8. März. Lassen wir doch CHARNELL erzählen

Das Haus, in dem ich Charnell, damals 35 Jahre alt, im Herbst 2011 besuchte. Sie wohnte mit ihren fünf Kindern dort. Das Haus liegt in der Westside von Detroit, in der Gegend zwischen der 8 Mile und Wyoming, mitten im damaligen Gang-Land

Guten Morgen.

Nun ist es ja so, dass wir in diesem Jahr den Women’s March erleben konnten bzw. können, und dass es diesen sucker da gibt – es gibt natürlich noch viel mehr als diesen einen! –, the five year old in the White House, Sie wissen schon. Und nun dacht’ ich gerade: “Huch, ‘s ist ja der 8. März, der Internationale Frauentag!” Und ich dachte: “Puh, aber aufrüttelnde Besinnungsaufsätze auf ausnahmsweise dafür freigeräumten Sonderseiten für die Randgruppe Frau, die vor allem zum Zweck der sympathischeren Außenwirkung eines Mediums in Auftrag gegeben werden, schreib’ ich ja glücklicherweise keine mehr, mit Bigotterien wie diesen bin ich ja durch.” Und dachte schließlich: “Okay, aber ein klares Signal der Solidarität mit den Schwestern (und auch Brüdern!) in Amerrrika, so ganz direkt und persönlich, vom Privat-Feuilleton, vom Blog aus, kann ja nicht schaden.” Und kam schlussendlich darauf: Ich lasse am besten CHARNELL noch einmal sprechen.

CHARNELL lernte ich während meiner Recherchen zu den RASENDEN RUINEN im Herbst 2011 in Detroit, Michigan kennen. Eine unserer Unterhaltungen ist in das Buch eingeflossen.

In diesen Tagen wird ja sehr oft über die abgehängte amerikanische Arbeiterklasse gesprochen, um nicht zu sagen: herumfantasiert. Und es kommt mir so vor, dass die meisten Menschen dabei zuallererst an weiße Männer denken – dabei handelt es sich bei besagter sozialer Gruppe doch mindestens so vielzählig um schwarze Frauen.

CHARNELL ist eine von ihnen.

Ihr (und allen Schwestern in allen Formen und Farben) zu Ehren hier ein Auszug aus dem genannten Buch – ganz großartig ins Englische übersetzt vom geschätzten Charles Minnick, gebürtig aus Pittsburgh.

Es beginnt mit einer ziemlich reichen und sehr weißen (und überraschend sympathischen) Frau namens TREGER – danach kommt CHARNELL im 2. Teil zu Wort – und hat dann auch das letzte Wort:



Chapter 5: “This place is full of female strength.”

OMG. I almost never come here if I have a choice. But here I am. Starbucks. Not the Midtown Starbucks, but a branch in Birmingham, a suburb in Oakland County which on first glance is nice, but not super-rich. I’m meeting Sarah Treger Strasberg, a 34-year-old charity organizer. In Germany, we might call Treger a “Charity-Lady”, a term we’ve invented and not a very complimentary one. It makes me think of the Ohoven family in Germany, mega-rich socialite investment bankers whose charity work in Africa and elsewhere is more than a little ostentatious. So I’ll admit – as I sit here today, I do have a few reservations.

Sarah Treger Strasberg directs an aid project, Humble Design, for families facing homelessness. Humble Design’s families have been evicted from (or had to flee) their homes and are living in temporary shelters. They can get assistance moving into welfare housing from Strasberg’s organization. One of Humble Design’s main priorities is to get hold of furniture and household appliances, from basics like beds and pots and pans to decorative items like candles.

Running fifteen minutes late, Strasberg breezes into the Starbucks where she asked me to meet her. “Sorry. Couldn’t find a parking space.” She looks much younger than her 34 years, and generally different from how I’d imagined her. To me, she looks like a cross between a model and the hostess of an MTV show, with long, dark hair, a broad smile, and dark, contoured eyes.

“Hi! You can call me Treger.”

“Treger? I thought that was part of your last name.”

“It’s a common Jewish first name; no one calls me Sarah. So – how can I help you? What would you like to know?”

“Let’s start with Detroit. You live out here in a ‘vanilla suburb’. What does the ‘chocolate city’ mean to you?”

“I’ve been living here for four years. Before that, I lived very internationally. I was born in San Diego, then I lived in New York, in Israel for a while, and finally in Miami. I’ve been married for ten years and I have two children. My background is in marketing; my husband is also very dedicated to his work. Recently, we had the choice of L.A. or Detroit as our next destination. My husband wasn’t really sure, since you hear a lot of bad news about Detroit. In the end, I was the one who said we definitely had to come here.”

