Pam McGhee’s Winding Path to Community
Riverwise Interview by Eric T. Campbell
While city officials clamor over how much to concede to corporate interests and private real-estate poachers scavenge for the next house to flip, residents like Pam McGhee are taking a different path toward neighborhood development. Her long, arduous journey throughout the city as a renter began when she and her family were forcefully removed during the razing of Poletown for the General Motors automotive plant. The resulting journey dealt McGhee her share of domestic and financial challenges, but grassroots organizing and neighborhood politics have helped her gain balance. After a lifetime of intra-city travels and experiences, she’s back in the eastside neighborhood where she was raised, ready to share what she has been learning and thinking.
Bulldozers have played a recurring role in Pam McGhee’s life, starting in Poletown in 1981. At that time, she lived in a cherished rental home with her young family. They hoped to own that house someday, with the blessing of their elder landlords. Unfortunately, it was one of the 1,500 homes, 144 businesses and 16 churches slated for demolition to make room for GM.
That move led to a series of homes as McGhee found her way back to the very house where they were born. She now shares that home with her sister. Located not far from the now-closed Poletown GM auto plant, the dwelling offers peace of mind after decades of moving around. From there, Pam can closely monitor the renovation of an older home directly across the street that she will soon inhabit. Riverwise joined McGhee on the porch of her childhood home to discuss her journey back to Dubois and Forest Ave.
“I was born and raised here in Detroit, in this house right here, May 16, 1959. I grew up, pretty much, all my young years, in this neighborhood. My mom then moved down to East Chrysler and East Canfield, into the Charles C. Diggs complex down here. We stayed there for about twenty years. Myself and my children’s father, we moved in with my mom so we could save and, you know, get a little house, and everything…. We saved ’cause he worked at Chrysler at the time. I was just an at-home mom, caring for the kids. We finally found this old little house over in Poletown, on Joseph Campau and Piquette. It was right at the Ford Freeway there. Life was great for us…. our finances was where we could handle them, and the kids was young, we had a backyard, I mean it was just beautiful. Our neighbors were wonderful, we had a mixed, diverse group of neighbors. I mean, I just thought I would be there forever….
Then probably about three years, not quite four years, after we had gotten settled and everything established there, they was talkin’ ’bout this General Motors plant comin’. And to be honest with you, I really do believe the city bamboozled a lot of us people over there, especially people that was low-income, or gettin’ welfare, or state assistance, or anything in that realm….
We were the very last people to move off of our block. Our house, we had a cute little red and white, cute little frame house. The grass started growing next door; construction started happening around us; the kids couldn’t go outside, they developed asthma— they had asthma anyway, my baby did, from down here in the Diggs (Charles C. Diggs housing complex), from that incinerator.”
With very little information from the city (McGhee says there were almost no community meetings) Pam and her family were offered $7,000, like the other Poletown households forced to move. Attached to that agreement was the stipulation that they purchase a home in Detroit before receiving the payment. For renters in Poletown, most of them not quite ready to take on the financial burden of a new home, the offer was a mixed blessing. Real estate agents and eminent domain were finally too much to resist. When McGhee and her family couldn’t wait any longer, they bought a home on Fairport and Gratiot.
But even with the $7,000 stipend, they couldn’t afford the mortgage. Bills piled up, the marriage suffered to the point of separation, and eventually Pam lost the house. McGhee then began a long period of financial distress, rental arrangements, and general insecurity.“It ended up, we couldn’t handle anything, you know, cause our income wasn’t…. it just was devastating. Me and him started having problems… he ended up leaving me with the kids and I’ve never come back from it, you know what I’m saying? I ain’t never been settled since in my life. I was young. I was a young person and it just left me devastated. Every time I passed that place when it first opened, I just…. our damn house is three frickin’ parking lots. It makes me so mad. I know everybody’s happy when they see that place… except me, I swear to God….
And then now, to hear that its closing. You would think it would be around here for a hundred damn years or something, to wreck my life like it did.”
Her childhood home, the home razed by bulldozers in Poletown, and the house purchased after the forced removal, are in close proximity to each other in the neighborhood referred to as Poletown, or Poletown East on the latest maps of Detroit. But McGhee often has found herself, migrating throughout the city into neighborhoods that were geographically and culturally divergent. These offered her unique experiences in neighborhood organizing.
Today she is bringing that experience back to her childhood neighborhood just east of Chene and south of Forest. She is especially drawing on the work she did in southwest Detroit (organizing and advocating for the playground at Harms Elementary School) and districts surrounding the State Fairgrounds (including canvassing for the State Fairgrounds Development Coalition). For the last ten years Pam has been active with the Lindale Gardens Community, a group organizing in the area of State Fair Avenue and I-75. Neighborhood activists there have established a public park project, a movie night, several community murals and a community storefront. McGhee credits University of Detroit adjunct professor of Architecture and Lindale resident Rebecca ‘Bucky’ Willis as the creative mind behind much of the organizing tactics employed in Lindale. The initiatives, McGhee says, fostered a collective effort to not only beautify lots in the area, but to transform the culture of the entire neighborhood.
