To save the house of civil rights icon Rosa Parks from the wrecking ball, American artist Ryan Mendoza shipped it halfway across the world. Now it's on display in the German capital.
When Mendoza learned that a house where Parks lived in the late 1950s was to be demolished as part of Detroit's massive anti-blight campaign, he launched a spectacular rescue operation. Aided by a team of local volunteers, he took it apart piece by piece, just to re-erect it in Berlin a few weeks later.
The rundown two-story wooden structure, now nestled between inconspicuous apartment buildings in a petty bourgeois West Berlin neighborhood, was presented to the public for the first time on Saturday.
Between 1957 and 1959, it served Parks as a temporary shelter from the hostilities she had to endure in the South two years after becoming one of the United States' most prominent civil rights activists for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on an Alabama bus.
Mendoza in part created his piece to protest the city of Detroit, which, he says, treats as an eyesore and nuisance what he considers a national monument. It also sheds a spotlight on the massive problems faced by the city, where between 2005 and 2015 over 1 in 3 properties were foreclosed on because of mortgage defaults or unpaid taxes, according to a Detroit News report.
The project came about at the initiative of Parks's niece Rhea McCauley, who bought the derelict building for just $500 but was unable to raise the funds for its restoration. McCauley heard about Mendoza, already infamous in Detroit and beyond for controversial similar projects, and approached him. “She wanted to find out if I was a good guy or a bad guy, if I was trying to exploit or salvage the memory of her aunt,” the artist recalled in an interview with The Washington Post.
Mendoza knew that as a white male he wasn't the most logical choice for the job, but it didn't take him long to convince McCauley they were on the same team. In August, he and his helpers began the arduous and sometimes risky work of dismantling the house. The parts then were brought across the Atlantic in two shipping containers. In October, Mendoza, who financed the transport himself, began to rebuild the house in a courtyard near his studio.
While the outside is rather faithful to the original, Mendoza said, its illuminated interior remains hidden from spectators behind white curtains in an attempt “to restore its dignity.”
On Saturday night, the artist played a sound collage made up of audio footage from Parks's time from inside the ruin, eerily bringing it back to life.
McCauley's memory of the three-bedroom house in Southwest Detroit — which she shared with, in addition to Parks and her husband, her own parents, the two couples' 12 children, and grandparents — is a happier one: “When I look back, maybe I'm romanticizing it, but it seems like 'The Waltons' to me. … My father used to say, when there's love, there's always room.”
Neither McCauley nor Mendoza envisioned Berlin as the house's final destination. For Mendoza, selling it and donating the proceeds to the Rosa Parks Foundation would be the ideal scenario for what he calls “the house without a home.” But he and McCauley agree on the symbolic significance of it ending up in the German capital. “It's resurrected in the month of Easter in a city reborn after a wall was taken down and was not valued in a country that's intent on building a wall,” Mendoza said.
This idea resonated with some of the numerous visitors who flocked to the residential area in Berlin's Wedding neighborhood to get a glimpse of the piece. Said Wiltrud Wodack, a 64-year-old retired social education worker: “Berlin stands for freedom, and so does this house.”
The house will be on display again at the Berlin Gallery Weekend April 28-30.