“What made up your mind?”

“It was winter, and we flew here for a couple of days to scope out the city for ourselves. Naturally, I saw the poverty and despair straight away. But I also saw the children making snowmen and the modestly lit Christmas trees. That really touched me, and I knew right away that the change would do us good. I was longing to get away from all the excess luxury in Miami. It was unhealthy, all the more so for our kids. Two months later, the van was packed and here we were.”

“But not downtown, in the city.”

“With two kids in school, you can’t have a decent life in the city. Not yet, anyway. That’s harsh, but it’s the truth.”

“How did Humble Design come about? Was it your idea?”

“Yes, it was. If you follow the news and talk to people, you quickly understand that no one living in poverty ‘deserves’ to be where they are. Precious and wonderful people often get into very difficult situations and can’t get out on their own. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to help. I started in a shelter; I got to know a woman there, another helper. The crazy thing was that she found herself in exactly the same situation as the people she was helping every day. Her husband was violent, even toward their children. She had nowhere to go, her mother had just died of cancer, and she had no other family. Since she barely earned anything, she had bad credit, which makes it impossible to find someplace to live, even though so many houses are empty. It’s crazy, when you think about it. So, she was trapped; to get out, she had to get in line at a shelter herself. That was the pivotal moment for me. I understood that there are lots of cases like hers – people who try their hardest to make the most of their lives and even help others, despite not having much money. They do this even while running the risk of losing their own footing and falling a long way down, and fast.”

“How do you find the people you help? How do you get the furniture and other relief supplies?”

“It started with donations from our circle of acquaintances and friends. People with money like to refurbish their houses every two or three years. Their expensive lamps, curtains, and armchairs, which are all completely usable, wind up in their attics or basements. Those were our first donations. Since then, we’ve started approaching retailers; they even let us have washing machines and TVs, last season’s stuff or display models. We’re in contact with different organizations throughout Detroit. They let us know who needs our help. 90% are women with children, and 95% are black. Oh, and by ‘we’ I mean my friend Ana and I; we make up the core. And we have lots of volunteers. A while ago we finally got 501(c)(3).”

“What’s that?”

“501(c)(3) is a legal form; it means we have nonprofit status. That makes it possible for us to also accept monetary donations we can issue receipts for. Without organizations like ours – and there are hundreds of them – Detroit would be dead. I’m not talking about showcase charity, where rich people pour coffee somewhere once a month for two hours and have the local paper take pictures. I’m talking about basic hard work. Since we started, we’ve set up 71 homes from scratch.”

“What do you mean by that – ‘from scratch’?”

“If you show up at a shelter with young kids, they’ll assign you city housing if you’re lucky. The problem is that people come to shelters with nothing. Almost all our families started off in the houses they were assigned to by sleeping on the floor on a couple of comforters. Seeing that can break your heart. That’s what we have to go on: an empty, run-down house. We make it cozy enough that we’d want to live there. We consciously try to share our lifestyle with others as much as we can, and we choose families according to specific criteria. No drugs whatsoever. We work with women with potential, the go-getters.”

“Sounds like a tough screening process.”

“Maybe, but it’s the only way our work can be meaningful. People with drug or alcohol problems need other kinds of help first. Most of the people we work with are single moms, and most of them have made it. They’re back on their feet and can be proud of themselves; all they needed was a little push from fate. I’m friends with almost all the women; we call and e-mail each other.”

“What you’re telling me isn’t what I expected from… a white, well-off mom from Birmingham who works in marketing.”

“I know what you’re going to say. I know a lot of people here who have no clue what happens in the city. And they never drive in. We live out here in a pink balloon. You don’t have to deal with poverty and despair if you don’t want to. Detroit is a third-world country on a small scale. Saying that sucks, but it’s the truth. The rich are really rich, the poor are really poor. Even here in Birmingham, there’s no real middle class. What people call the ‘middle class’ here lives like the upper class elsewhere. The disparity is huge. Do you know which areas I like helping people in the most? When they move to Southfield or Ferndale. Yep – I’m happiest when we house a black family in a white neighborhood.”

“Why is that?”

“First, because there are better schools – different models for the children. Poverty has its own traditions that have to be broken; there’s nothing romantic about them. Some women have asked me, “What do you give your children to eat? I heat up a frozen pizza every day around four. What about you?” I try to never be condescending. I just give practical advice, like, ‘Three meals a day is best. Breakfast is important so they have energy for school.’ Something like that. The women see things they’d like for themselves when they arrive in a new neighborhood; that inspires them. And racial segregation should have ended long ago anyway. I think it’s great the way people are mixing in some areas again.”

“Why do you mainly help women?”

