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Friday, December 24, 2010

"Miss Tootsie" Comes Home: Happy Return for One of Riverview's First Residents

"I want to thank the Lord for letting me live in Riverview... Such a wonderful place.. Wonderful place to live. Everything was in Riverview.. grocery store, laundrymat, funeral home, Sarge's Place.. It's really gonna be missed because we were the first family to move in the apartments, December 1940.

I love Riverview always!

- Mamie Gillenwater

We got that note from Mrs. Mamie "Tootsie" Gillenwater in the Douglass Alumni Association Website office, right after she was forced to moved from Apartment 79 in the Riverview Apartments. The buildings were demolished a short time later to make room for the HOPE VI Homes Development, planned for the site.

The demolition broke the heart of the neighborhood matriarch everybody calls "Miss Mamie." She'd lived in Apartments 40, then 15, then 79. It was in 79 she got the news that the apartments were to be torn down.

"I had a fit when they came by and told me about what was going to happen here in Riverview," she remembers, "that they were tearing down all the houses. I said, 'you kidding.' They said 'no m'am.. we're telling the truth.' And then they told me when I had to move out. I cried and cried. I didn't know if we'd have a Riverview back or not."

During the two-year time when most neighborhood residents were looking at an empty field that was better suited for Canada geese, Miss Mamie saw nothing. She refused to come back to see the ground where the apartments once stood.

"All that time, I wouldn't come over here," she says. "Period. Somebody said 'come on, let's go over and see what they're doing, what they're building' and I said 'no, I don't want to see it.' You remember Calvin... I was supposed to be with you all that day in the (Douglass School) auditorium ("The Last Great Program at Douglass"). "I said, 'no.. I don't want to see it. It just hurt too bad."

"I imagine there were a lot of tears that day."

She also remembers the opportunity she had to move into her late brother "O.M." Gillenwater's home at the corner of Carver and Douglass Streets, when his wife and her sister-in-law Ann, passed away.

"I didn't take it because I'd have to look over here and see no apartments," she says.

When Miss Mamie moved out of her Riverview apartment, her adventure really began. First stop.. The Washington School Apartments on East Sevier Avenue.

"They got some beautiful apartments there," she says, "but the first day over there, I fell. This ole walker was so slick over there. I fell and couldn't get up, and I had to call somebody on my monitor. I fell a lot over there."
Next stop.. the Holston Terrace Apartments.

"Oh Lord.. I was living between two people that acted terrible," she says. "They started being bad up there, cutting people's tires, cut everybody's tires. Everybody was nice to me, but I was ready to go, ready to get out of there. It was pitiful. I'd go to bed at night, I was so scared, I put a chair against the door. Nice people, but they were just rowdy."

Although unnerving experiences piled up while she was away from the neighborhood she calls home, Miss Mamie says, they didn't compare to the monster that Riverview turned into in the 80's and 90's.

"Riverview was nice back in the day," she remembers. "But when they built that playground over there, that's when all the mess started. One day, them boys shot fireworks in the playground, and it was lighting up Riverview."

She says, it got to where she'd see the police running around "the projects" on a regular basis.

"One day I was sitting on the porch," she says, "and one man was running around, and the police was right behind him. The policeman grabbed him, and I started crying 'oh Lord, what's going on?' The policeman said 'honey, he just sold this boy we got in the police car some dope.' When they caught him in front of my place, they was throwing him around ever which-a-way."

Miss Mamie says, it seemed like every day, there was something bad going on.

"There was this girl who lived downstairs under me," she remembers. "She had done something to some ole man and he was telling her husband 'you'd better tell your wife to...I can't say what he said...'to give me my money back.' Her husband said 'that's between you and her,' so the man said 'I'll be back.' After while, I heard this shooting, and they were hollering to me to call the police. I said 'I ain't calling nobody, you had no business with that man in your house.' It happened right over from where I was sitting, and I hurried in to my house. I looked out the window, and Riverview was covered with police. This man they were after, he was a real good friend of this other man, and that morning, the police knocked on my door. I thought it was the Kingsport Times wanting to come, and I said 'no, I'm not opening the door 'cause I don't want to be in that mess. I don't want them coming in here and getting me.' The man said 'Miss Gillenwater, you have to open the door...if you don't, we have to tear it down.' I said 'well, wait a minute, I'm coming.' So the police came in and said the reason they didn't want to tell me anything was, because they didn't want me to get excited. They finally raided that girl's apartment, and found a bunch of guns in the freezer."

