In this interview, Sharpe examines her childhood living in inner city Detroit and the experiences she had growing up as a child along with her experiences as a teenager. She also discusses the state of her current neighborhood of residence and its surrounding amenities today as well as how both have evolved over the years.
Detroit Historical Society
Detroit Historical Society
Sheila Sharpe was born on February 13th, 1957 and spent her childhood growing up in the city in central Detroit on the west side. She also spent her childhood living through and experiencing the riots of 1967. Sharpe spent many years throughout her life commuting through downtown Detroit but has currently settled in the Brush Park neighborhood complex within the Midtown district of Detroit.
JA: So were you born in Detroit or were you not? SS: I was born in Detroit. JA: So what neighborhood do you live in now? SS: I live in Brush Park. JA: When did you move there? SS: I moved here in 2013 after the death of my brother who [slight pause] died of cancer. JA: I’m sorry to hear that. SS: Thank you [whispers]. JA: What neighborhood did you grow up in I guess? SS: I grew up in like central Detroit on the west side. Back then it was considered a bad, a rough neighborhood. We moved from different places within that neighborhood but the longest that we stayed in one place was when we were living on Philadelphia between 12th and Woodrow Wilson. And I went to elementary school when we were living there, and I went to junior high school when we were living there, and I went to high school when we were living there. JA: So I am assuming that you lived most of your childhood there? SS: In that area yes sir. I went to just about every elementary school in that area. Fairbanks, I started Kindergarten there, then I went to Thourcul, and Crosman, Longfellow, back to Crosman, then Sanders Elementary, and after Sanders I went to junior high. They weren’t called middle schools then. And after graduating from Hutchins junior high, I went and started high school at Northern Senior High. And I didn’t graduate like walk across the stage graduate, ok, but I got to the 11th grade. I got pregnant at a very young age and that wasn’t acceptable at the time so I had to get out of school but I did take the GED test I passed it in two days. Boom [emphatically] JA: Good stuff. So I mean I guess how was life like living in that area as a child and growing up there? Like what were the activities that you did? SS: Oh wow! We had so much fun! [slight pause] Then there were a lot of troubles too of course. We played a lot of baseball. The girls play hopscotch the boys played what they call two hand touch football. The boys and the girls together play basketball in the alley. We put up a bicycle rim on the wooden telegraph pole in the alley and we would play basketball back there. We would play kickball and kickball was based on the same principles as football cause sometimes we didn’t have a bat but we had the basketball. So the basketball would be rolled, kick it… JA: Was there a big field or something? SS: It was in the alley. We didn’t always go to a field to play but we did have different vacant lots that we could play on. JA: That’s nice. SS: Yeah. So we played games like that we played games in the summertime like tag, [slight pause] red light green light. I don’t know if you know what that is. JA: [Laughs] SS: Mr. Fox what time is it, mother may I, the fox and the pies. I don’t know if you know how those games were played. JA: A lot of them sound pretty familiar if I would say. SS: Really? JA: Yeah. Wait what is fox and the pies? SS: Okay. The kids would sit on the porch and you had one person, I guess you can call them the mediator or something like that, whispered into everybody’s ear what pie they were. So the fox was the one that was gonna chase the pie to try to get it [okay] and the fox would say “is there an apple pie?”. And nobody would say anything. “Is there a rhubarb pie?”. And whoever the rhubarb pie was would hop up and run. We had a designated point that you had to run to. Like a tree or something or a pole and you run to it and you run back around it. And you come back around without being caught. If you got caught before you got back to the porch, you were the fox. JA: How does getting caught work? So is it sort of like being tagged? SS: Tagged yes. JA: And did the fox know where the designated spot was? SS: Oh yes of course. It is just who is the fastest runner, okay. JA: Yeah true. [In agreement] SS: If you can run faster than the fox then you were caught and you become the fox. JA: I guess those were like the childhood games but how was it sort of growing up in like your teenage years were there like certain activities done then? SS: During my teenage years, oh wow JA: [Laughs] SS: We would hangout kinda with the bigger kids. Some of them could drive and we would go out to Belle Isle, you know, sometimes we had weed to smoke [laughs]. That was a big no no but you were cool if you did. And we would drive out there sometimes we would all hangout downtown here at Kennedy Square which is now there is a building built on it. And we would talk about different political things, what's going on in the world, the presidents, and that sort of thing. And it was racially mixed. Black kids, white kids, Chinese, everybody you know you were into a certain group when you hangout and Kennedy Square. You were intelligent, you know. JA: You were the big man on the block. SS: The smart ones. Not necessarily on the block you would not let anyone know that hang out down there because then they would say you think you’re white. And it was just [slight pause] touchy in certain situations you had to be a certain way. [pause] When we were in our neighborhood, which they dubbed “the hood”, we had basement parties and they were called quarter parties. Someone’s parents wouldn’t be home for a weekend or something, or some of the parents would let you do it. And you would charge everybody twenty-five cents to come in. JA: Oh really SS: Yeah and you would go down in the basement and have a red light and music playing and all of that. And the older boys would sneak in beer. So you could drink beer, and kinda be cuddly and dance you know stuff like that. JA: I would say that is very usual in our sort of time too if somebody’s parents weren’t home… SS: I think everybody’s generation had that going on in one way or another! JA: [Laughs] if somebody’s parents weren’t around you would definitely. So I guess within this interview as well it is more of the neighborhood that you are living in at this point in time so I guess we are going to divert into where you’re living at right now. So living in this Midtown Brush Street area, what is it like? SS: I can’t really put my finger on what it’s like now. For me, it’s cozy. I would put it that way. There’s not a lot of tension around here and everyone seems to get along. Most people are friendly, neighborly, it seems like people care about the upkeep of the neighborhood JA: And I was gonna say as well like, when people sort of think of a typical Detroit neighborhood that this neighborhood looks very refurbished compared to other neighborhoods in Detroit and I think that’s pretty interesting at least from my point of view. SS: Yes this neighborhood has been refurbished as you put it. Before I got here, before I moved back to Detroit in 2013, I was here maybe in 2009 or 2010 somewhere in there for a short vacation. And there were apartment buildings here. And they hadn’t torn down everything. I remember a nursing home that used to be right here at Adelaide and Woodward. That building I think was still standing and then when I came back in 2013 obviously it had been torn down and the condos went in. And they left this building as a historical building because it was one of the last places that serviced horse and buggies. JA: Oh really [surprised] SS: Yes JA: I was going to say walking through the neighborhood I noticed that this one is different than all of the other ones. SS: Yes they used to service them out there in that yard. The entrance used to be on the side there where the garden is. And this was the place like I said they bought the horse and buggies and things like that and from what I’ve been told some members of the purple gang took residency here also JA: Who are the purple gang? SS: Oh you don’t know [who the purple gang are]? Oh man! I know you are familiar with the name Al Capone JA: Yeah SS: They were one of his sales I’ll put it like that. JA: Oh really? SS: They were gangsters. JA: There were gangsters that lived in there? Wow SS: Now the building that standing to the west of this building was known to have the purple gang members that actually lived there. And a few of them lived here [okay] but the purple gang would run, we’ll say liquor, from Detroit to New York and from New York from Detroit via Canada. JA: Oh SS: Detroit is very busy. Alright, there’s a lot of things that a lot of people don't know that Detroit is famous for underground. JA: I feel like being close to the border and what not, it would be. SS: Of course like El Paso close to the border of Mexico you know. A lot of things go through it. JA: So I guess and the next question is: is this neighborhood an integrated neighborhood? SS: Very much so. Very much so JA: That is good. SS: Not only are there [pause] black, white Americans. You have oriental, well meaning Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Spanish people from different parts of the Spanish speaking nations. JA: That is wonderful. SS: Oh good grief. Indians from [pause] wherever, Arabs, this is a melting pot. This neighborhood is very will mixed. And one color that stands out more than any other color there is here is the color green! [slams table laughing] That stands out I don’t care what color your skin is if your pocket is green you’re in