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Rosa Parks’ Detroit House Finds a Home in Berlin

Once abandoned and decrepit, the house has been restored overseas

(ASSOCIATED PRESS)
smithsonian.com

After Rosa Parks made her iconic act of protest on an Alabama bus, her life in the Southern state became unbearable. She faced a stream of death threats. She lost her job in a department store. Her husband was also fired. So Parks’ family packed up and moved into her brother’s Detroit home.

In the years after Parks’ death, that house was largely forgotten, as Sally McGrane reports for The New York Times. The structure fell into disrepair and was slated for demolition. But thanks to an unlikely collaboration between Parks’ niece and an American artist, Parks’ Detroit abode has found a new home—in Berlin.

The house now sits in one of the city’s working class neighborhoods, behind an apartment building. It’s not the most conspicuous location, but the home has attracted considerable attention in Germany; its arrival in the country made front-page news, and a steady steam of visitors has been stopping by the house since it opened to the public in April.

Transporting the historic home overseas was a last resort for Rhea McCauley, Parks’ niece. For years, she had tried—and failed—to raise the funds necessary for restoring her aunt’s former residence. “I talked to neighbors,” McCauley said during an interview with Atika Shubert of CNN. “I asked for help … I begged several organizations that Auntie Rosa worked with because I thought they loved her. But no, they didn't want to help me restore the property.”

Then McCauley was introduced to Ryan Mendoza, a Berlin-based artist from New York. For one of his previous projects, Mendoza had purchased a derelict Detroit home, dismantled it, and resurrected it at the Verbeke Foundation in Belgium. The installation explored the American subprime mortgage crisis, which has led to thousands of foreclosures in Detroit, according to The Detroit News.

When he spoke to McCauley, Mendoza saw an opportunity to save another of the city’s abandoned homes—this one once occupied by a hero of the civil rights movement.

In August of last year, Mendoza and a local team began taking apart the house, reports Stephanie Kirchner of The Washington Post. The parts were packed into shipping crates and sent off to Europe. By October, Mendoza had started piecing the home back together in the courtyard next to his Berlin home. He repaired the house’s crumbling roof and collapsing walls, but left its exterior unpolished.

“I’m glad it’s not painted nicely, with flowers and a picket fence,” McCauley told McGrane of the Times. “We’re not talking about a fairy tale, there’s no Hansel and Gretel here. We’re talking about a lady who sacrificed so much, who suffered.”

Visitors are not allowed inside the house—for insurance reasons, but also because Mendoza wanted it “to have its dignity,” McGrane reports. The artist, however, has been letting himself in the house to play recordings of Parks’ radio interviews, filling the structure with her voice.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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