In this interview, Roberta Sanders discusses her experience in Virginia Park, and her enjoyment and involvement of the community.
Detroit Historical Society
Detroit Historical Society
Roberta Sanders worked for 35 years as the CEO of The New Center Community of Mental Health organization before retiring. Now retired Sanders devotes much of her free time to community organizations within the Virginia Park neighborhood. For about three years Sanders was an active member of the Virginia Park black club holding both the treasure and later vice president positions within the group. Later on Sanders decided to apply to become part of a larger organization and applied to join the CanCan board, being that she had been paying dues to the organization for 27 years and active member of the community she felt that she had something to offer the organization. Sanders is still resides within Virginia Park to this day and is an active member on the board.
LR: Where and when were you born? RS: In Port Huron Michigan in 1941, I lived there until I was 19. LR: When did you come to Detroit? RS: I came to Detroit in 1961. LR: and why? RS: For work. LR: For work? Where did you work? RS: Wayne County General Hospital LR: Doing? RS: I…I was a registered nurse. LR: Oh Cool. What had you heard about Detroit before coming? RS:…not a whole lot, because… I had relatives that lived in Detroit so I was often here in the summer to visit with them…so it was not…you know…nothing crazy [laughter] LR: [laughter] nothing crazy? RS: [laughter] eah nothing crazy. Yeah actually ah in 1961 the hospital that I worked didn't hire African American nurses, so I didn't have a whole lot of choice. LR: Oh, wow. What was your first impression of Detroit? RS: oh…actually, I just thought it was very large. Port Huron is a small town. LR: Oh, Ok I've never been. RS: Now, it's a small town, but then it was even smaller than when I was raised so I was not accustomed to the amount of traffic. LR: Yeah, Oh yeah, and driving. RS: Yeah driving and that sort of stuff. LR: yeah it is overwhelming. RS: Yeah and I was outside of the city I worked in Elaweese is Wayne county general is in now what its either Wayne or Wetland…or Inkster, I don't know what that, that. What they call it LR: yeah people's definitions of stuff of things are always different too. RS: Yes. LR: What neighborhood did you grow up in? RS: See that was not a Detroit neighborhood. LR: Yeah. RS: It was an area called South Park. LR: And what was that like? RS: Oh, it was semi-rule, a lot of people had small farms…and umm had chickens, big lots. LR: Was is integrated? RS: yeah because there wasn't enough room to have… LR: segregated neighborhood RS: yeah to have segregated neighborhoods, LR: What did you do for fun? RS: umm we played outside a lot, there was actually a playground across the street from our house, so [laughter] you probably don't even know the term playground. LR: [laughter]I take the kid to the playground. RS: So we could go, in the summer we could go to the playground from about 9 o'clock until about 6, because they always had things going on, things happening. LR: where did your parents work? RS: My mom was an elevator operator at the local back there …and my dad worked at the local foundry LR: What did they make there? RS: Some parts for the auto industry, some small parts. LR: Where did you go shopping? RS: At the time I was growing up the shopping was downtown in Port Huron, downtown, we didn't have malls at that time. So the shopping was downtown, Although, my mom did some shopping in Wisner at that time there was a fairy that went from Port Huron across to downtown Wisner and she shopped and she shopped over there, she thought she got better deals, she thought that the meant was better. LR: Where did you go to school? RS: St. Joes Catholic. Our family is Catholic. St Joseph. Catholic school. LR: Did you like it there. RS: Yeah it was nice. It was… you know… you hear all of these terrible stories about the nuns, and the Dominican nuns where theoretically the worst in the group, But I didn't see that part of it, the kids who maybe misbehaved maybe saw that part of it. But I didn't, Sister Agnus Claire was our principle and I always thought she was nice. I mean but I didn't cut up in school I was not one of those kids, I always liked school. LR: Are there any stories from Virginia Park that you would like to share? RS: Yeah, there is a couple. I don't know if you remember the big blackout? When the lights went out? I think you were maybe not born. Anyway, I don't even know what year it was but all the lights went out all over the city well. from here to New York. You've probably heard about it. Yeah so, I knew the neighbors and everything, because I had been living there probably maybe five or six years at that time