there. [Laughs] JA: Yeah it seems like it’s a nicer area. I guess what do you do for fun within this neighborhood? SS: Oh my gosh there is a lot to do around here there are so many restaurants you can hang out at. I have not yet experienced patronizing across the street yet. So there is the arena, Little Caesars Arena which you could do the games, with the hockey and basketball and what have you. And you know about the Comerica Park baseball games I’ve been over there. I have yet to go to Ford Field. But my favorite place to go hangout in the summertime is Campus Martius. Oh my, it’s old school it’s laidback, everybody is comfortable down there. There is a little restaurant I do not recall the name where you can go in and order whatever and sit outside. But they have bands that come and most of them are old school bands. And the last time a big name person came down, I haven’t been down this year, it was Bootsie Collins from I don’t know if you heard of the group but [slight pause] Parliament Funkadelic? JA: I have heard of Parliament Funkadelic! SS: I grew up on their music. Yes! There are so many excellent groups out there that we have grown up on and I could not name them all. But he was the last one that I saw at Campus Martius and he had a green afro wig on [chuckles along with John] Came of the stage and went into the audience. It was wonderful. I just love old school music live. The waterfront, down by the Renaissance Center, I was down there at the beginning of the summer and caught the group WAR. JA: They were there? SS: Oh yeah [starts singing song Low Rider by WAR][both laugh] JA: Was it a free concert? SS: Yes it was! JA: Man! I wish I knew about that! SS: We know someone that works down there and they took our chairs down earlier in the day so we could be in a good position, just as long as we came early. And there were people sitting in their seats when we got there but it was no problem we just told them and they said “oh we’re sorry! We didn’t know that they were for”[recitation of other person] whatever that happens. But there were no fights. That’s what I can pat Detroit on the back for is that people get along. No matter what, they are really getting along. So far, so good. I love going to the fireworks down there but I can also get on the roof and watch them but there is the ruff. JA: Is it hard to get to the roof? SS: No it isn’t. It isn’t at all. That’s not for everyone and we don’t let our tennants up there because you know anything can happen and we are responsible. Going downtown for the fireworks is okay if you want to hang out down there but it’s crowded during the activity you know. JA: Understandable [whispers] SS: What else do I like doing downtown? [contemplates] Just walking around and checking out the stores, and communicating with people. There’s a lot of things to do downtown if you just either go down there and find them or read it in the paper, online, but those are some of the things that I like to do. Saint Andrew’s down there, they have bands that come. I’ve gone to a party that the Jewish Synagogue put on JA: Geez SS: Yeah! That’s what this country is about, freedom. Especially freedom of religion. I’m not gonna smack you upside the head because you worship god in a different way than I do. At least we are worshipping God. If we need to be straightened out in a way he wants to be worshipped he’ll let us know, which I think he is. [laughs] JA: Okay cool! Where do you go shopping relatively within this area? That’s the next question. SS: CVS downtown, [pause] Slices pizza, university supermarket. JA: Do you mean University Foods? SS: Yeah University Foods. JA: I shop there as well it is close to my apartment. SS: Yeah that is my favorite market. I go to Food Pride, there’s Little Caesars Pizza over there. There is a little wig shop over there I go to every now and again. [pause] Those are about the only places, because there’s not many places down here to shop. I go to Highland Park a lot of times for things. This area needs a dollar store. JA: [laughs in agreement] For sure, I haven’t seen one of them. SS: Not yet. If I had the money and knew how, there’s a couple of buildings down here that would be perfect for it. [pause] If I only knew how to get the money I would open the store up JA: [laughs] Dreams. SS:Yes JA: Alright, so next question is are there any stories from your neighborhood that you would like to share? SS: I don't know that depends you would have to bring up a topic. JA: I guess like what is the most vibrant time around this neighborhood I guess. When people are most out and about. SS: Hmmmmmmm JA: The one time when people are most out and about within the neighborhood. SS: I would say in between eight in the morning and two in the afternoon. After then, I don't recognize a lot of people. During that time, a lot of the neighbors are out walking their dogs or you know just walking around and doing whatever. After then, you see a lot of faces