A Portrait of Childhood in Poverty

While many can visit their childhood homes and reminiscence of happy times, I recently returned to mine and found nothing but a barren plot of land and memories just as desolate. It’s not that growing up in Brightmoor (aka Blight-moor), Detroit was all bad…I do have some fond memories, but looking back they were from the optimistic and naïve perspective of a child. Over the years I’ve taken off my rose-colored glasses and replaced them with gray shades that can more clearly see what is blindingly clear. As I gaze at the green field before me, my thoughts turn to the past.

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When I was around 6 or 7, a huge storm hit. After the tempest calmed, I watched from our covered porch as neighborhood kids ran through the flooded street. I joined the group in the waters– it reached my knees. After a moment of splashing with glee, I noticed a huge heap of loose garbage clogging the sewer drain. Moving closer, I saw a syringe poking from the pile. Of course, my child mind didn’t think of drugs or disease, but rather my fear of the doctor drove me out of the garbage pool and back home. I probably should have warned the other kids, but they weren’t my friends anyway.

~~~

Brightmoor is located on the west border of Detroit right before Redford (“The Gateway to the Suburbs”) and Livonia. If you’ve ever heard anyone mention “the hood,” it’s places like Brightmoor they were talking about, where people occasionally fall asleep to the sound of gunshots.

The streets are lined with dilapidated buildings with chipped paint and wild foliage battling brick for space. One time I even saw a pack of stray dogs emerge from a partially collapsed structure.

My block was Dolphin, just off of Fenkell (aka 5 Mile Rd.) and about a mile east of Telegraph, that great divider.

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For those who kinda/sorta know the area, I lived right across the street from the famous Scotty’s Fish and Chips.

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There were three other white folks on the block, all poor like us. I only say we were poor because my dad drove a car with a 2×8 board for a bumper. My dad implied it was to piss off the police in suburbia:

“They used to pull me over on my way to work every day. ‘Get that piece shit out of Livonia!’ But they couldn’t give me a ticket because it was completely legal.”

Apparently, as long as you put something between another car hitting you and the gas tank, there’s no legal problem.

“I admit we had to tighten our belts a little to pay for you and your sister’s tuition,” my mom said.

As much as my mom likes to deny our poverty, there were other signs. Like how we ate hot dogs so often that I can’t eat pork to this day without getting sick. It’s probably a psychological response, but whatever. There was also that one Christmas we had to get toys donated to us from a church. I remember it fondly because I got a Barney toy.

My first school was a Catholic elementary called St. Christine’s just a few blocks away. Here’s what it looks like now:

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I guess my parents were so fearful of sending us to a Detroit Public School (DPS) that they sacrificed the little extra money they had for our education.

According to Data Driven Detroit:

The shockingly low standardized test scores and graduation rates for students in the majority of DPS schools are a sign of dysfunction across institutions meant to support children. In the context of academic literature on the causes of poverty, Detroit students are held back by failures in both their schools and in their neighborhoods.

My mom understood the importance of education and saw the Catholic institution as the best choice. I did learn the “Our Father” prayer and how to write in cursive. I can’t really remember much else from my time attending St. Christine’s and then St. Gemma’s after the former closed. What I remember most was the persistent bullying.

There was a few white kids in my class and a handful in the school, but I felt alone in every way. I don’t know if it was the horrible handcut-by-mom haircut, my cheap Payless shoes, or being a latchkey kid, but I feel like my classmates saw through my standard jumper and knew I was a poor kid underneath. Besides, I was chubby, awkward, and had to go to speech therapy because I pronounced “th” as “f” until the fifth grade.

I remember during recess, a large group would form a circle and play a game called “Jigolo.” One day, wanting to fit in, I wandered into the ring and watched as people were individually called to the center to dance. After the performer did their motion, the group would imitate. I returned every day, observing and learning the rules, so when I was called, I was ready.

Hey, Shelly!

Hey what?

Are you ready?

For what?

To Jig!

Jig what?

Jigolo!

Oh, my hands up high, my feet down low! This the way I Jigolo!

I don’t know what brought me to do it…maybe a desire to be seen as courageous and cool, but I threw myself on the ground and did the ‘Cry-Baby.’  For those who don’t know what that is, it’s basically dry-humping the ground while slamming your fist.

Here’s a little demonstration:

 

Yeah, it’s already a ridiculous move and with my round belly smacking on the ground, this became our school’s version of the ‘Truffle Shuffle.’ People roared with laughter but never imitated me. I accepted their laughter as approval and kept returning to do the ‘Cry-Baby.’ After a while, it dawned on me that once the circle dispersed, people were still laughing. It wasn’t a game, I was a joke and my name became ‘Shelly Belly.’

~~~

Some other names I was called both at school and in my neighborhood were ‘cracker’ and ‘whitie.’ On Dolphin street, everyone had their own designated name. There was ‘Bigbird,’ ‘Milkman,’ my cool, older sister was ‘Lil Jeni.’

