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Along Detroit's Eight Mile Road, a stark racial split

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Last weekend, "8 Mile," a film starring local hip-hop artist Eminem and filmed in this city, sold out more than 40 times at The Phoenix theater.

The movie, a pseudobiographical story about the white rapper's rise, offers a hopeful glimpse of this city's longtime racial tension: Eminem's character has black and white friends, and he gains acceptance for his talent despite his skin color.

The scene at the Phoenix this week, however, bore little resemblance to the storyline. The crowds have been overwhelmingly African-American. That is not remarkable. The Phoenix is the only first-run movie theater in this city where 81 percent of the citizenry is black.

But the cinema, which sits on Eight Mile Road, the avenue for which the movie is named, is directly across the street from Warren, a city that is 91 percent white. And though the theater is newly remodeled and Eminem is popular with blacks and whites, few of Warren's residents have been crossing the road to see the movie.

Michael Rhodes, who is black, says he isn't surprised. "That's the way it is here," he says, as he exits the cinema. "We stay on our side and they usually stay on theirs."

The problem of racial segregation is not unique to Detroit. Indeed, 40 years after the death of Jim Crow, blacks and whites often live separate lives in separate communities all over the United States.

But the problem is especially ingrained in the Detroit area. It is, according to the 2000 Census, the most segregated metropolitan region in the country.

And on Eight Mile, the divisions are the most stark. There are eight lanes of asphalt and concrete separating one side of the street from the other, but as a racial divide it might as well be the Grand Canyon.

At first glance, the road looks like nothing special. The flatness of the landscape and the straightness of the street means that when one is driving on it, the road is the horizon line both in front and behind. It can appear endless. There are few residences. It is generally a commercial thoroughfare with one small storefront after another, ranging from auto-repair shops to fast-food restaurants. In between strip malls there are occasional vacant lots, manufacturing plants, and, inevitably, strip clubs.


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