Sylvia's Story

Overtown is a state of mind

She figures it is safe to open her door today because the children, all involved in the party below, won't find her simple board games enticing. From her doorway, Sylvia admires the view. As the sky darkens, the fuchsia lights of the MacArthur Causeway curve into the air. From her apartment, Sylvia sees panorama. "Look at that," she says. "I think I have the best view in all of Miami. I love it." And now, since she has worked with code enforcement officers from the Overtown Neighborhood Enhancement Team, the lot in front of her apartment has been cleared of debris down to the sand. All of it is poem stuff to Sylvia. She says she has learned not to wake by an alarm, but to wake up and lie in bed and wait for the first sound of nature. It might be a bird singing outside her window, the oak tree rustling its leaves, or a cloud slowly moving past overhead, appearing tangled in its limbs. She wakes up with inspiration. "If you wait for it, it is usually there," she says.

Her apartment resembles a monk's quarters. The living room furniture consists of a foam mattress covered with a flowered sheet and two white plastic lawn chairs that she moves from the bedroom into the living room depending on need. She says she keeps it clear of stuff so that she has space to do yoga. Her silverware drawer is equally spartan -- it contains nothing but two spaghetti forks and a raft of chopsticks. She started using the utensils in New York in the Sixties and decided she liked them. "Some things you have an interest in at different times of your life and then just stop, and some things stay with you," she says. Chopsticks stayed with Sylvia. She offers me a container of yogurt and a pair of chopsticks to eat it with. The only opulence in the whole apartment are the double rows of black vinyl three-ring binders that line two shelves in her bedroom. That is where she keeps her poetry. One volume is dedicated exclusively to poems she has written about Overtown:

How do you tell a people

Franklin Hammond

they are beloved.

By cutting their village in half?

By passing them over for promotion?

By selling them the drink of their own destruction?

By wooing their souls into lust and degradation?

No, you plant a garden in their way!!!

from "Doctor Dunn's Garden"

But no matter what I say Sylvia still doesn't think I should write about her. Especially when there are so many more worthy subjects in Overtown, people whose families have been here for generations. She says she has to try to remind herself to stop listening and get on her way, there are so many stories in this place. Get caught in the rain while waiting for a bus, and I might find, like she did, that the man who offers me the protection of an umbrella is one of the first black police officers in Miami. Get into a conversation with a guy who is always rooting around in piles of trash and you might meet the celebrated outsider artist Purvis Young. In that company, Worrell asserts, she is nobody. She says no to a story in a hundred ways. "I don't know why you persist in this, Susan," she says. "I told you no, and I meant it. I said no. I said it very gently. I didn't scream. I didn't shout. But I meant no. People in the United States think they have to convince, they think they can argue and change someone's mind. I think it is a national trait."

But other people think I should write about her. People like Miranda Albury, the administrator of the city's neighborhood service center. Whenever the Overtown NET does a trash pickup in Overtown, Albury says she can count on Sylvia's help. She also stops by the NET office to alert Albury if she notices any illegal dumping. Over the years Overtown has become a place where people from other communities come to dump stuff. Sylvia, Albury says, is the kind of activist who is the backbone of her community. "She doesn't go around looking for pats on the back or to be in the forefront," Albury says. "She sees a problem and she tries to find an appropriate place to take that problem. And she is also willing to roll her sleeves up and assist."

And no matter what Sylvia says about her outsider status in Overtown, McKnight says the community has claimed her as theirs.

"She's ours now," he says. "If she went back to Barbados, she would have to come back. She wouldn't have no sidewalks to sweep there. She'd miss us."

When I tell Sylvia what McKnight and Albury say about her, she isn't pleased.

"That's two people I'm going to have to strangle," she says. "Can you come to the funeral?"

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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 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 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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