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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Detroit Is For Foodies: Where to Find Delicious Food Downtown

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Have you, a foreigner to Detroit, found yourself downtown after a Tigers game, concert, or drug deal (just kidding) with an empty stomach and no idea where to go? Well then, this blog is for you!

I recently had a friend tell me that there is no middle ground when it comes to dining in the D– according to him, either the food is expensive and good, or cheap and disgusting. I’m going to tell you exactly what I told him…that’s not true.

As someone who works full-time downtown and often too lazy to make lunch the day before, I’m always on the lookout for affordable and delicious restaurants. Below are a few places I’ve discovered along my lunch adventures that might help satisfy your hunger and wallet

1. Loco’s Tex-Mex Grille:

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TripAdvisor gives it four stars.

Kiddie corner to Greektown Casino, Loco’s is a place where you can listen to salsa while snacking on (free) salsa. The atmosphere sets you up for an authentic Tex-Mex eating experience, and the food does not fail to live up to those expectations.

Loco’s offers daily lunch specials, and because of that, I was able to get a giant half chicken/half beef wet burrito for about $8. With a side of rice and beans, this meal was big enough for two.

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What sets this restaurant apart from any others downtown is its famous, “Taco Tuesday.” Yes, it’s as magical as it sounds. Every Tuesday, tacos are $1.50 each.

Although I think Taco Tuesday is enough to justify going there, I also have to applaud the staff. Not only are they super fast, but also super friendly. When I say “friendly,” I mean, “The server had a bloody Darth Vader pen!” It was a great trip all around.

 

2. Detroiter Bar

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TripAdvisor gives it four and a half stars.

If Mexican isn’t your thing, Detroiter Bar is just down the street from Loco’s. Inside, you’ll find a sports bar setting with a classic rock soundtrack playing in the background. They also have lunch specials which only set me back about $6 for a burger and fries. The burger wasn’t too much to cry home about but the wedge fries were delectable.

One thing I thought was cool about this bar is their free shuttle service to and from the Tigers Stadium. I spoke to the welcoming server about this and she let me know that all one needs to do is arrive an hour before the game and they’ll give you instructions about pick-up and drop-off points. Along with their drink specials, I feel like this would be the best and cheapest way to do (ie. get drunk and actually enjoy) a Tigers game.

 

3. American Coney Island (aka Lafayette Coney Island)

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TripAdvisor gives it four stars.

To Detroiters, American Coney Island is a local treasure. It has graced the intersection of Michigan Ave. and Lafayette for over 100 years. Although the menu is quite small, the taste of everything is big.coney island menu.pngWhen I went, I ordered my favorite meal: a gyro pita. This was one of the first times I got a gyro with what seemed like just enough tzatziki sauce.

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It was eyes-rolling-to-the-back-of-the-head good. I’m not sure if it was cut right off of a slab because I didn’t see one, but it didn’t taste like the preheated patties that are served at most Coney Islands. The best part? It was under $6. There’s no wonder it’s such a treasure.

 

 

4. GM Renaissance Center Food Court

TripAdvisor gives it three stars.

If you don’t want to be adventurous while still have a plethora of options, the food court in the lower level of the RenCen is always an option. Just hop on the People Mover till you hit the building and go downstairs. There, you’ll find:

-Andiamo Pizza Pie Co.

-Bozii

-Burger King

-Chop Fresh Salad Co.

-Coney Town

-Fish City

-Gyroland

-Mac n’Cheez!

