Don't forget the block

Dec 6, 2019 at 4:28 pm

As we move through the holiday season into the new year, there is much to enjoy and think about: family, friends and fellowship. This is the time to share stories, laughter, food, gifts, and to entertain the children and indulge the elders, visit loved ones, and remember the ones who have passed. And in a place like Detroit, a place in transition, where rebirth meets decay, there is an open invitation to reflect on both the past and future of stories of all sorts, connections of all kinds, and physical spaces that have anchored our memories to a sense of community and neighborly togetherness. For when all is said and done, as a city, we all will become part of a lattice of intersecting stories shaped by both nuclear and extended relationships, notable architecture, and familiar travel routes. At the heart of community culture, social intelligence, and collective survival is the neighborhood, aka the block, in all of its dimensions, a place where family values are tested and where we learn some of our most basic life lessons.

Growing up on the west side of Detroit in the '80s, my block was indeed a special and unique place with a diverse group of families like the Dallases, Pearsons, Crawfords, Maples, Simses, Millers, Ms. Best, Ms. Cotton and Ms. Love, Ms. Freda and Jason, the neighborhood dog, who all created a sense of family and community so foreign to this digital driven world. The block had 30 houses of all types and a one-room church. We played touch football in the street, baseball and kickball at the church yard, and two and four square on the sidewalk, jumped rope, and played jacks. On one end we had a small supermarket store, a laundromat, cleaners, mini police station, barber shop, dentist, candy store, hardware store, and convalescent home. At the other end of the block, we had the big park and Parker Elementary across the way. There were also neighborhood parties, fights, crushes, go-cart races, and club houses, and on the best nights, we sat around on somebody’s porch or on the curb sharing stories of neighborhood gossip and future aspirations.

The matriarch of the neighborhood, Rosie Miller, integrated the block in 1968 with her large mixed-race family. Her house became the Grand Central Station throughout the '80s, where all the kids played. Rosie took care of the kids. She took care of her house too, and like Ms. Best and Mr. Dallas, always kept it looking good. I should know — I worked in their gardens, shoveled their snow and did odd jobs for them for extra money. My mother, Ms. Sims, who came in the mid-'70s with her children, also loved the kids, and along with Rosie, Ms. Maple, Ms. Cotton and others helped raise the block.

A few years ago, after being away for a long while, I returned to my old neighborhood on Sorrento and West Chicago to a landscape of destruction and desolation, a place beyond recognition — a real zombie cemetery. Many of the houses I once played in front of are now embarrassing tombstones of a forgotten time. Many of the corner businesses are gone, the elementary school sits gutted and the Dairy Queen is a shell of its former self. The squatters were sleeping comfortably while the copper robbers were using the front door in the middle of the day. The block was dying, the memories fading and the voices of playing children were long gone. And while downtown Detroit was rebuilding and New Center area flourishing, my block, like many others, was lifeless and comatose — approaching a point of no return. The block was in transition, much like the city itself. Many folks had left or passed on, with my mother, Rosie and Ms. Love being among the only ones left. Where did the block go?

click to enlarge Joyce Cartwright Sims and Rosie Miller on Sorrento, 2017. - John Sims
John Sims
Joyce Cartwright Sims and Rosie Miller on Sorrento, 2017.

As an artist and writer, and someone interested in the stories and objects that connect us, I felt compelled to create a book and film project to honor the block, my mother, Rosie and the many children and families who made growing up on Sorrento so special. So when I returned last month as artist in residence at the Irwin House Gallery, I was excited to begin the journey of collecting stories and images for a future exhibition to celebrate the time and life of a Detroit neighborhood. But the first order of operation was to throw Rosie, who is beginning to lose her memory, a surprise party for her 80th birthday. After being here one week, before I could get started, my own mother passed suddenly. At her memorial, many folks from the block came to pay respect and tribute to her magical impact as a neighborhood mother: her beautiful smile, christian kindness, connective conversation and motivating spiritual guidance. And it was there and then I realized where the block was. It was in the hearts and souls of the children who grew up in a neighborhood where they felt loved and safe and had the space to play, to explore and to dream. As Detroit transforms, we must not forget the stories, the physical spaces and folks of the neighborhood block, where the rhythm and soul of the city resides and from where the future shall flow.

Below is a videopoem that goes with this piece:

Closing reception from 4-6 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 8; Irwin House Gallery; 2351 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit; 313-932-7690; Admission is free. On view through Jan. 5.

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