Berlin Journal: Saved From Demolition, Rosa Parks’s House Gets a Second Life

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After the house was scheduled for demolition in Detroit, its unlikely second life in Mr. Mendoza’s garden in Berlin has captured the city’s imagination, making front page news and, for some, symbolizing the changing role played by Germany in the world today.

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Rosa Parks riding on a Montgomery Area Transit System bus. Her refusal to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., resulted in a boycott that lasted more than a year. Credit Daily Advertiser, via Associated Press

The project came about last year, when Rhea McCauley, Ms. Parks’s niece, met Mr. Mendoza in Detroit. As part of an art project that explored his own sense of home, as well as the American subprime mortgage crisis, Mr. Mendoza successfully transported an abandoned house from Detroit to Europe, winning the trust of Detroit community members along the way. Ms. McCauley told him she had managed to buy back the family house for $500, but she could not find anyone interested in saving it from demolition.

Mr. Mendoza, who makes his living as a fine-arts painter, agreed to help. He raised a little over $100,000 by selling some of his paintings and set out for Detroit. There, he worked with a local team to take apart the house, which had fallen into extreme disrepair.

He then shipped the wooden exterior to Berlin, where he spent the winter painstakingly rebuilding it, mostly alone, by hand. “It was an act of love,” he said.

That the house had to be shipped to Berlin to be saved is shocking, said Daniel Geary, a professor of American history at Trinity College Dublin, given that, “in general, in the U.S., with public heroes, there is an attempt to preserve anywhere they lived.”

Mr. Geary said that, to him, the neglect of a house like this one speaks to a contemporary American unwillingness to deal with racism’s legacy.

“People like to remember Rosa Parks for one moment, when she wouldn’t stand up on a bus,” he said. “They don’t really want to grapple with the rest of her life. The death threats, the fact that she had to leave Alabama and go to Detroit. It’s a more complicated story with a less happy ending. She suffered for her decision.”

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The house in Detroit that Rosa Parks lived in for a time. Mr. Mendoza worked with a local team to take apart the house, which had fallen into extreme disrepair. He then shipped the wooden exterior to Berlin, where he painstakingly rebuilt it, mostly alone, by hand. Credit Fabia Mendoza

For many here, Germany provides a strong counterexample when it comes to approaching painful aspects of a nation’s past.

“With our history, we have so many years of guilt and a culture of practicing not forgetting,” said Deike Diening, a journalist for Berlin’s Tagesspiegel newspaper, who wrote about the project. “Germans are glad for the opportunity to put lessons learned to use with this house: Now, it might be a healing process to be able to turn it around, to give refuge to others. It feels good.”

But some said it was the timing of the project that accounted for its extraordinary resonance. “I think Berliners, even more than Germans in general, are really deeply concerned about what is going on in the U.S., with Trump,” said Gero Schliess, culture correspondent at Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcast service.

The United States has long been a model. But now, he said, “the political discourse in the U.S. is not really reflecting democratic values.”

“I’m proud to have the house here,” said Mr. Mendoza’s wife, Fabia Mendoza, who grew up in Berlin and has made a documentary about the project. The couple, who have a young son, live in a small, white cube-shaped house right next to the newly erected clapboard one. They hope that their garden will ultimately be a temporary haven and that the house will eventually find a more permanent home.

For now, Ms. McCauley, Ms. Parks’s niece, is very happy the house is in Germany, tucked away snugly behind a 1960s-era apartment building. Traveling to Berlin for the unveiling on April 8, Ms. McCauley was impressed with what she described as the outpouring of love she encountered. “I was amazed to find more knowledge of Auntie Rosa’s legacy there than here,” she said.

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Mr. Mendoza in his atelier in Berlin. He and his wife hope that their garden is a temporary home for Ms. Parks’s house and that it will eventually find a more permanent place. Credit Gordon Welters for The New York Times

Ms. McCauley was also pleased with Mr. Mendoza’s decision to leave the facade in the condition he found it. “This house has been through everything,” she said. “I’m glad it’s not painted nicely, with flowers and a picket fence. 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.”

Mr. Mendoza has listed a series of opening hours — during which the couple welcome the public to their garden, often with live music and an open mike — on his website. However, some 50 people ring their bell each day, Mr. Mendoza said. If the couple are at home, they usually let them in.

“We’re getting a little worried,” he said with a laugh. “But it’s O.K. This was an act of love, and we want to start a discussion.”

The house is partly visible from the street, so people can get a glimpse of it even if the Mendozas are not at home. Visitors are not allowed inside the house, for insurance reasons, but also as a sign of respect. “This house was abandoned, people came inside,” Mr. Mendoza said. “I want it to have its dignity.”

On a recent Saturday, a dozen visitors dropped in. “It’s surreal that it’s here,” said Norberto Romero, a photographer who lives in the neighborhood.

“It’s strange no one wants it in the U.S.,” said another visitor, Marcus Kelch, who works with handicapped children, and looked up Rosa Parks on the internet to find out who she was.

His friend Dennis Lumme nodded. “In Germany, it’s different,” he said. “I just read that in the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp, people want to make a monument for lesbians who were killed. We try to memorialize every group that suffered.”

The friends were silent, as they considered the transplanted house’s peeling paint and battered wooden boards. “Berlin is definitely the right place for this house,” Mr. Lumme said after a moment. “Every meter you walk is full of memory.”

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