that you really don’t know. We have public parking out there so a lot of the workers from different stadiums around here will park on our lot because it's free. I hear-tell that they are charged to park where the company has designated parking which I don’t think is fair, but anyway. I see a lot of the workers parking here and a lot of the people who are going to an event, they park out there. So far there has not been any problems, but there have been problems but no major [emphasis] problems. JA: Yeah [agreeingly] SS: But I still think that they need to consider as residence here more so than they do the businesses when it comes to parking. JA: That’s understandable I feel like it can get crowded. SS: Yeah it does. And I hear-tell that not only we are asking for permit parking but the midtown community, the corktown community, all of the other little communities around here including Brush Park, we are asking our leaders downtown to help us with permit parking. And to me we have had no response. Now I don't know exactly who the representative is right now of this area. I feel we are in district six and a young lady came by here one day and she was running for office of this district. And um I had mentioned something to her about the parking and she didn’t give me a favorable or unfavorable response. JA: Yeah she just gave you a response [laughs] SS: Yeah like “no I understand” and stuff like that, okay whatever. But that is the big issue down here is the parking, yes. JA: It seems like they should have more designated parking areas. SS: I think they should. A lot of things that gets me what the parking situation that the people who live in the condos around here don't seem to care in one way or another about this building having parking. JA: Because they have their own parking lots I saw SS: They have not only that but they have two car garages [JA]: Oh yeah because they have little openings I’ve saw SS: They have two car garages not only that but they could park a car outside of their garage doors. But they choose to park on the street a lot of them. And that could be space for us. Now I wasn’t here when the condos were being put in and all of the negotiations were being met. They were going to make our garden a parking lot for this building. But then someone came up with the bright idea that we were going to make money of the parking lot over there. And I’m like forreal? Did they really say that? How in the world can we make money in a 69 unit building with over half of our people having vehicles. How are we going to make money? Make money doing what? You know flagging everybody in to park. No! No way! Then it was oh, they were going to mess up our walkway. Or I don't know what it was about coming in on the streetside but it was smashed [hits table] no parking and they have no consideration for us. But they never thought that if it wasn’t for this building, that is at least maybe more than 120 years old being here, the rest of everything else around here would not be here if it wasn’t for this building. JA: Very true. SS: But, you know we had rumors going around here when I first came here that this building had drugs, and ladies on the night, and just all kinds of nonsense going on. And my sister in law was talking to a woman who lived in a condo one day. And she was just bad mouthing this place something terrible. Then she asked my sister-in-law “which condo do you live in?” My sister in law says I live there[claps] in this building. The lady closed her mouth and went back into her residence. JA: [laughs] SS: She sure did. We don’t have that going on here. Not at all. The owners here are great people, I think. JA: That’s good. SS: Yes JA: Alright, what makes your neighborhood unique [pause] compared to other neighborhoods in Detroit? SS: It’s [pause] Brush Park. I mean, I don't know. I really couldn't explain it you would have to experience it. JA: Yeah, Understandable yeah. SS: I can’t say A, B, C, D, E about you know what makes us so unique outside of the architecture and the way the olds blend in with the new. You know, you have to experience this place. JA: Alrighty. Do you feel comfortable living in the city? SS:Oh yes. Yes I do. [pause] I’m always on my guard though okay I’m not like gonna be like naive you know like yeah yeah. No you are always on your guard for anything that’s anywhere. JA: Alrighty. So how has your neighborhood changed over the years or has it stayed the same throughout the decades? SS: This neighborhood has changed, I’m sure throughout the decades. Like I was saying earlier, the apartment buildings that were here are no longer here and they have the condos in. They have bought you know they’ve come up the ladder so to speak. The social economical thing has changed [pause] sometimes I get a little lost for words. JA: Oh no! It is absolutely understandable!It is fine SS: My old neighborhood [pauses] it’s not there anymore. I barely recognize it outside of