“I’d lie awake at night and think, ‘I am in hell.’ I’d get up in the morning and think, ‘I am in hell.’ At one point we had heavy trucks making 200 to 300 trips down our street. “The entire house shook. My teeth rattled. The vibration was damaging the foundations of our homes. Dust was everywhere. You couldn’t open your windows. Very quickly I felt a kind of panic. Terror. I’d sunk my life savings into buying this tiny house. I kept thinking, ‘Oh, my God! What have I gotten myself into?’ Then, as if heavy trucks weren’t enough trouble, there was the prostitution problem.”
Many long, thin braids cascade from Savanna Forbes’s head. They quiver when she remembers her move to Normal Heights in April 2000.
“I’d been renting an apartment over on Georgia Street, the sort of border area between North Park and Hillcrest. From one month to the next, they raised my rent by $200. I realized there wasn’t going to be an end to the increases. I had to buy a house. I’m a teacher at City College. I teach business information technology. I could qualify for only a $145,000 loan. What could I buy for $145,000? Nothing in North Park. Nothing in Hillcrest. So I looked around. Drove around Normal Heights. I didn’t even look north of Adams. I knew I could never afford anything there. I looked around south of Adams Avenue. My dad’s a contractor so I knew to look for certain things. It seemed that three out of every five homes south of Adams Avenue in Normal Heights were in the process of being remodeled or had already been remodeled. I thought, ‘This neighborhood’s on its way up.’
“So I bought my 650-square-foot house — a dollhouse, really — for $137,500. It was smaller than the apartment I’d been renting. Every square inch of my tiny home had to be redone. Everything. From top to bottom. It had the original roof. The house was built in 1924. Over the years the previous owners had covered the roof with three layers of shingles, the last two of which were illegal.
“I remember one afternoon I was standing in front of my house, overwhelmed by all the work that needed to be done. I must have looked so forlorn, so desperate, so depressed, that Patrick, my wonderful neighbor across the street, could tell what sort of state I was in. He came running across the street with a huge vodka and tonic. He handed it to me. He gave me a big hug. He said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ve all been through this. You’re frightened. We all were.’
“I ended up spending $20,000 to fix up my 650-square-foot home.
“And then there were the trucks. All the work being done on that last part of I-15. Just one block away. You have to understand, before I moved to Normal Heights, I didn’t even know who my city council person was. I paid no attention to local politics. I had no idea how city government worked. But the summer of 2000, with all the trucks, all the noise, all the dirt, changed me. That summer, I thought I was in hell.
“I was born and raised in Detroit. They say a person from Detroit can start a fight all alone in a room by him- or herself. I got angry. I decided to educate myself. I decided to organize my neighbors.
“Christine Kehoe, the council person at that time for District 3, wasn’t very responsive to us. You have to understand that right near our street, Monroe Avenue, there was a four-block area in City Heights that had the highest concentration of vice crime in the entire city. We were finding used condoms and hypodermic needles on the sidewalks in front of our homes. Prostitutes working along El Cajon Boulevard were bringing their clients onto our street. The johns would park their cars in front of our homes and do their business. And of course, during the day, we had all the trucks.
“It finally got so bad at night that one of my neighbors started patrolling the street, shining a powerful flashlight into the johns’ cars. Bill Taitano, the community relations officer over at the police substation on Adams, heard what my neighbor was doing. Taitano went nuts. ‘Don’t do that!’ he said. ‘Don’t go running up and down your street shining a flashlight into johns’ cars! You could get hurt!’
“But we were desperate. We’d call Kehoe’s office and complain about the problems, but no one in Kehoe’s office seemed very interested. They’d ignore us. Finally I decided, ‘Let’s have a Call Christine Day!’ My neighbors and I printed up flyers and went door to door, from 40th Street to Cherokee Avenue, from Adams Avenue to Meade. The flyers outlined some of the problems in the neighborhood and said that if these things bothered you, you should call Kehoe’s office on a specific date. When Call Christine Day rolled around, I guess her office got blasted from morning till night. From what I understand, Christine’s reaction was, ‘My God!’ Nothing like that had ever happened to her before.
“So by organizing, by doing something as simple as encouraging our neighbors to make a phone call, we started to get things done. We got results. We got the trucks rerouted. We got more police patrols. Gradually, the prostitutes and their johns disappeared. For me, it was amazing to learn I could influence city government, have an impact on my neighborhood’s problems. Just me. A voter. A homeowner in a not very wealthy part of the city. I’m still amazed that the cliché is true. Just one person can make a difference.
“That sort of realization makes you want to get more involved. Now I’m on the board of the Normal Heights Community Planning Committee. Not only am I the first black person to sit on the board, I’m also one of few people from south of Adams to sit on the board. The Normal Heights Community Planning Committee meeting is next week. You should come. And you should also talk to my realtor, Linda Artiaga. She’s been selling homes in Normal Heights for years. She’s the Queen of Normal Heights.”