people choose to do it by hookin', crookin' and by gun, but that's how they do it. Some of us choose to work."
His daughter, Robyn Marcum, 20, says she won't go south of Eight Mile because her father won't allow it.
"I'm not afraid. I just won't do it," Robyn Marcum says, taking a break from in-line skating around the trailer park. "It's just how I grew up."
Her brother and cousin both worked as extras for "8 Mile." Robyn Marcum points out which trailers were in the filming, but says she had no interest in being part of it.
"Who wants to be in a movie called '8 Mile'?" she asks.
In one scene from the movie, Eminem is shown rapping to the tune of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" with a friend: "I live at home in a trailer./Mom, I'm comin' home to you."
At the intersection of Woodward Avenue and Eight Mile Road, a middle-aged woman pulls her van out of afternoon rush-hour traffic and into a vacant lot. She leaves a load of garbage there and continues down Eight Mile.
As night falls at the intersection, the road undergoes a marked change. Most of the machine-shop employees are gone, leaving only second-shift workers at major plants. The scores of auto-parts and repair shops close, and as soon as the sun is gone, prostitutes appear in the poorly lit area.
At 7041 W. Eight Mile Road, Kris Bell stands behind the counter at 3-in-1 Records, Barbers and Candy, a business he opened a year ago. Murals of Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G. and Detroit-area rappers D-12 adorn the outside of the store, which is across Eight Mile Road from Ferndale, a mostly white suburb that is home to the studio where much of Eminem's early work was recorded.
"I could never move out. It's my home," says Mr. Bell, who lives in the city but not along Eight Mile. "But a lot of people, I don't blame. If you've been victimized a lot, you got to do what you got to do."
The owner of a heating-and-cooling company next door was robbed a few times before he gave up and left, Mr. Bell says. Even so, he says he likes having a shop on Eight Mile because "you got the best of both worlds." There's Ferndale just across the street "and the freedom of living in Detroit."
The Rev. Jim Holley is senior pastor at the 4,000-member Historic Little Rock Baptist Church, 14425 W. Eight Mile Road. He has been at the predominantly black church for 23 years.
"Once you cross Eight Mile, the insurance rate changes, the bank rate changes," Mr. Holley says.
"There's racism. People don't like to use that word, but that's all it really is. It's a black-white issue. There's a change even in the landscape. People are walking from store to store in Ferndale and Royal Oak. At 10 at night, you see people sitting on the sidewalk eating. Name me one sidewalk cafe we have in Detroit. It's not only the mind-set; it's physical. The sad part of it is that it's not just black or white, it's that blacks that do well don't want to live with blacks."

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide