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Posts Tagged ‘Michigan’

Titling an interview with Tom and Renee Pastoor “New in Town” is what those in the writing business would call irony, given their thirty one years of residence in the neighborhood.  But that is where they took me, to a time when they were new in town.

“We bought the house dirt cheap.  We met Ray and Isabell Squires, who were our neighbors and really, kind of second grandparents to our children.”

TomReneeWe quickly had to pause our interview for the welcome interuption of neighborhood kids wanting to talk to Tom.  Here is a scene and a continuation of the investment in the lives his neighbor’s children.  And here, in a way, is Ray, who had done the same.

“So Ray and Isabell were like grandparents to our kids.  They took care of them while we were doing projects around the house.  I learned a lot from Ray.  He helped me do some roofing on the garage.  He was in his mid-seventies, and he carried the rolled roofing, on his shoulder, up the ladder, to show me how to do it.  I learned a lot from him about being resourceful and being a gardener.  He had the most beautiful garden.  Basically, we’ve inherited his garden.  He graduated from Michigan College, before it was Michigan State, and had a degree in horticulture and animal husbandry.”

GardenRenee gave me a tour of their backyard, and the garden that Ray planted, and she and Tom had improved on.  It’s incredibly beautiful, almost magical to someone whose imagination tends to carry him away.

“When Ray was a little boy, he had hearing loss.  Six or seven years old.  When he got old, he related to me how difficult that was, to be a boy and not be able to hear.  He got pretty emotional about it, and Ray was a pretty tough guy.  He was one of the original garden boys.  There was a guy named McLouth that had a garden out by Mona Lake, by the Henry Street float bridge.  And these kids from the neighborhood would go there and learn about gardening.  I think it’s pretty fitting that we’re doing the same thing right across the street from his house.”

HouseDoorIn the park, across the street from his house, Tom teaches the neighborhood kids about gardening.  I’m beginning to think everyone in the neighborhood is a gardener.  I had no idea when I got involved with McLaughlin that it’s agricultural roots ran so deep.

And in coming full circle, the kids painted a mural on the fence in the new park, right behind the garden where Tom works with them.  And on that mural, they painted Ray’s old house.

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This week, I finish up with the McLaughlin Grows crew…

How long you guys been working here?

Michael:  “6 to 8 weeks.”

You guys like it?

Shaquille: “Yeah, it’s cool.  Teaches us life skills.”

How did you get this job?

Michael:  “At the pocket park, they had something going on, on a Saturday.  I went up there to help, and Michael Espinoza told me about it, that they had a summer job program going on, and would I be interested.  I said yeah.”

Shaquille:  “I got the job because I live in the neighborhood.  Trying to help out the community.”

Just for the summer, for you guys?

Michael:  “Yeah.  They’re trying to work it out so we can stay longer.”

And what do you think of Teri?

Michael:  “She’s laid back.”

Shaquille:  “She’s nice.”

Michael:  “She’s strict on us just enough.  Tells us a lot about the plants.  Most of us didn’t know anything about plants; we just know about the food.  And she told us the different plants, and what they do.”

Farm Rows

Is there a lot to learn?  I don’t really do gardening…er, farming, myself.

Shaquille:  “There’s a lot of work.”

AJ :  “A lot weeding.”

Michael:  “Leveling off the beds even.  Watering.”

AJ :  “Turning them over.”

Michael:  “After we got past the hard stuff, all we really do is weed and plant and water.  That’s all.  The first couple weeks were hard.  We had to turn the dirt over, then make all these beds.  Then we had to plant them all, and they cut the tree down.  That’s where all these wood chips came from.  Instead of picking up all the wood chips, we decided to just make a path out of them.”

What do you guys think about the neighborhood in general?  Do you like living here?

Michael:  “It’s a pretty good neighborhood.  Pretty decent.”

Now, are you the football player?

Michael:  “Yeah.”

What position?

Michael:  “Safety.”

