As we walked west on 44th Street from Ray Wilson’s home to Prospect Avenue, he pointed to land where people in the spring will work tirelessly in a community garden.
He said in the suburbs they call it a plot of land, where people envision all kinds of development possibilities. In the inner city it’s a vacant lot, where the stigma of blight, crime and decay fester.
It’s something to ponder during Black History Month. The land is in the same metropolitan area, yet differing views determine the quality of life for people of different colors and their communities.
Wilson, a former school board member and Central High graduate, wore a black USS Enterprise ball cap. He served on the ship from 1973 to 1976. Wilson retired in 2013 after nearly 29 years as a master dye maker for Burd & Fletcher Co.
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This community is Wilson’s home. Mayor Sly James grew up here and now runs the city in his second term.
“It’s not a matter of getting out of the ghetto,” Wilson said. “It’s a matter of making a living where you are.”
That doesn’t have to mean living in the suburbs with white people. This community has experienced too much flight of people and commerce.
First the whites left, and then the blacks followed.
“I think we need to come together,” Wilson said. “That was the way it was before everyone moved out.”
On Prospect, we walked south past Johnny’s Donuts, a standout place with a black man on its old-fashioned sign. “They make pretty good sandwiches,” Wilson said.
We entered the Ivy League Barbershop. On the walls are Chiefs jerseys and banners, a sketch of jazz great Miles Davis, a Gates barbecue ad and a James campaign poster.
The owner, James King, said celebrities who’ve had their hair cut here include Muhammad Ali. It’s one of the oldest barbershops in town.
“I’m glad to have a barbershop on Prospect,” King said. “We need more black-owned businesses on the avenue.”
The area also needs more housing with people investing in children’s future. It’s not enough for the Police Department to build its $74 million East Patrol station and crime lab at 27th Street and Prospect Avenue, King said.
Business owners should live here as they used to, said Michael Powell, a barbershop customer. This area needs that commitment.
The men point to James’ promise to direct City Hall resources to the East Side, enabling home and business owners to fix up their property so Prospect teems with people and commerce again. “But that hasn’t happened at all,” Powell said.
People have waited for decades as City Hall’s resources have helped develop downtown, Zona Rosa and parts of the Plaza. The Serenity Prayer is on the wall by the Ivy League’s door — “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”
People should stop and do business in the area. People need to get over the stereotypes and stigma of the black community. “I’m not afraid to go anywhere,” Wilson said.
As we walked on, he pointed to where new families had moved in and where others never left. We continued past his house to South Benton Avenue and Oak Park with a baseball diamond, playground equipment, walking trail and lighted basketball court.
Adults and young people in the area work together to keep the place clean, graffiti-free, attractive and safe. “All of us together, we look out for it,” Wilson said.
That togetherness is what makes communities strong. This East Side neighborhood, its residents and businesses should be viewed no differently.