the street names. The landmarks are not there anymore. The stores are of course not there anymore and that starts to change during the ‘67 riots. Before and after pictures before ‘67, we had lots of stores: shoe stores, furniture stores, banks, and bakeries, and restaurants and all kinds of things.And the African American community then was, I was only a child I don’t know all of the political things about it. But growing up there on twelfth street, our parents sheltered us during that time so to speak because during that time that area had a lot of… [lost for words] I’ll come out and say it. Pimps, prostitutes, gambling, you know things like that. But still, there was a flavor about it that didn't bother me at the time and it doesn’t bother me now, and people never harmed us or anything like that. But I would see different things on the street that kid my age should have seen like a man or a woman being cut or stabbed, or a man smacking another woman around, or a man beating up on another man. JA: mhmm [agreeing] SS: And things like that. You know, seen some rough things. JA: Was it casual to see that in the street? SS: Casual? No. It wasn't causal. I mean, there was a lot of people back then don’t forget. The factories were full bloom back then. There were alot of people in Detroit. Okay, and you see a lot of people walking up and down the street the traffic was 30 times more than it is today. This is no traffic at all as far as i'm concerned. JA: Really? SS: Then the way it used to be in Detroit. JA: I mean was it much busier? SS: Heck yeah! I mean super busy. I mean bumper to bumper traffic. Even at nighttime! Not bumper to bumper traffic, but there was so much traffic during nighttime, okay. You would not see any traffic, minimal traffic you would see maybe in the early morning hours like from 3-5. It was like really then, few cars going here and there, and then you know the people that get up to go to work, you get the people that are getting off the midnight shift, the kids going to school. Don’t forget that just about every elementary school was open and busy Every junior high, every high school, you know Detroit was like very, very busy during those times. It is not half as busy now as it used to be. And can you imagine that? JA: That’s crazy to think about. That is crazy! SS: Downtown, you know how you see people in New York walking across the street. JA: And they don’t say hi SS: That’s the way it was down here when I was coming up. Detroit was very, very busy. JA: Wow. The next question is have you ever thought of moving away? SS: I did and [pauses] I did think about moving away, and I did move away. But over the years, I wanted to come back home and I’m home to stay. JA: Thank you. When someone says the neighborhoods, what does that mean to you? SS: The neighborhoods. That’s the sections of the city. JA: That’s a broad question. SS: It is very. It depends on the neighborhoods… [pause] the different areas. Some areas, like the area that I grew up in, beautiful when I was coming up. Every house had a residence, almost everyone took care of their grass, you know, there were some that didn’t take care of it and you had dirt as a lot. There were some people on the block who were just wild, so to speak okay [chuckles]. And a lot of people were just normal and then you had some snobby, ya know. You had a mixture of people. JA: [repeats mixture in agreement] SS: Yes. But the neighborhoods to me means the sections of the city. You have the section where you have poor people, section where you had people who are in the middle, and people who were a little bit more fortunate than the middle. JA: Just a wide range. SS: Oh, a wide range of people I can get into the nitty-gritty of things. There was a section in Detroit when I was coming up called Rosedale Park. JA: mhmm. SS: Now, people who lived in Rosedale Park were dubbed with the name “E-light”. JA: What does that mean? SS: It’s actually the word elite. But we as an African American community, from way back, we put our own twist on words. Okay so instead of calling them elite, we call them “E-light”. And that meant that it means that they are uppity African American people. They are better, more educated, and don't associate themselves with what other African Americans who are less fortunate than they are but at the same time, they don't consider themselves to be white, and they don't push that to much. JA: They are their own sort of separate community. SS: Exactly. Right, you’re right. Yeah , and you have those who I would consider being too black. Not necessarily being militant but don't want anything to do with anything white, no matter what. And then there’s those who “okay we’re gonna go with the flow”, you were probably called the norm. JA: [Laughs] SS: Then there are those who say look, I’m knocking on the door, I’m getting in here and youre gonna show me and teach me. And then you have those who say look, we need to show you and