“We’ve asked ourselves the same question. It’s not intentional, but it’s true that we usually wind up meeting women. They’re the ones who try to keep things together; they’re the ones who take care of the children. Lots of men have problems with drugs, violence, debt. Women are the real backbone of this city and they rarely have the chance to use their full potential. It’s a place that’s full of female strength. Would you like to meet one of our women?”




It’s a cute little house with light gray wood siding, white window frames and a set of seven red steps that lead up to a wooden porch. Assorted toys and two kids’ push cars, one turquoise, one pink, are lying on the front lawn. Charnell, 35 years old, lives here with her five children aged 17, 15, 12, 5 and 4. Her house is deep in Detroit’s West Side in the Eight Mile Wyoming neighborhood, an area known as gang territory.

It’s nine in the morning. Charnell opens the door in sweatpants and a T-shirt and apologizes that her place is a mess, even though everything looks fine. A few of the kids’ shoes and stuffed animals are lying around, there’s a half-empty pop bottle on the kitchen table, the ironing is waiting in a plastic laundry basket next to the sofa. It’s a typical living room on a typical Tuesday morning, with cream-colored walls, a large dining table with eight chairs and a new carpet on the tiled floor.

“Thanks for letting me visit you at home.”

“That’s okay. Where do you want to start?”

“Tell me a little about yourself. Five kids! That’s really something.”

“Yeah, I know what people think. But that’s not how it is. I was married twice; they’re all legitimate. Three were with my first husband, two with my second.”

“I didn’t mean it like that. Do you think people look down on you? Because of your kids?”

“Well, that’s what people like to say about black women – that we sleep around and have kids so we can get welfare. But we don’t, or at least I don’t.”

“I see.”

“The worst thing is, my daughter’s pregnant. She’s fifteen years old. I told her she should have an abortion, but she wants to have the baby. She’s due in two weeks, I’ll have six kids to look after… oh God, it’s all so complicated. I don’t know where to start, so much has happened…”

“Before you moved into this house, you were almost homeless, weren’t you? What happened?”

“My marriage to my second husband wasn’t working anymore; we split up. Me and the kids stayed in our old house and I kept us going on my own for a while. I’ve always had a job, ever since I was 13. When I was young, I had summer jobs. Then McDonald’s; I was there pretty long. They even made me swing manager; that was before I was 18. When the first two kids came, I quit for a little while, but my husband was working, so that was okay. I started again right after I turned 20. I did everything – customer service, food service, tip jobs. Business stuff, too, accounting, I can work with computers. Fortunately, my parents aren’t far away; they’re always there for the kids. And there are vouchers for daycare you can get if you’re low income. My ex-husbands and me, we were always ‘low income’, even though we both worked a lot, sometimes two jobs each, in order to get by somehow. But the kids always got what they needed.”

“That sounds hard.”

“What are you gonna do? I had a pretty good job not too long ago, AAA Life Insurance. Processing, $14 an hour. I got along with everyone; I wouldn’t have minded staying at that job. As soon as I told them that my daughter was pregnant, they fired me. This wasn’t about the pregnancy, though, and they didn’t fire just me, but the whole department; there were twelve of us. We all knew they were temp jobs, but everyone was hoping they’d keep us; that happens sometimes. It was already hard making ends meet on my income, alone. And my four-year-old’s sick, I didn’t mention that yet. She got a new kidney just before I was fired.”

Charnell’s cell phone rings. She looks at the screen, says, “I don’t know who that is,” puts the phone aside and continues her story.

“After that, everything happened so quickly. I didn’t find a new job fast enough and couldn’t pay the rent, and they evicted us.”

“That fast?”

“We still owed the landlord a couple months’ rent because of all the hospital bills. I got in touch with a shelter right away, and a couple days later, Treger from Humble Design called me. At first, I thought, ‘What does this lady want from me?’ We got this house assigned to us by the city. There was an oven, a refrigerator, a washing machine, all the basics, but no table or chairs. Me and the girls got the beds, the boys slept on the floor. It was pretty bad. Treger asked me some questions, then they put us in a hotel for a couple days while they redid the house. I wasn’t sure what to think, but I knew it couldn’t get any worse, so I went along with it.”

Treger should have a home renovation show on reality TV, I think to myself, but immediately drop the thought.

“It was unreal. She put us up in the Atheneum, a luxury hotel. We had two huge suites, one for the boys, one for me and the girls. I thought, ‘Okay, what’s the catch?’ Treger said we should order three meals a day from room service. I looked at the menu and thought, ‘No way, not on my dime!’ A cheeseburger cost $16! Plus 18% surcharge for room service! There was no way I could pay that, but we were hungry. So we got coney islands at the nearest place we could find. Treger called and told me it was okay, they would pay all the bills, but I still felt weird. That night, we got a large pizza and chicken wings, stuff we eat at home. I just couldn’t get used to it; I looked at the bills: $80 just for breakfast! I didn’t want that; that’s not my style.”