-McDonald’s

-Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina

-Subway

But, of course, if you choose McDonald’s over something like Loco’s I’ll probably judge you harshly.

~~~~~~~~~

Well, that’s all I have for you newcomers to Detroit. Maybe as I try new places, I’ll write a review for each. If you have any suggestions, leave a comment below!

 

 

 

Trump Impeachment March-Detroit

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On July 2, 2017 a crowd of people stood in the shadow of Detroit’s Joe Louis Fist, raising fists of their own in protest of President Donald J. Trump. About 40 people were in attendance, coming together to march against the sexism, bigotry, and lies of the 45th president of the United States.

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The event was a part of a national initiative to impeach Trump with 46 other protests happening around the country.

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Ahmed Ghanim, an Egyptian immigrant, was one of the key speakers at the event.

He expressed how grateful he is to be in the U.S., where he is freely given the right to vote and protest. He fears the current president wants to abolish those rights for immigrants like him.

“The most dangerous thing to democracy here is normalizing what’s wrong. That’s how we’re raised under a dictatorship…to normalize what’s wrong,” said Ghanim.

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Among the crowd were volunteers with “Voters Not Politicians,” an anti-gerrymandering advocacy group. They had protestors fill out a petitions to make a committee to oversee redistricting in Michigan. They also handed out flyers like the one below that shows how districts are currently drawn to favor parties.

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Following the speeches, demonstrators marched down Woodward and around Campus Martius, chanting “2, 4, 6, 8! Time to do away with hate!” and “Hey hey, ho ho—Donald Trump has got to go!”

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Although the turnout didn’t match the 900+ “interested” on Facebook, a fire of activism stirred the hearts of those present. I felt it, especially as I passed bewildered bystanders who blinked in confusion before realizing why we were marching. It felt good to break out my “pussy hat.” It felt good to see knowing smiles and nods as our little parade processed down the street. The fire is knowledge, which can build or destroy– and I, for one, want to build a better world with it. We must continue to hold up the torch to remind this dark world that something is very wrong with our nation.

If you missed this protest, don’t worry. The Metro Detroit Political Action Network has scheduled another Impeach Trump protest on Saturday, July 15th at 1pm at the Joe Louis Fist. Don’t miss it!

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The ‘No Hole, Hobo Home’ Program Set To Sweep Detroit Streets

By: Michelle L. Stone

6/22/2017

 

Yesterday, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggun announced a new state-sponsored program that kills two birds with one roof—an asphalt roof, that is.

The “No Hole, Hobo Home” program, or NHHH, (no hole hobo home.gov) gives free housing to homeless Detroiters in the center of the popular Midtown area. In the NHHH program, large potholes are internally renovated to include a stool and a roof. These permanent shelters are available to any homeless man or woman on one condition: they must hold the asphalt roof over their heads while occupying the hole.

The roof is painted to fit seamlessly with the rest of the road, giving the appearance of perfection. Since the arms of vagabonds are strong from holding signs all day, holding up a car or two isn’t a concern of the city.

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“This is great for the City of Detroit,” President of Asphalt Roofs R’ Us Anthony Dolla said. “We had a prototype down Cass last year, and the streets never looked so good.”

At the NHHH press release and home reveal, Mayor Duggun had the honor of lowering the roof over the city’s first participant, Jamal Rice.

“Together, we’re making Detroit a better place…one pothole at a time,” he said at the press conference.

Over the next two weeks, homeless men and women will be escorted to their very own pothole home. Any that refuse will be heavily fined and arrested for loitering.

 

Burn, Baby, Burn! A Cremation of the Confederate Flag.

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Three Detroit news stations showed up for the the Burn and Bury Memorial at the N’Namdi Center, Detroit.

While many were at home with their families this Memorial Day, others filed into the packed N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Detroit with one intention: to watch the Confederate flag burn.

“Today instead of burning hamburgers at a BBQ, I’m going to burn the Confederate flag.” Rev. Charles E. Williams II, a presenter at the event told a reporter before the art show.

The “Burn and Bury Memorial: Detroit 2017” was part of a 16-year multi-media project by Detroit native and artist, John Sims. His last major installment in 2015 was called “13 Flag Funerals” which featured a Confederate flag burial service in each one of the 13 states represented by the stars on the flag.

Sims continues to spread the symbolism of destroying Confederate iconology by keeping a tradition of burning one every Memorial Day. This time, in Detroit, intentionally to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the ‘67 Detroit Rebellion.

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John Sims addresses a crowd.

In his introduction, Sims stressed that he wanted to “fortify a few messages:”

  1. The Civil War is supposed to be over, but it’s not over.
  2. We need to confront symbols of white supremacy.

I think what he wrote in his Opinion piece for the Detroit Free Press prior to the event sums it up well:

“This is a nation that elected Donald Trump as its president. The alt-right is becoming empowered. And undoubtedly, people will fly Confederate flags this Memorial Day. As long as they do, it is our duty to confront the legacy of the Confederate flag, particularly its relationship to the African-American experience and understand why it needs to be burned and buried.”

Sims uses flag-burning as a cathartic way to denounce the overt racism that is growing rapidly acceptable in our society. He expressed how he hopes his creative process will inspire change.

“Emotional change,” he said. “Intellectual change. Change of heart. Change of mind and culture.”

He concluded his opening with this poem he wrote, which mimics the rhythm of “Amazing Grace.”

A Blazing Grace

How bitter the taste

Of a wretched past

How dark the spirit

Of a lost heart and mind

 

How sweet the fire

That shines my sights

How hot the fire

That inspires my light

 

To live and die

In justice and peace

To burn and bury

With love and grace

 

A Blazing Grace

How sweet the fire

A Blazing Grace

How hot the fire

 

Following Sims was a prayer by Rev. Jeff Nelson, who used religious imagery associated with holy zeal to invoke an inspiration of racial justice. “Spirit of fire and flame, burn in us tonight. Amen.”

A melancholy voice sang out “Dixie” as a silhouette of what appeared to be a body hung from a tree on the screen. As the camera moved closer to the figure in John Sims’ short film “In the Land of Cotton,” the silhouette was revealed to be a Confederate flag hanging in a noose.

Jessica Care Moore was one of the three poets that performed and she received a standing ovation after reading this poem.

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Jessica Care Moore recites her poem with passion.

 

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Jennifer Harge performs a Dance Meditation.

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Detroit “Water Warrior” Monica Lewis-Patrick emotionally tells a story about her upbringing in the South surrounded by Confederate flags and racial hostility.

The final eulogy was given by Rev. Charles E. Williams II. At the start of his speech he had everyone stand to their feet for the “word of the Lord, Nat Turner.”

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His energy filled the room as his voice grew louder and shook with righteous anger towards the symbol of the flag before him– which he called a sign of visual terrorism. By the time he finished speaking, the crowd was ready to burn something.

After this song, everyone solemnly left the building in a procession to an outside firepit. Printed Confederate flags were handed to each guest and Sims sternly told the crowd to “thoughtfully” dispose of it.

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In the end, did this flag-burning make any real change in Detroit…the U.S….or the world? According to Michael Quess Moore, a colleague of Sims from New Orleans, the 2015 project served as a catalyst for the removal of four Confederate statues/symbols in New Orleans.

A fire was set in Detroit on Monday night– a fire in the heart of those who want change. Now is time to organize and destroy racial injustice. This requires meditation and conversation of a past you might be ashamed of. This requires motivating and encouraging your neighbor. This requires work, but a payoff that is for everyone: a nation united under one flag, instead of divided by two.