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I was ‘Campbell Soup Girl’

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Okay…I guess I can see it.

 

 

 

 

 

None of the black kids really accepted me (except when I had popsicles to give out) so I turned to Jessica. She was the only white kid my age and she lived directly across the street. I would like to say it was nice to have someone to hang out with, but she had some serious behavioral and hygiene issues.

For one, Jessica’s blonde hair was plagued with lice. Although treatable, her mother never did anything to get rid of it and her infestation became mine. My mom tried so hard to get rid of them, spending valuable dollars on chemicals, but after seeing Jessica pluck one from her hair and flick it into mine, I knew the little parasites crawling on my head weren’t going anywhere.

It was an issue with me until the 5th grade. Every time I got sent home with lice, I felt so betrayed by the teachers as they joined in heaping embarrassment in my life.

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At the age of 7, Jessica was stealing cigarettes from her mom. When she couldn’t sneak a whole one, she grabbed an unfinished butt from the ashtray and lit it. She always tried to get me to join but I refused.

Unfortunately, cigarettes weren’t the only things Jessica would steal. Her sticky fingers always searched my toys and even managed to get my prized Spirograph pen.

A few weeks before Christmas, she left my room to “go to the bathroom” but my ears heard the sound of crumpling paper. She took advantage of my mom’s habit of wrapping presents early, and tried to steal a present by hiding the wrapping under the tree skirt. My mom is a pacifist but I remember fearing she was going to beat my friend when she was caught.

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Jessica’s house now.

Years later, she came to visit our new house in Redford, just a mile down the street. After showing her my computer, we went for a swim in my pool.

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Me and Jessica in Redford.

She pushed me under the water and held me down. I grabbed her wrist and screamed for her to stop, but she continued to try to drown me. Somehow I reached the surface. I never saw her again.

~~~

We moved out of Brightmoor when I was 9 or 10, so around 1999-2000. At that time, a lot of families were leaving.

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According to The Brightmoor Alliance:

“The 2010 population of 23,845 represented a 31.1 percent decrease over 2000’s total of 34,598. This was somewhat higher than the 25 percent loss experienced by the City of Detroit,” (pg. 1).

While it sounds like a ‘White Flight’ kind of situation, according to the same document above, a majority of people that left were African American.

“African Americans, while decreasing in number by 25.4 percent, experienced an increase in their share of the neighborhood’s population from 79.1 percent in 2000 to 85.6 percent in 2010. The second largest group was whites at 10.0 percent, down 56.5 percent in number from an 15.8 percent share in 2000,” (pg. 3).

“Shady people moved in,” a friend of mine said to me. She grew up and continues to live just on the other side of Brightmoor. I’m assuming most were squatters that just stayed.

Even in Redford, I saw a surge in crime and prostitution spilling over the Telegraph border. Here’s a recent crime chart in my old neighborhood. It would seem we got out just in time. And I thought it was bad in my formative years…

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The crime surge led to a huge blight problem in Brightmoor. I remember visiting my old home about five years ago after a family dinner at Scotty’s. It was still there but abandoned and a total eyesore with broken windows and a decaying facade. Out of curiosity (or stupidity), I went inside. It was littered with tattered cloths and had a smell like burning rubber. The only piece of furniture inside was a small end table with ashes and possible drug residue. I walked into the kitchen and was shocked to see a giant hole gaping in the center like a large, screaming mouth. It took me a moment to remember the cellar underneath. Realizing that the house was unsafe, I immediately left.

In 2013, the City of Detroit started a campaign to eliminate the blight.

Commissioned September 27, 2013, the Blight Task Force was tasked with developing a straightforward and detailed implementation plan to take down every residential and commercial building as well as clear vacant land that is blighted and/or not reasonably economically viable in the city of Detroit in as fast a timeframe as possible. The goal of the plan is to dramatically improve the safety of both citizens living near blight and first responders while substantially increasing opportunities for future use of the land in the impacted neighborhoods.

I suppose my old house was one of those taken down in the facelifting project. Of course, I see it as a good thing, but also makes me mindful of the gentrification problem that’s happening in Detroit.

Although I got out of Brightmoor before it got really, really bad, there were many good people that had to stay because they simply didn’t have a choice. While we lived in Detroit, my mom worked and went to school to get a nursing degree. She was able to better our situation, so that we could afford the higher property tax in Redford, but that opportunity isn’t available to everyone.

To those people who stayed, who resisted turning to crime, who now buy up empty lots and turn them into urban gardens, I pray they don’t get pushed out in the beautification process.

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I don’t have many good memories of living in Brightmoor, but I appreciate it for making me the person I am today. Because of my childhood, I understand the great wealth inequality in our nation. Because of my childhood, I understand the great race inequality in our nation. Because of my childhood, I understand the importance of diversity, empathy, and community. Poverty sucks. Let’s end it.

~~~

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