For Detroit's Auntie Na, 'unity' key part of community

Marney Rich Keenan
The Detroit News

When last month's shooting at a block party attended by families with small children left one dead and 11 people injured, Sonia "Auntie Na" Brown, felt a familiar sense of dread.

"It happened right down the street," she said on Monday afternoon sitting on her front porch at the corner of Elmhurst and Yellowstone on the city's west side. The barrage of gunfire that punctured an inflated playhouse and barely missed strollers happened just six blocks away on Dexter and Tuxedo.

Being in close proximity to the kind of violence that gets CNN's attention and taints the city's rebound image does not alarm Brown. Sirens, squatters and scrappers are the status quo.

"It really had no effect on us here, other than the feeling of sorrow and loss, once again," she said. "And the fact that I'm sick and tired of all these travesties."

On this breezy afternoon, Brown has just finished reading a story book to the dozen or so small children who are in her care daily, her "babies" as she calls them, all popsicle-stained and full of smiles in need of dentistry, and all of whom could very well have been in the line of fire at the block party shot up by a gunman whose capture still eludes police.

"All of my babies come and give me a hug because they know I love them and I know they need the love," she says. "I'm looking to put the unity back into the community the way my grandparents did."

For the last 40 years, 12028 Yellowstone has been a cornerstone of the now almost deserted neighborhood in the Livernois corridor. During the heroin epidemic of the late '70s, when street corners and neighborhoods here were ruled by drug gangs like Young Boys Inc., Brown's grandparents, James and Ernestine Byrum, turned their home into a safe haven, serving community meals and taking in neglected kids.

"I remember my grandfather taking a bunch of kids not just to Belle Isle, but to Cass Lake and taught them how to water ski," Brown says.

Her grandparents raised her, she said when her mother, a single mom with four kids — lost custody.

Now, at 52, she runs "Auntie Na's House" as a refuge, an oasis in a food desert that has shut off water to its residents, a subject that really raises her ire, as does the revitalization of Detroit that sometimes feels more like prey than progress. ("You can't herd us like cattle into one specific area that you'll designate and choose for those of us who can't afford your condos and high rises," she says.)

Auntie Na's House is a two-story, dilapidated house, one of only two occupied structures out of eight on a dead-end street. Brown operates a loosely defined community outreach center for free. She watches neighborhood kids and stocks a food pantry to feed the hungry. She gives away free clothing, toys and school supplies and also provides temporary shelter for mothers fleeing abusive situations.

When people started dumping tires on an adjacent empty lot, she retrieved the tires and made flower garden planters out of them. Now, at a stand on the empty lot, she hands out cold bottles of water (donated by the Detroit Water Brigade) and fresh produce, like onions, eggplants, tomatoes, okra and collard greens from her backyard garden to passersby "because you never know what your generosity might do to help a weary traveler find the right path."

And she routinely hosts community meals and barbecues to encourage "unity." Last Saturday, she hosted a bazaar offering free bike repairs thanks to the Wrench crew, free baked goods, face painting and clothing donations. Volunteers helped rebuild the stairs to the attic and installed a much-appreciated hand railing since Brown recently had back surgery and now walks with a cane.

Brown relies heavily on the kindness of volunteers, local food pantries, a group of women who call themselves the Godmother's Association, and community activist-minded college students who intern there (namely those from Oberlin College in Ohio). What she lacks in terms of resources or organization, she more than makes up for in heart. Her mantra is "I get more than I give," and God knows she gives everything she gets. For that, she's respected, even among thieves and vandals.

When a "bout with cervical cancer" put her out of commission two years ago, "I had to close up for a while while I recuperated," she explained. "People were most concerned about scrapping and break-ins. Well, we didn't lose a T.V. We didn't lose one wire."

But around Christmas, Auntie Na's House suffered a horrible setback. On Dec. 8, Christmas lights shorted out. The electrical fire ignited walls and busted out windows. The fire swept through the first floor; there was water and smoke damage throughout.

Brown was bereft, but everyone pleaded with her to rebuild.

"I never would have seen it coming back, but so many said 'Oh, Auntie Na, we need our sanctuary,' and everybody stepped up to the plate. All my college students and volunteers really pulled us through."

Now a colorful mural inside the house reads "Out of the ashes we shall rise!" Brown says the future looks bright: "Auntie Na is back!"

Just then a man on a bike stops at the stand out by the street. He doesn't quite believe the water and vegetables are free. He yells across the lot: "Can I have this?"

"Yes!" Brown yells back.

Still incredulous, he yells: "You mean it's free?"

"Yes! Yes!," she yells back laughing. "Drink up, honey! We're in this together."