What are your plans for the future?

Michael:  “I’m going into the criminal justice field.  Corrections officer maybe.”

Shaquille:  “You’re gonna see me; I’m gonna be a famous lawyer.”

So what are you working on today?

Michael:  “We’re planting these tomatoes we got from the prison.  Those ones we planted are diseased.  Blight, I think it’s called.”

Shaquille:  “And they got bronchitis.  Couple of them have AIDS.”

So what’s your favorite part about working here?

AJ :  “Getting money.”

Shaquille:  “Helping out the community.  Making it look much better than it did.”

Michael:  “At first it was just an empty lot.  There were glass bottles, trash.”

AJ :  “You could get cut out here.”

Michael:  “I used to cut through this yard, then one day I was walking and there was a fence up.  I was like, when did they put a fence up here?”

How about your least favorite thing?

AJ :  “When it’s hot.  Too hot.”

Shaquille:  “Yeah, you gotta weed.”

AJ :  “And the sun’s about to kill you.”

Michael:  “Other than that, it’s pretty fun.  Everybody gets along.  A lot of people pass by and ask what’s going on.”

AJ :  “Sometimes they drop us off something.”

Shaquille:  “You get little kids that walk up and down that are excited about what’s going on.”

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Kensington 1903-2009


Its  odd what you get used to, living in the shadow of  Kensington, a large three story brownstone with ten apartments & too much litter. Kensington itself was tall, dark & handsome with a foreboding manner with its red bricks & art deco lighting, you just knew you’d be safe inside; no big bad wolf could blow that place down. Many people lived there and even though some of the traffic through there was bad, you do get used to your neighbors and the routines of life around you.


Kensington burned Monday June 29th and I am amazed at the loss I feel, although I really only lost some noise, drug deals, and a reason for some cautious paranoia.

I did have an amazing cat live in my back yard all last summer that belonged to someone there (his name was Niet).  He died in the fire.


Perhaps that’s the grief I really feel. Knowing it was in his apartment that the fire started in, and feeling the heat, choking on the smoke, watching the tenants huddled together as they lost all that they had. The grief was crushing.


Watching the rest of  Kensington being torn down was like watching an autopsy as the Y incision ripped apart the wood floors, snapping the marble stairwell, claw foot tubs and little girl’s bicycles tumbling out like intestines, stopping only when the last leaded glass window shattered.


You could actually hear Kensington moan. Maybe it was the radiators.

I no longer live in the shadow of Kensington. I’ll never get to see the little girl get her training wheels off her pink bike or look for Neit in the window on the second floor right side.


I do still hear the beeping of the smoke alarms though buried in the rubble as if a heart monitor is calling out to say I ‘m still here. But nobody’s there: not the little girl, not the yappy dogs, not the cat, not even the shadow… all because of a cigarette.

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Micah Rinsema sits under the dining room table, an infant in a diaper, spinning an empty beer bottle.  I venture under and ask him how long he’s been there.

“Under the table?” he asks.

“In this house, how about.”

“I’ve been here seven months now.  Just had my baptism.  You should have been there; there were a diverse bunch of people there – just all over the place.  That’s life

 in this town.”

He keeps fidgeting with the beer bottle, straight-faced and sober, with that unflinching stare that infants have yet to surrender to the world.

“What is it like here?” I ask.

“Under the table?” he asks.

“In this house, how about.”

Dan and Sarah

“Well, day to day it’s a house.  We do the normal stuff.  But the current that flows through here…  It’s like this – My parents spent four years in Japan teaching English before they came to Muskegon.  That shaped how they saw the world, and how they wanted to live in it.  You realize you matter this much.”  He indicates his full height.  “Which, in their case, is a metaphor.”

“Tell me about them,” I say.

“He’s Canadian; she’s from New York or Iowa or something.  They met in college.”  He states these facts and dismisses them with his hand.  “They’re on these different, parallel paths.  Paths to make things better.  He works with one group of people through Muskegon Area First, and she works with Community EnCompass.  I mean, the paths aren’t always smooth.  Sometimes their work is at odds.  But ultimately, they want the same things.”

“And what about your path?  What do you think your chances are?” I asked.

“How do you mean?”

“Because you’re black.  Because your parents are white.  And the world is persistently hard on those who don’t run away.”

“I’m the beginning of a journey, if you’ll give me a moment’s license to be poetic.  I’ll have to go places light and dark; there are no illusions about that.  I hope that I will have many fathers and many mothers, because I am many things.”

“Tell me of hope.”

Home“Hope is the great human choice.  We control so little; we’re born not knowing who we are.  We’re searching for love, holding desperately to life.  There’s nothing we have that can’t be taken from us.  But there’s always hope.”

“Where is this hope? I want to see it.”

“It’s here in this neighborhood.  It’s too easy to see the cracks in the sidewalk, the bullet hole in the window, the porches that are ready to fall down, but if you look inside the people who live here, there are these beautiful hopes and dreams.  There’s a vision for this place – that God’s finger will touch the earth here, and it will be a preview of heaven.  And it’s already begun.  Step out and look around.”

“From under the table?” I ask.

“From this house.”

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            We grow up in our imperfect worlds, and they make us who we are.  We learn our limits, and we know that we can’t fix the world, but we try.  We try to fix the things that hurts us.

            I sat in a little bistro on 3rd street called Mia & Grace, talking with Carlos Avrard, fellow Mosaic Way-er and coordinator of the Healthy Neighborhood Project in McLaughlin. 

“They have muffalettas here,” he said as he explained the place.

I set out my digital recorder and give him a simple directive: get me to now.

            He told me fondly about New Orleans – the food, the music, the weather, the drive-thru alcohol stands – the diversity he encountered on every side.

“We moved a lot, though, around,” he said.  He went to eight different schools in his thirteen years, never setting down any roots.  Then he tells me in a quiet sort of way that he’s envious of people who have long-term friendships, the kind that stretch back into childhood.

Carlos

     He met his wife, Sarah, in college.  They hung out in a Hardee’s one of the first nights he was there.  “She knew right away,” he said.  After graduation, they moved to Michigan.  The church they attended was located in McLaughlin at the time.  Starting Mosaic Way has seen them come full circle.

            “The diversity, that’s a good, healthy thing, that there’s not people who look like you and think like you.  There’s a vibrancy in that,” he said of the mosaic McLaughlin neighborhood.

            We arrived at now, so now what?  These days Carlos is remodeling his house and continuing his work with the neighborhood.

“One cool thing about our home remodel project – where we’re taking this home built over a hundred years ago and it’s sturdy and it has all this character to it, but has all this work that’s required – I’m kinda paralleling this home remodel project to this neighborhood.  Where as we’re spending ourselves and putting in effort and money into restoring this home in a way, of pouring passion and energy – and granted, it’s one little piece of this neighborhood, but paralleling that to this community, putting in effort, putting in time, pouring ourselves and our passions toward seeing this community be restored in a way. And I think those two parallels of the struggles that we deal with on the house, of knowing it’s not a quick fix and it’s not gonna be easy and we’re gonna have to be patient; we’re gonna have frustrations and roadblocks.  The same is true for this neighborhood, that it’s not going to be a quick fix; we’re gonna have to deal with the frustration and the roadblocks and all those things.  As you kinda dig into this stuff you find that you bust open a wall, and you find out what the plumbing and electrical is like below it.  Whereas, you knock on a door, you find a neighbor that has issues or something…  So that’s been an interesting thing that’s been echoing in my head a lot that this house remodel project in a nutshell is kind of symbolic in a way of this neighborhood.  You know we can’t do this house remodeling on our own; we can’t have this neighborhood redo itself on its own.  It requires other people.  Community and folks for support and all those things.”

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