and so they were calling me up and saying "do you want to come over and stay at our house?" I said you don't have any lights either. [laughter]. You have no lights, I have no light, I don't know, I'll be over there in the dark, you know. But I lived alone, so I thought it was nice that they were thinking about me. They said well if you change your mind, you know feel free. And then, of course, the next day when it was pretty clear that these lights were not going to come back on in a few minutes we, everybody took stuff out of their freezers and we just had like this big barbeque, we put everything LR: Well you would have to. RS: because I mean it wasn't going to keep. Yeah, but that was fun. And then I had another incident, again, one of my neighbors. I was having my driveway paved…and umm I walked, I always walked with the neighbor across the street from me. I don't know if you know Virginia Park, It's a historic area. And the homes are large, and a lot of them have two car garages and, but what I didn't know was this one neighbor, which I had been knowing Tony for a while he lived next door to a neighbor that I walked with and I was telling Dick, you know I hate parking my car on the side of the street I said but I got to have my driveway done. And you know, and I can get to my back to get to my garage because if it was behind, like behind my house. And he said "well tony has got a three car garage, and he only has one car maybe he'll let you park at his house." So like I said I knew Tony, not quite as well as I knew Richard but I knew him I said "Okay, Okay I'll ask him"….and he was kind of a very quiet guy he was you know, kind of reserved, so I ask him he said "yeah no problem" he said "when do you want to bring the car?" I said "umm I get home from work around 5:30." So I don't know he must have been looking out because he was a social worker. He said "you know I have a better idea." I said "what", he said "where do you have to go this evening?" I said "I'm not going anywhere until tomorrow morning I'm going to work" and he said "what time do you go to work?" I said "around 830" he said "well I'll come and get your car, and put it in my garage and I'll have it back in front of the house by 8:30 for you." So I thought Wow! This is like really curb service! He did that for three days. He just took my car, put it in his garage, brought it back at 8:30 for me to go to work. I was like what a guy. That, and then as our neighborhood began switching over we got a lot of new neighbors and I hadn't had this experience since I left Port Huron. LR: Switching over? RS: Yeah we had a lot of, our neighborhood was primarily African American when I moved in, I've been in the neighborhood almost 25 years now… and most of the new housing has gone to majority people Caucasians and East Indians. And so we were having dinner, me and a friend were having dinner on a Sunday in December. LR: This past December? RS: No. This was several years ago….and a gentleman they knocked on our door, I knew they were the new neighbors because I had been talking to them in the spring and in the summer, because I am a gardener, so I am out in the yard a lot so I meet a lot of people. My friend said "Oh it's the people from down the street…the new neighbors" I said "yeah." So they came to the door, and they said, well I said "come on in" you know, and they said "oh no. We are just bringing bread around to all the neighbors for Christmas." It was a Christmas stolen like, he said: "because you know, it's the holidays and we just wanted to connect with the neighbors." I was like, Wow! LR: You were not used to that? RS: Well in Port Huron it happened all the time, but not in Detroit. And that led to a lot of things, we formed a block club and did a lot of stuff. LR: Did you venture around the city; it says growing up but I guess after you got there? RS: Well actually I did come to the city quite a bit when I was growing up because I had family here. LR: Yeah okay, so did you venture? RS: yeah we went, what we really came for was the holidays. They would have music at the Rotunda, it's gone now, it was a Ford rotunda. Well I guess it was something like a, as a kid you don't know what these places are, maybe their museums, but anyway they always had a Christmas program there and our parents brought us to that and then we would go of course to downtown Hudson's. Because it would be and this was for whatever reason, this is so crazy the kids all thought the real Santa Clause was at Hudson's. That was just a kid this you know? And they would say, so we have to go, we always wanted to go to Hudson's to see the real Santa Clause. Port Huron Santa Clause, I don't know what he was, he was a fake Santa, because the real Santa was at Hudson's. And… of course that was the biggest department