- Associated Press - Sunday, May 8, 2016

DETROIT (AP) - Everyone knows who really runs this neighborhood.

The street gangs know it. The drug dealers learned it. The motorcycle clubs, the kids, the churchgoers — they all know, too.

At the crossroads of 30th Street and Buchanan, on Detroit’s west side, it’s a little old lady named Miss Pee Wee who lives in a pink house, the Detroit Free Press (https://on.freep.com/1W4e8ra ) reported.

Evelyn Richardson dresses like a nun in white from head to toe. She’s an apparition when she appears on the street, like a tiny ghost inching slowly up the road. Often she’s found sitting placidly in a chair on the sidewalk, surveying her block, which isn’t so much of a block anymore.

“She’s been sitting out in front of her house for years - every day, when it’s nice out - keeping a look over the neighborhood,” said Rico Razo, the city’s Department of Neighborhoods manager of District 6, where she lives. “The kids in the neighborhood are her babies, as she calls them.”

Her small stature - well under 5 feet tall - is the source of her nickname. She doesn’t care to say her exact age, as if being in her late 80s is something to be shy about. She’s very religious and tells people she gets her instructions from Jesus Christ, who she says speaks to her regularly. “I hear him talk all the time,” she said. “He was talking to me last night real heavy.”

And for 50 years she has improbably been the most powerful person in the area.

“She is a soldier, in the best sense of the word,” said the Rev. Johnny Lowe, who for the past 13 years has been pastor of Historic Motor City Baptist Church on 28th Street. “Miss Pee Wee has been a landmark in this community long before I got here.”

She’s the leader of the Children’s Crusade, a group she founded after the 1967 riot. Its headquarters is her pink and white house, an old duplex whose walls are covered in awards, letters from politicians and newspaper accounts of her half century of work.

For years she’s fed thousands of kids out of that little house. She’s held street fairs and block parties that draw hundreds of neighbors. She tattles on teenage drug dealers to their parents, and lectures the adults who buy and take those drugs. And she once famously arranged a lasting truce between two warring gangs whose shoot-outs had turned the neighborhood into a battlefield.

All of it, she said, because Jesus told her to.

“I never got a dime for this, doing community service,” she said. “I just did it from the heart, ‘cause that man upstairs was on me.”

___

Her work started years ago when God threw her down the stairs.

It was 1967, the city’s riot was under way and she was pregnant and going into labor. As she reached the edge of the staircase of her upper-level duplex, she tumbled down — as if pushed by an unseen hand, she said.

Her son lifted her up, put her in the car and headed to the hospital. But as they passed the crumbling school on the corner, she told him to pull over.

“I said, ‘The spirit is telling me something,’ ” she remembered. She was told to turn the vacant property into a park for the kids in the neighborhood.

“He told me, he say, ‘When you come out the hospital, you’ve got to be a different person, get back into your position where you were at.’ “

To her that meant a return to her spiritual roots, passed down to her by her grandmother in the North End neighborhood where she grew up. They belonged to the Order of the Eastern Star, a Masonic offshoot with mystical overtones whose female members often wear white dresses on formal occasions. Following her grandma’s example, she still wears white every day.

She grew up the daughter of an alcoholic in Depression-era Detroit, in a mixed-race neighborhood just off Oakland Avenue in the North End. She remembers the rabbi living next door feeling pity for her, since she had to scrub her landlady’s floors whenever her drunk father didn’t bother paying the family’s rent. The old rabbi taught her how to repair shoes so she could one day have a way to support herself. It became necessary when at 15, she got pregnant.

“When I had my firstborn, my daddy found out I was pregnant, he told me, ‘Hit the road, Jack, and don’t look back.’ That’s a hard thing to hear when you’re 15.”

She went to work at her aunt’s restaurant, serving burgers to the patrons of the secret gambling parlor upstairs. At night, she stayed at a rooming house. She’d buy used shoes, as her neighbor suggested, fix them up and resell them. Despite the hardships, she has fond memories of that era in that part of Detroit.

“I think we had better days in them days than we have today, because everybody was happy and everybody was together,” she said. “We knew every nationality, and my grandmother always taught me ‘Love your neighbor and yourself.’ “

Things were different when she left the North End. Though she never married, she had six more kids, and moved them all to the thoroughly white, mostly Polish, 30th Street and Buchanan neighborhood in the 1960s.

“It was me and two other colored families,” she said. “There was a Polish store right here on the corner. You know how they say — ‘When we move in, they got to move out?’ The rest of them moved. The lady sold the store.”

The riot hit. The white flight accelerated. The crime rose. The neighborhood fell.

She started Children’s Crusade with no plan other than helping the kids of the deteriorating area. If they showed up hungry at her door, she’d feed them. If they needed a place to play, she let them into the backyard, where there was a swing set. If they needed to get away from their drug-addled parents, they could spend the day in tutoring sessions or Bible study.

“We’d teach ‘em about love, teach ‘em how to say ‘Yes ma’am’ and ‘No ma’am’ and ‘Thank you;’ and whatever mom and daddy do, you don’t have to do it,” she said.

So many kids were coming that the city’s health department began delivering meals for her to feed them. By the mid-1970s she was serving lunch to 250 kids a day in her tiny house.

It got so busy there that the city gave her 16 workers, paid for by the federally funded Comprehensive Employment Training Act, to help serve all the meals. But when a federal official came by to inspect and saw someone lead the horde of kids in prayer, he pulled the plug on the program. The whole separation of church and state thing, he said.

Miss Pee Wee called Mayor Coleman Young, who knew her well. She proudly displays an old photo of her and the mayor, arm in arm.