teach you about us. So there’s different types and different neighborhoods for African Americans and it bothers me that African Americans have been stereotyped by other races. We steal, we lie, we kill, we do this, we do that. You know, we’re dumb we can’t learn anything. That’s crap! [emphatically] We’re not given the chance. And sometimes being given the chance someone from your race, African American see another African American doing something to better themselves, they’ll talk them down. But on the other hand you have another African American who is talking them up, okay. Then sometimes there are people who just are in the middle being pulled both ways. They self sabotage. So people cannot continue to go around and label African Americans as being you know, negative. Because everything in our world that is associated with black is negative. That’s not fair. JA: That’s not fair at all. That’s really not fair at all. SS: No. JA: [pause] How do you feel about the state of this neighborhood today? SS:The state of this neighborhood today is good. It is up and coming. But I am a little concerned about the things that are being built around here and what is going to be asked of the people who are trying to move in. JA: Because I remember you talking about the parking and then the next question is what would you like to see happen with your neighborhood. I'm assuming one of them is parking. Is there anything else you would like to see happen? SS: I would like to see some sections of this neighborhood for people with low incomes. It doesn’t have to be a lot but something significant. Because there have been people that have been living down here for years and years. And they are seniors, they are older than I am, and they feel threatened. JA: Yeah SS: They’re comfortable down here, they have been down here most of their lives. All this new stuff comes in and the rumors that go around, they become afraid. Whats going to happen to me? Where am I going to go? I can't afford this. I don't think it's fair to just come in and just say, boom! This is 400 to 800 thousand dollars. This is going to be this and this is going to be that. You have to make this amount of money in order to get into this kind of place. Wait a minute hold on. Who talked to the poor guy? JA: It is unfair to those who lived here before. SS: Exactly! But that’s not taken into consideration when you have money. JA: And that’s a shame. SS: The two guys who have the big money here, I don’t know what they have instructed their people to do, or what their people have told them what they're going to do. Because I know the bottom line is the almighty dollar. But, you have to take into the consideration the people who need, because that’s where you make your mistake. Not the people who have, but the people who need. Help the people who need, then the people who have just may not be picked on. JA: Yeah understandable. Alright, the next question is if you can get one project done in your neighborhood, what would it be? SS: Well, they’re working on one project I would like to see and that’s taking the old [pauses]. Shame on me for not remembering the name. It’s over in the Brewster area. I think it's Gronk? They’re making it a place for young women. JA: That’s nice. SS: I just wanna see how that’s going to be. Young girls to go but I would like to see something for the seniors [pauses], something for the kids to get involved in to keep them off the streets something positive like that for the kids. And something for the seniors like assisted living places and adult day cares. JA: Would you say there is like a lack of assisted living or like senior living in Detroit? SS: Definitely. It’s just now starting to come up. There are a few places that I’ve heard about, for assisted living here in Detroit out towards 7 mile, there on the west side. Down in this area they’re starting to come up they should be strongly considered and acted upon. Not just considered but acted upon and brought into existence. JA: And this is the last question of the interview. How do you feel about the state of Detroit today? SS: The state of Detroit is strong. Nothing stops Detroit. There’s a sign in a window in a shop downtown, and when I see that it rings so true. Detroiters don’t give up. We do not give up. And if we go anywhere in the country and someone bad mouths Detroit, we defend them. And we ask them have you ever been to Detroit. Until you’ve gone to Detroit and spent some time in Detroit, I don’t think you have the right to say anything about Detroit. To me, not only is Detroit home, but Detroit is a rock. It is a strong home I’m very passionate about my city. JA: Thank you. SS: Very passionate. JA: I do too and I appreciate that. Alrighty, thank you so much and that is the conclusion of the interview.
“Sheila Sharpe,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed October 30, 2020, https://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/724.