Sylvia's Story

Overtown is a state of mind

"Metro? Features?"

She isn't swayed by those answers.

"My immediate response is no," she says.

I press for an explanation. Surely I can address it, reassure her, get the interview, write the story....

"New Timesdoesn't have a poetry page."

Okay, I'm stumped.

Sylvia promises to think about it some more. She is friendly and polite. She says 4:00 p.m. is usually a good time to catch her at home, but she warns that she usually only stops in for a few minutes. On subsequent days, through subsequent weeks, I call at 4:00 p.m., at 8:00 a.m., at noon, at 3:00 p.m., at 4:00 p.m., at 8:00 p.m., incessantly, repeatedly, over and over again. I'm wondering if she has caller ID and is sitting primly by the telephone waiting for me to go away. But she doesn't even have an answering machine, so I doubt she has the techno. Maybe I should have given up, but I'm hooked, I'm charmed.


Surely Irby McKnight, the loquacious chairman of the Overtown Advisory Board and the unofficial mayor of Overtown -- and, as Sylvia says, the community's "tribal chief" -- can put me in touch with her. They know each other. Worrell has a poem in the works about Irby titled "Who's on Third?" as in NW Third Avenue, the main thoroughfare through Overtown.

Sylvia says that when she first moved to Overtown five years ago, Irby puzzled her. She would see him sitting in a chair under a tree with a bunch of other men. Irby stuck out because he dressed so finely, often in a suit and tie. The scene, to Sylvia, was off-kilter. "You," she said to him, "don't belong here." That was before Ms. Worrell understood more about Irby, more about men who sit under trees and talk, more about Overtown. In this part of Miami, there are chairs set up wherever there is a bit of shade -- plastic deck chairs, beach loungers, down-at-the-seams living room furniture -- under trees, under overpasses, in vestibules. And wherever there are chairs, there are usually old men sitting in them talking.

If anyone would know where to find Sylvia Worrell, it would be Irby. Not only does he sit in Overtown, he gets around. His preferred mode is on foot. By these means, over the past 30 years, he has seen and heard most of what happens and what doesn't happen here.

Although he doesn't put me directly in touch with Sylvia, McKnight provides a map of her likely whereabouts. He is sitting in the unofficial mayor's office at the unofficial mayor's desk in the unofficial city hall, which is also known as the reception desk of the nonprofit New Washington Heights Development Corporation, located in an office at the Culmer-Overtown Neighborhood Center, 1600 NW Third Ave.

"Where have I seen Sylvia? Let's see," he says, drawing up his six-foot one-inch, 248-pound frame and then leaning back in his chair to ponder the question. When he was young, McKnight won oratory contests at Bethesda United Methodist Church in Lake City, South Carolina. In response to the simplest inquiry, he can make words thunder, shake, resonate or bellow like a bull depending on which way he wants to take a sentence, a stream of thought. When McKnight launches into a detailed catalogue of Sylvia sightings, it sounds as though he is a super-secret special agent who has been trailing her every move.

"You know where I've seen her lately?" he offers. "Walking up steps of the downtown library. I see her in the morning. She uses the Internet there. She's always on the Internet. I know that. She loves the Internet. She tutors children in reading at Phyllis Wheatley Elementary School. Where else? In the gardens. She sits in the garden of the Mount Bethel AME church, the St. Agnes garden, the gardens of all the churches around here, and in Dr. Dunn's garden. That's on NW Fourteenth Street and Third Avenue. She writes her poetry there. Oh yes she's a published poet."

A poem she wrote called "Doctor Dunn's Garden" appeared in the April/May issue of the Overtown Defender News.

It reads in part:

He planted a garden

without mazes or hiddenness

He laid it out with his own timeless hands,

oversaw it and raised each lovely flower

so that color by color, edge to edge

Overtown eased its weary eye, lifted its jaded soul

with every forward glance.

McKnight says that Sylvia lives on NW Eleventh Street near First Avenue, near the Florida East Coast railroad tracks, near the Ideal Liquor Store, next to the orange rooming house, but he doesn't know in exactly which apartment. There's a guy there -- Fred -- who she helps out; he's almost blind. She got him a turkey for Thanksgiving. And then McKnight is off on to other things in Overtown -- the summer jobs program, Art Teele, the gymnastics program he put together, the oratory contest. At one point, Jackie Bell walks by. She is the president of the New Washington Heights Development Corporation. "If I were you, I would sit there and listen to Irby, too," she says as she walks into her office. "I could listen to him all day long."

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1 comments
teachlove
teachlove

I worked with Sylvia...and she was nothing like the gentle person you've described here. When placed in a classroom where she could have supported and made change in students with disabilities lives...instead she  would sit in her corner without interacting with the students who she was placed there to support. She  refused to follow instructions and was insubordinate when asked to be a team player. I will not argue that she may have had a positive impact on many students lives, could she have focused on the importance of professionalism, humanity and understanding rather than the differences between people. I will tell you many times I was baffled...because it seemed a contradiction...at times she could be so thoughtful. She would bring trinkets and arts projects. If she didn't like a student though...they felt it. She could be so disrespectful, so frustrating. I was difficult working with her. The students noticed that she marched to her own beat and did not work with the teachers . She was a paraprofessional. Her primary role was to support the teacher and students in the room. Unfortunately, she spent lots of time focusing on her separatist, views and fostering negativity so the impact she could've made was dwarfed. You know, when I worked with Sylvia one of my students told me, I treated him different because he was black. That day I shared with him that I was mixed, my mother was black and my father hispanic. I was just as black or brown as he...my heart feels the same pain. I later asked him, "Where did you get that idea?" He said, " Ms. Worrell told me not to pay attention to you because you just be like with us because we black". 

I will never forget that...I still feel so disgusted when I think of it. I hope she is retired by now.

Educator? I think not...sounds like spreading hatred and ignorance

 
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