All that is behind us now, she believes. And Miss Mamie says, she thought she would never see the day, she'd get to come back home.

"It was a long, long wait to get back home, but I finally made it."

Miss Mamie now reflects on her time away from the Riverview Apartments as just something that had to happen. She's at home now, in one of the new HOPE VI homes at Riverview Place, counting her blessings and hoping the good ole days of faith, family and friends come back.

Hers was one of the first families to move into the Riverview Apartments back in 1940. "There was so much family, even people you didn't know. We were all family, and everything was good. Only thing.. the keys fit everybody's door," she laughs. "It was all safe, though.. nothing illegal going on."


"When we first moved over here, it was beautiful," she remembers. "Nothing but woods. They had a slaughter pen down in the field, and then there was a great big ole house, a roundhouse that belonged to the Eastman. No streets.. they were all dirt and on up further where they built the other houses, was woods. We paid 9 dollars apartment rent a month. There was just one phone in the whole apartments and we had it..I think it was a dollar-and-a-half to put it in. Since we had the only phone, everybody came by and used ours. There was this girl.. poor little thing, I felt sorry for her. Remember how they used to say 'number, please?' You were pretty young then, I think you were living up on Dunbar. The operator would say 'number, please?' and this woman would say 'one, two, three, four, five,' and my daddy would say, 'go in there and show her how to use that phone, honey.' She would sit there, counting.'

"I also remember that time when Riverview got flooded, Calvin" she says. "Just water everywhere.. went in people's houses, got in the (Central Baptist) church over here. We had gone to see my sister in Atlanta, and we come back, and water was sitting all up in the house. It rained hard down there in Atlanta, and it had to rain hard up here, too. Kids were out there playing in the water, splashing around. Johnnie Mae had a boat going around, checking on folks. She had Reverend Edge's boat, going around."

That sense of family was never forgotten. And "Miss Mamie" believes, that time is coming back. That's based on the warm feeling she got, when she moved back into Riverview a month ago.

"I started saying 'thank you Jesus," she says. "I started thanking and praying, thanking God for giving me a house, and when I got down there, I shouted 'I'm HOME, I'm HOME, I'm HOME!' Oh, it feels so good to be back over here, Calvin, feels real good. When I was in Dogwood climbing all those stairs, they wanted to put a bed on the first floor, and I told 'em 'I don't need one, 'cause I'm moving back to Riverview.' They said 'how do you know you're going?' I said 'honey, I know I'm going.. the Lord done talked to me."

About that time in our interview, there was a knock on Miss Mamie's door.. one of her home help specialists stopped by to make her bed, clean up a little, and help with ordinary household chores. At 86 years old, she admits that she "might need a little help every now and then."

"KHRA (the Kingsport Housing and Redevelopment Authority) knew I was coming back, because I was the first one over here," she proudly says. "I am still unpacking stuff, and getting used to everything. I never had a refrigerator with water in the door before... didn't know what it was, when I saw it. We've got a microwave, too, and a dishwasher. I can't imagine having those things back then..people wanting to borrow ice and everything."

There's one former housing feature Miss Mamie says, she can do without.

"Ain't no stairs over here," she laughs. "Thank God.  I got so, I couldn't even walk up those steps, period at the other places. I got on the stairs one night at Dogwood, and I said "de'aris, come here..I can't move my leg. He got behind me, trying to push me up the stairs, but I was too heavy, so I started praying. We finally made it."

These days, Miss Mamie keeps a busy schedule. About THAT time in the interview, the phone rings. It's a friend, whose sister just went into the hospital, and she's asking her good friend in the Spirit to pray for her. In a soft voice, Miss Mamie prays for the sick woman, not forgetting to remember the family.. calling on the Lord to care for the woman and help her feel better..

"In the Name of Jesus... Amen."

"Miss Mamie" is back home.