store, we knew anything about and I'm sure it was like in New York, he's at Macy's or whatever. LR: yeah and he probably had the most elaborate costume, the most realistic costume. RS: Yes, yeah exactly. And so we went there, and actually one year we went to, we didn't do this all the time, but to the train station and they had music there too, Christmas music and so sometimes we would go there when we would make our Christmas trip. But in the summer when we came down we often went to the zoo, and it seemed like it was a million miles. Yeah, we would go, get a lunch, take the streetcar. We actually when we came down here, we were like tourists, because we didn't live here. LR: yeah especially when you are used to more of a rural setting, and it's so much different here. RS: Yeah exactly, there is so much going on. LR: It says, ask them about the decades they grew up in, and what was Detroit like during the sixties? RS: I was here in the sixties; it was… very busy…I was working and going to school at the time. So that was a lot. LR: Where did you go to school at? RS: Wayne. I went to Wayne, I went back to get my bachelors in nursing, I had an A.A. in nursing. LR: Oh ok, and where did you work while you were in school? RS: I still was at Wayne County General. I lived in Chicago at that time and umm worked nights and went to school in the daytime or if I could sometimes I would work days and go to school at night. LR: Yeah, your schedule changes with the semester. RS: yeah but by that time I had been at Wayne County about five or six years so I could pretty much… LR: Do what you wanted. RS: yeah, mix up my schedule. That's the one good thing about nursing, you can work, days, nights. LR: Are there any stories from your childhood about your neighborhood that you would like to share? RS: are they still trying to go with like the sixties? LR: Yeah I guess because we already did that question. RS: Yeah I had some really good friends, I met some really good friends when I was here. when I lived in an apartment setting, as opposed that was before I got married. Umm… and so you know it was all young, you know, you know what. Everybody is running around and finding the latest bars. It's so funny now when I see the kids and they all think "oh this is like so new" and I'm like "yeah right" [laughter]. And you know exploring places but one of the things that…that we had some really good girlfriends and some guys that we ran around with. We were kind of bowling addicts, we did a lot of bowling, on this league, that league, this place, that place. LR: Is there anything that you think makes Virginia Park Unique? RS: Oh yeah, defiantly. The only reason that people are, that people live in Virginia Park is because they want to, nobody lives there because they have to. LR: So is it just like esthetically pleasing? RS: Well its people that like historic houses. You know, right from the beginning you have a common, a common thing with your neighbors. You really love old houses. So that is kind of what helped us pull together. The same guys I told you that bought the bread they were talking to me during the summer about things they needed, they were rehabbing some of the houses and they needed some of the brick, like my house. And they asked and I told them "don't waste any time in Detroit trying to find it, people who did this had to go to Lima Ohio, to get this red slate, umm limestone, I said so don't spend any time around here trying to find it, because it's not around here. And so that kind of stuff, so yeah there's a, there's that whatever else people are doing they have an idea that they like old houses because you wouldn't live there if you didn't like old houses. LR: has your neighborhood changed over the years or has it stayed the same? And if it has changed how so? RS: oh its changed a lot. Its changed a lot. When I first moved there the neighborhood was defiantly in decline. General motors had rehabbed about five…maybe six blocks…. maybe six houses on our block and they were trying to get people to move back into the area. LR: When you say rehab, you mean like renovated? RS: Oh yeah. What they left was the historical structure, all of the electric and plumbing and all of that was gutted and new was put in. LR: what year was that? RS: I think that was, I'm trying to think about twenty-seven, twenty-eight years ago, whatever year that was. So they did our block first, of course, I bought that house, one of the houses. They had five or six that they had done and still, the neighborhood was pretty much all African American. People weren't moving into the city then, you know everyone was saying the last one to leave turn off the lights and all this. It happened though by that time my husband had passed but we lived in the city, even then we lived in the