“Each neighborhood has its own issues, its own uniqueness. Ours was the opioid and prostitution—it (Lindale) has a lot of that going on. That’s the nightmare there. So, in Lindale, they needed to put a place there to help people with that. You know we did a lot of murals, like two summers ago— one of our members, she’s an artist and she does murals, and we all were doing murals and stuff like that.
…We were finding a real big need for a community center in that neighborhood. But one that’s gonna be right, though. We want drug intervention, GED classes, literacy classes. I’ve been to every house in that neighborhood— at least seven times on their front porch.”
Street art and murals were the initial methods of beautifying and, more importantly, initiating positive interactions in the Lindale neighborhood. But it was the carving out of safe spaces that ultimately brought folks together. The community storefront at Lindale Gardens, for example, revealed to McGhee the importance of a physical base of operations where neighborhood residents could convene and decide how to allocate resources. That realization spawned larger plans for a community center that would support the many social and economic needs of the neighborhood. McGhee’s movie night was also successful at turning out neighbors that were rarely seen together, if at all.
“When I started the movie night, it was just us sittin’ at the table talkin’, trying to come up with ideas to engage our neighborhood, and getting people to come out. Cause we got a lot of people that’s literally imprisoned in their house because of the drug situation over there. No matter what, we wanted to change that. We wanted them to start coming out. So we had access to this space, a city block, a couple of lots there, that they did let us use. And we put up a mural on the side of the building we were using. We would put a tarp up there and did our movie nights.We’d get a lot of the seniors, they absolutely loved it, cause they were on Fridays and Saturdays, it was a thing for them to do. It started where we’d be combing they hair, cause they was old ladies, and it just turned into much more than what we thought. Popcorn, pizza, kids sleeping in blow-up pools.”
From the movie nights, the Lindale community group took over a lot and dilapidated park at Keating and State Fair. With help from energized neighbors of all walks, they painted and sanded the playscapes, mowed the grass, and built a community fire pit. But the city reacted in ways now familiar to McGhee— with no notice they bulldozed the park. The Lindale Garden Association never reached out to the city to ask why. In McGhee’s words, they just froze in disbelief. Just like Poletown all over again.
“We had the firepit, the horseshoe field, a firetruck thing that kids climbed on…. it was so pretty ‘cause we repainted it and we did it all authentic and detailed. And they came and bulldozed it. I’m talkin ’bout one of them bulldozers went clear through it. They just came and did it. We couldn’t believe it.”
Although McGhee is still a member of the community association, community activities in Lindale Gardens have tapered off since the bulldozing of the park on Keating two summers ago. McGhee is focused more on helping her sister, Juanita, and community builder Tim Nutt with their efforts to start a block club on DuBois. She has helped them advocate for the block club with door-to-door flyering, and by advocating for a mental health facility in partnership with the Pope Francis Center. That development is going before Detroit City Council for approval as this issue goes to print.
McGhee is still coming to terms with the drastic change in the landscape around the Forest/Dubois neighborhood. In neighborhoods like Poletown East, few houses remain. Families whose ancestors migrated north in the forties and fifties see the open spaces as reminiscent of the rural South. These places exhibit the scars of economic and racial oppression that have forced a massive exodus of Black families from Poletown East and other Detroit neighborhoods in the 2000s. For Pam McGhee, these scars represent the healing that has already begun by engaging her neighbors and raising political awareness.
“I’m not nobody special. I’m just a person. I’m just a citizen. I don’t have no degrees on nothin’…. I’m just concerned. I want better. And I want better for my city. I want it to be fair though. I want whatever happens here— and don’t get me wrong, I love development, I welcome it— But I want it to be fair though. I want it to be fair for everybody coming here. Cause a lot of these people coming here are coming from all over the world, buying these houses here in Detroit. And I just hope that they respect the people that is here, just like the people here need to respect them also. We’re here, and we’re a viable community of people.”
Pam McGhee’s story is a reminder of how connected home ownership is to our economic existence. Thousands of Black homeowners in Detroit were forced to move during the recent mortgage and tax foreclosure crises. Instead of providing security home ownership became nothing a burden to our livelihood and our credit— a burden that can follow us around for many years. The city and county land banks have failed to react to the catastrophe as former homeowners navigate a new terrain of rental properties and frequent migration.
The terrain Pam McGhee navigated in the face of this crisis reflect her personal courage and resilience. Though forced to move throughout the city, she has worked tirelessly to uplift the community during every stop. From Poletown to southwest to the northeast side and back, McGhee has remained committed to analyzing her surroundings and taking responsibility for transforming them.
Native Detroiter Eric T. Campbell is the managing director of Riverwise Magazine. He served as staff writer for the Michigan Citizen from 2006-2012.