“The mayor told them, ‘Open that damn joint back up.’ That’s how he said it,” Richardson said, laughing. “So it got back open.”

Forty years ago, Vincent Burton was a little boy on the block who first came by the pink house because all the children in the neighborhood were always over there.

“The other kids, they said she had a really good Bible study. I wanted to come,” said the 48-year-old. “I learned a lot. She did a tremendous job of keeping me on track.”

Forty years later, the door is still open.

“She’s a nice lady,” said Herman Thomas, 15, who lives on 30th Street. “If you need help or anything, you can always go to her.”

___

By the 1970s, street gangs proliferated in the city, with names like the Black Killers, the Elmwood Players and the Murder Row gang, a violent era epitomized when 200 members of the Errol Flynns gang - named for their dapper clothes - invaded an Average White Band concert at Cobo Hall in 1976 and mass robbed the audience.

In the 30th Street neighborhood, that spreading gang violence was embodied by two groups - the Buchanan Killers and the Dirty 30s, who were in the midst of a four-year war that started in 1975 when a member of one gang stole a hat from a member of another. For four years they held broad-daylight shoot-outs on the side streets as children played and the elderly sat on their porches.

After years of this, Miss Pee Wee was fed up.

“This neighborhood was infested with dope,” she said. “I was ducking bullets and stuff.”

In 1979, she sent her son Mike Richardson, known and respected as Big Mike by everyone, to invite members of each gang to the pink house on a specific date. But they didn’t tell either gang that the other one was coming. When that day arrived, the two gangs and a bunch of their pistols were suddenly and surprisingly face to face in her living room.

It was a gutsy, dangerous move. For three hours, Big Mike acted as mediator, hammering out a truce. He finished by actually making the two gangs sign a peace treaty.

Somehow, it stuck. It was so momentous and strange that the daily newspapers covered it.

“After they signed the treaty, the gangs stopped the shootings and hurting each other,” said Michael Richardson, Big Mike’s 48-year-old son. “Everything just fizzled out.”

Since then, the neighborhood has become quiet, just by sheer attrition. Most of the drug dealers from the old days are dead or in jail now. Most of the houses are long gone. All the jobs left long ago, too.

Miss Pee Wee stopped serving free meals years ago, along with the job skills training and the Bible classes. She’s older and has much less money to spend, and quit repairing shoes years ago.

“I still got my little kids, but I don’t have a place for them,” she said. “They’re always ‘Miss Pee Wee, when are you going to have your Sunday school?’ It’s just a hurting thing that I don’t have the finances to do that.” A Salvation Army truck comes every day to the corner to feed the neighborhood now.

Although she isn’t offering much more than her company, the neighbors still come to her door out of habit. For as long as anyone can remember, she’s been the one to see whenever anyone needed anything.

“You can go anywhere and ask about Miss Pee Wee. Everybody knows her,” said Robert Payne, 58, who has lived down the block for decades. “It’s all about the kids for her. She’s been doing that for years. It’s a beautiful thing, man.”

___

The day before Easter, under cool sunny skies, Miss Pee Wee stood on the windy sidewalk down the street from her house, dressed in glowing white, waiting for kids to arrive at her annual Easter egg hunt in the corner park.

This is where it all began for her, the night she says a voice told her to make a park for the children.

After the riot, this corner parcel was the site of an abandoned school that had been crumbling, which was torn down after a girl playing in the ruins was struck by a falling brick. The neighborhood kids would play in the cleared lot, and Miss Pee Wee suggested to the neighbors they make it a real park.

But the pastors of a nearby church, she said, wanted to acquire the land to build a convalescent home, and tried to intimidate her out of her insistence.

As the story goes in the neighborhood, she summoned a TV reporter and two area motorcycle clubs - the Mad Dogs and the Outcasts — to a meeting she had with the pastors.

“So here come the reverends, and they was talking - blah, blah, blah - and all of a sudden I hear vroom, vroom, and they come from this way and the expressway, and they surrounded the whole playground,” she said.

“And the presidents of the motorcycle gangs, they went up there in front of the preachers, and it was funny — they said: ‘I understand y’all want to put a convalescent home up here, and Miss Pee Wee wants it for the children. What do you think?’”

The preachers, she said, wholeheartedly agreed that it should remain a children’s playground.

The city made it the 30th-Herbert Park, but it’s been a nagging struggle ever since.

When scrappers stole the metal fence years ago, the neighborhood pitched in and installed an old-fashioned wooden one. When the city stopped mowing the playground years ago, her grandson Michael bought a riding mower and came by every week to cut the lawn. When the city took all the outdated equipment a few years back but failed to replace it, she pestered city officials the way she used to 40 years ago.

“We’ve been fighting for the last five, six years for them to put the amenities back,” said Michael. “This is a really high-poverty area. But the children are still people. They have to have something to do.”

City officials say the park is due for upgrades next year, using unspent bond money just found.

On that cold Saturday, Miss Pee Wee gave those children something to do, a traditional Easter egg hunt, so that for a sunny afternoon they could overlook the missing playground equipment, the vacant houses, the absent parents, the enduring poverty of their part of the city.

“The eyes of the whole world are on the city of Detroit, and they’re watching us,” she said. “But we can make life better for our children. We have to start with the children.”

She waited on the sidewalk as the neighbors scattered hundreds of candy-filled eggs in the park for the excited kids who would soon invade the field in their bright Easter outfits.

Just as soon as they got back from swarming the Salvation Army food truck that had pulled up down the street to feed them.

___

Information from: Detroit Free Press, https://www.freep.com

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