Her phone rings again, and she sets it aside once again.

“After a couple days, we came back to the house, and… what can I say, I cried like a baby. The kids’ rooms! They had it like a college dorm room for the boys, the shower curtain matched the tiles in the bathroom… the kitchen had pots, pans, glasses… then Treger showed me the upstairs. First my daughter’s room, the one who’s pregnant… it had everything she needed: a changing table, a crib, tons of diapers. They did the other girls’ room like a house in the country, the wallpaper had butterflies and little bugs… oh, here come the tears again…” She sobs and laughs at the same time. “And the best thing is, they got me a rocking chair, ‘cause I’m gonna be a grandma – at 35! Look, it’s right over there!”

She pauses to blow her nose loudly.

“I just thought, ‘These people don’t even know me and are giving me all this stuff.’ I tried not to think too much and just accept it, even though that’s not how I am. Treger’s an angel; she even calls and checks up on me.”

“That all sounds good. So what’s next?”

“Honestly, I don’t know. It doesn’t look too good. The rent for this house is $775; that’s a lot for this area. We’ll get welfare for a couple more months, but then we’re on our own. I gotta find a job as soon as possible, but there aren’t any out there! There have never been so few jobs. Three times a week, I borrow a friend’s laptop and check the internet. When I get an interview, I have to find someone to drive me. That’s more money I don’t have.”

“Why not take the bus?”

“It doesn’t run anymore! They slashed bus routes again. I have to walk a long way to the next stop. And the buses aren’t on time; sometimes they don’t come at all. If you’ve got an important appointment, you can’t depend on them. So I try to get friends to drive me and I give them some money for gas. Sometimes I have to get a cab. The kids still think their mom is Supermom, but I’m really not doing too well. Only my oldest son, he’s 17, he knows what I’m going through. It’s him I’m worried about the most.”

“How come?”

“Because this area’s messed up, and I’m afraid he’s gonna get dragged down into it. They just suspended him from school again; they say he’s harassing girls, getting in fights. I’m not at the school; I can’t watch him all the time. In this neighborhood, there’s a lot of juvenile crime. Some of them have been shot and killed. The boys name themselves after their streets, ‘Yo, I’m from Dexter, boy!’ or ‘You watch out, I’m from Schoolcraft.’ Or ‘Watch your back, I’m on the Linmore crew.’ It’s a disgrace. These strong young men, and they’re killing each other. I think it’s because they don’t have their dads, like my son. Once I got into an argument with one of these punks. He was trying to tell me he was proud of his hood. I asked him, ‘Proud? What are you proud of? Look around you – an empty house, a vacant lot, another empty house, a raggedy bush and a stack of moldy tires? You proud of that?’”

She lets out a bitter laugh.

“There are neighborhoods where the rule is ‘kill or be killed’. A couple months ago, a boy bled to death here after a gang fight because the ambulance didn’t come until hours later. If you call the police today, they might come tomorrow. Officially, they say the city’s out of money, but we don’t buy that. Some of us think they’re letting certain neighborhoods bleed to death, literally and on purpose. A little while back, the last little supermarket around here closed. Now the nearest one is a few miles further away, and you need half an hour to walk there.”

Charnell’s phone rings once again. I ask, “Don’t you want to answer it? It seems to be urgent. I really don’t mind; I can wait on the porch.”

“No, I don’t feel like talking on the phone right now. It feels good to get all this out. I think I’m gonna move away from Detroit.”

“Where? With your kids?”

“Sure, with my kids. I’ve gotta get a job first; I’ve been looking outside Detroit for a while now. I’m focusing on the south, Alabama, Tennessee, Texas; things look better there. There’s nothing left in Detroit for someone like me.”

Without a doubt, Charnell is the most creative person I’ve met so far in Detroit. The way she handles all these tribulations.

Two days after my visit, she calls me. I tense up when I see her number come up on my screen; I hope nothing bad has happened. She’s all excited and is laughing like a little girl – “I got a job!”

“Wow, congratulations! What is it?”

“Call center. It’s temporary, and the money, well, it’s okay. They’re gonna start me soon, the same week as my daughter is supposed to have her baby, but it’ll work out somehow. Isn’t that great? And get this: they called when we were talking! My phone rang three or four times, you remember? I just wanted to tell you since it’s part of the story somehow. Maybe everything’s gonna turn out okay.”