city, our home was in what they call green acres, right outside of Sherwood forest, it was an old home not like on Virginia Park, not that old. And we were going to before my husband got sick, we were going to buy a house on Virginia Park. We actually had staked out one and knew it was for sale and all of that and then he got sick so of course, we didn't do that. But then after a while, when I heard they were going to have some more for sale again, I went back because I really liked the area. And so then, General Motors rehabbed, I'm trying to think maybe five or six more on the second block and umm those were more pricey, then the houses, then we bought because they bid the houses, so they gave them a low bid, they gave them a bid, a start. And so they were a little bit more. But I still think it was primarily African American. They didn't ever, General Motors never did the third block. Virginia Park is a funny street it runs from Woodward to the lodge freeway, so its three blocks then after the freeway it picks up again and those are all newer homes on that side. So it has you know, but the Virginia Park that I think most people talk about, the historic, is that three-block area, it just runs to the Lodge freeway. And then when we had this so-called resurgence. As the homes sold umm mostly Caucasians purchased most of the homes that were for sale then and that been like the last eight, nine years. LR: Have you ever thought about moving away? RS: No, I mean I'm going to move at some point, it's a big house and you know I… the big draw for me was that it was a big home and also my office was like ten minutes away, so it was very close to my work and then I retired so that draw is no longer there. And I own a home in Vegas and I spend time there, and my sisters live there and so we have that house, I..I don't like Vegas. LR: So where would you move, if you were to move? RS: Oh, I… LR: Would you stay in Detroit? RS: Oh yeah! Absolutely I'll stay in Detroit I'll just get, you know, I'll get a condo or something. LR: Did you stay in the same neighborhood, or did you move? RS: I moved, I moved from Port Huron like I said, when I was about twenty. And when I was here I lived in apartments until I got married and then we bought a home, but all of it was in Detroit. LR: When someone says the neighborhood what does that mean to you? RS: Well for me, since we've had so much about it I know they call it New Center, the New center area which runs from the Boulevard to Euclid to Woodward to the Lodge. But for me when they say the neighborhood I think Virginia Park because that's where I interact with people. That's my neighborhood. Although I'm now on an overarching board which is called Can-Can and there are like 7 distinct. LR: What is an overarching board? RS: An overarching board is umm you know, the grass is cut on lots that don't belong, on vacant lots or that kind of stuff. So Can-can we have, one, two three, four, seven groups and these are all places in order to be in Can-can which is a community organization you purchased these properties from General Motors. So yeah some of them are apartment buildings, some of them are condos, of course on Virginia Park its private houses all the rest are conglomerate living of some kind you know, condominiums, apartment buildings, but the common thread is that they were all purchased from General Motors and within our deed it says we are members of this group. Virginia Park are members of that board, the Can-can board, which is the seven. LR: One of the seven? RS: Yes, one of the seven. LR: Is this the group that runs like street parties, street events? RS: Yeah, they have ah they just had, no. The pumpkin carving hasn't come up yet, they'll have a pumpkin carving, they always have a Christmas event, they have a picnic in the summer. LR: Is it just for people within Virginia Park? RS: No, it's those seven. Yeah, and we are going to have an annual meeting on the seventeenth, this week coming up actually. And that will be to elect the new board and to let people know what all things have happened and all that stuff. LR: How do you feel about the state of your neighborhood today? RS: Oh, good. It's a nice place, it's a fun place to live I have new neighbors who other than saying hi in the morning I haven't met. But Jeff the same gentleman who brought the bread, we've become quite good friends and he rehabbed that house and then he sold it now, he owns twelve houses on Virginia Park. Most of them he's sold you know, he's rehabbed them and he's sold them. LR: What would you like to see happen with your neighborhood? RS: Well we are in discussions now with the city, I have no idea where this is going to go. We have a cobblestone street and do you know what that looks like? LR: with the brick? The bumpy, bumpy brick [laughter]. RS: yeah, the bumpy brick [laughter]. And they just there is one on Canfield, the short section of Canfield across from umm, what is the restaurant? As much time as I spend in there I can't think of it, ah there's a section of Canfield that is historic and they had some problems, I think it was water or something. So the city has got some good pricing on what it costs to do that. So we've just finished a survey they say it would be like a million dollars. So I don't think we are going to get it re-bricked umm there are still a few brick streets part of Michigan Avenue has still got some of the brick umm and like I said on Canfield there's still got some of the brick. Actually quite honestly they have not done, the city for a hundred and eleven years they have not done any road work here on that street, for a hundred and eleven years. So you know, the argument we are trying to put forth is that if you just do the brick you won't have to do any work for a hundred and eleven years. And what we said is pull up your paperwork on any of your concrete streets, trust me you've done work, yeah in the last hundred years you have not, not done anything on those streets. But they did they pulled up the paperwork during the first meeting and they said we are going to tell you the last record we have of this being put in, which is when it was out in basically, was a hundred and eleven years ago, and we have no records of any other work being done on this street. LR: yeah, so you would like to see it be re-bricked? RS: Yeah, there is a portion of us that would like to see it re-bricked, most people want the bumps to stop [laughter] LR: Well they are like speed bumps [laughter]. RS: [laughter] Yeah, and somebody raised that at the meetings, somebody said nobody speeds down our street. LR: Well I guess that answered the next question, it says if you could get a project done in your neighborhood what would it be? RS: Yeah, that would be the street. Yeah, I guess maybe some people have maybe tear downs or things like that. We have now I think in the third block, there might be two houses that haven't been rehabbed but I think that's it but, most of the houses are occupied. LR: How do you feel about the state of your city today? RS: boy, that's a hard one…that's a hard one. Umm, it all depends on your point of view I mean I live in what they call midtown, new center whatever which everyone says is the hot area. And so we have really no complaints, we have good police response, we have very regular trash pick-up, we have recycle pick up, we have, you know, there is a lot going on in that neighborhood. And it's ..…. LR: So maybe more of that going on throughout the city? RS: Yeah more neighborhoods that need to get that kind of focus and that kind of attention. LR: Do you think that having your group the Can-Can, something like that may be in other areas something like that? RS: Yeah, we actually before Can-can got to be moving well, block clubs. I really, I'm a firm believer in block clubs I think they do a lot I think they get people together. About six, seven, eight years ago we started our first block club. LR: Is that like where people have like the barbeques? RS: Yeah, just the people within the block. And it just makes for and we have, someone at Wayne was doing some kind of a study, I don't know what they were doing, but anyway they came up and they brought flyers, and they said if you want to start a block club we have got students I think they may have been city core students or something like that, that would help us. And they set up an email system for us and umm linked us so we could do one click and the information goes out to all the members. And they helped us a lot in getting started and getting organized. And I think that some of that still exists somewhere I'm not sure who does it. But that's a good project for Wayne because I think it does make a difference. LR: Yeah, it builds a sense of community, and I feel like when people have that people take more pride, people don't take pride in their stuff anymore. RS: Right its funny, we have this one neighbor, well everybody kind of has…I'm a gardener so I grow flowers out the front most people have pots, now they've got mums. When I was looking when I came out the other day this guy has, I counted them, because it was so many he has eleven pumpkins on his porch and in his yard. And you know some of them have on little hats you know, it's so funny. And everyone in our neighborhood they are getting into it, I see pumpkins. LR: Gets a little competitive. RS: Yeah it does. You know and everyone keeps their grass cut. It's like what you said.
“Roberta Sanders,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed October 30, 2020, https://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/722.