“I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
When asked how long he has lived in Detroit, Mr. Jackson, a fixture in the neighborhood around the El Moore, responds, “I have been here since nineteen hundred and sixty nine.” Not quite elderly just yet, Mr. Jackson makes his way around his Midtown neighborhood somewhat slowly these days with the help of a cane. His preference for spelling out each and every part of the year in which he moved to this city more than four decades ago exposes the former Detroit elementary school teacher who graduated from Wayne State University where he received his teaching certificate and then, later on, his Masters degree.
“I taught physical education and science,” he says, adding that he also worked for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
“Thirty years both jobs. I’ve been retired now for about 20, 25 years.””
His tall, lean build, and the aging grace still occasionally evident in his other times faltering stride offers a brief glimpse back in time at the the former athlete originally from Memphis, Tennessee. Today, all these years later, Mr. Jackson, known to some as “Action” Jackson, is somewhat of a neighborhood fixture. As someone who has lived through his fair share of experiences, the younger guys from the neighborhood sometimes seek out his counsel.
“I was the neighborhood psychiatrist when Tomboy was open,” he said. “I’d tell ’em the right thing too.”
Other times he serves as neighborhood lookout. Marilyn Sundstrom, who has been a gardener at the Community Garden on 2nd Avenue and Willis not more than a block away from where Mr. Jackson lives, says he oftentimes will take a seat on the corner across from the garden’s entrance and pay close attention to who goes in and who comes out. He has a strong knowledge of who belongs and who doesn’t in a neighborhood that is still full of characters even as it continues to transition from the notorious and wild Cass Corridor to the more upscale and hip Midtown. Mr. Jackson is more familiar with the neighborhood’s cast of characters than most. He has lived in the neighborhood practically since the day he moved here in 1969, following a young woman he loved who eventually became his first wife.
Asked how the neighborhood has changed in all those years, he says “It’s changed a lot,” then begins to elaborate when a man wanders up to where we’re sitting and asks a question, interrupting the conversation.
“Is that building on?” he asks.
The intrusion doesn’t sit well with Mr. Jackson.
“Excuse me sir, I don’t know what you’re talking’ about. Have a nice day.”
Looking somewhat miffed, the visitor replies, “You likewise, guy,” although it’s plain neither means it. The visitor moves on down the street.
“Yeah. God takin’ care of me too,” says Mr. Jackson, before starting to chuckle. “You gotta know how to deal with the neighborhood around here. Now what was your question, sir?”
Reminded of the topic, Mr. Jackson recalls the gas station that used to be located where the community garden is now. As we stroll up the street toward Marcus Market, he points to one building after another, recalling its history and what used to go on there. He also remembers the El Moore from years past before it closed down as the neighborhood fell into decline.
“Back in the day it was a nice building. Drugs took over. F’d it up.”
As he has watched the recent flurry of activity surrounding the El Moore, now told that the newly refurbished structure will soon have both full-time residences as well as overnight rentals, he says he isn’t so sure about the hostel aspect.
“People aren’t gonna want to pay to come to this neighborhood,” he says.
Then again, as he thinks about it, Mr. Jackson talks about how the price of apartment rentals began to rise about six years ago, forcing some residents to look elsewhere for a place to live. Although overall he views the changes to the neighborhood as a good thing, he admits he is concerned that Midtown may soon be placed out of reach of low to moderate income folks like himself. He is already looking to leave and is scoping out the Woodbridge area near Grand River and Martin Luther King.
“I’m looking to get out.”
What a loss that would be…