Arlener Harries, 93 and mostly blind, will tell you that 'this house was not a dump.' But her west-side Detroit home fared badly in the harsh winter, and the retired nurse is struggling to put it right. (Neal Rubin / The Detroit News)
The neighborhood was so nice in the old days that some people didn’t want Arlener Harries in it.
Now she’s apologizing, for the block and for the house in the middle of it she has lived in since 1962.
“This was not a dump,” she says. Today …
Well, it’s relative.
Harries is 93, mostly blind, strong-willed and tapped out. She’s on the west side, near Livernois Avenue and Fenkell Street, grousing about her insurance company and waiting for the latest Detroit renaissance to trickle up and over.
Downtown and Midtown are thriving, and it’s a beautiful thing. A rebirth has to start somewhere, and maybe someday after the bankruptcy, the prosperity will spread.
For now, she could use a patch on her kitchen ceiling. And some paint. And some carpet samples, and a large-print Bible.
“All I want is to fix up my property,” she says. “I just want to be happy in my own home.”
It was different 52 years ago, in so many ways.
Hers was the third black family to move onto the street. To be fair, some of the neighbors welcomed her. To be accurate, others threw bricks through the windows.
She stayed. She had paid $10,550 for the house and she was working three jobs to keep it, and she wasn’t going anywhere.
She still isn’t.
Compared to other areas, there aren’t that many homes with boards instead of windows, and none of them are half burned down.
In the snapshots in her mind, it all still gleams.
A wicked winter
Harries says everything started to go bad this winter.
That’s the narrow focus. In the broad view, you see the flight to the suburbs that began in the 1950s and the riot in 1967 that accelerated the migration.
But at her house, she says, it’s all about the storm that ruined her roof and left her shivering without power for 3˝ days.
“This house just set in a river of ice,” Harries says.
She’s in an easy chair in her living room, wearing a blue bathrobe with white piping over a T-shirt and a yellow print house dress. Her white hair is pulled back into a knot.
“I give up to die,” she says. “It was just that cold.”
Her neighbor saved her, she says.
Martin Smith, 44, is one of several men on the block who call her “Grandma.” He crossed the ice floes with food, and when the insurance company wrote her a check, he bought shingles and redid her roof.
He did a few other jobs, too, but the $1,200 ran out quickly. She says the insurance company shorted her, but some of the problems clearly predated the snow.
Besides, says her daughter, Carol Johnson, “she took the money and cashed the check. I’ve been telling her that, but she’s hard-headed. If it doesn’t go her way, she don’t like it.”
Dealing with glaucoma
Johnson, 64, is a minister in Saginaw.
She’s the youngest of three girls and the only survivor. Melanoma took the middle child, kidney and heart disease the first.
They came from the first of Harries’ three marriages. The last two were brief — 2 years, then 10 months.
“I ran ’em all away,” she says. “They knew I had to work, and they just wanted to lay up and sleep. I’d take their clothes and throw ’em on the porch.”
Harries was a nurse, trained at Harper Hospital. “Registered and certified,” she says with pride, and also determined. That, she still is.
She lives on her Social Security check, $968 a month, but says she never applied for food stamps until 2009.
Glaucoma has left her with only the tiniest field of vision, so she navigates her 730-square-foot house by touch and carpet samples.
When her feet hit the rectangles between the living room and the bath, she knows to reach for the wall. Another rectangle outside her bedroom tells her to grasp the doorknob for support.
“I need my bedroom painted,” Harries says, looking around.
She can’t see the fading, but it’s been hers for half a century, and she knows.