North Memphis octogenarian looks back on decades of neighborhood changes

Willie Mae Brooks has lived eight decades in the North Memphis neighborhood of Klondike.
Klondike community resident Willie Mae Brooks has many titles thrown her way such
as community activist, leader, ambassador and community liaison. But the label “detective” is to her liking.
 
“When you contact City Hall about a problem in the community, you gotta have proof, so I sit and watch what’s going on,” she said. “Drugs, prostitution, gangs, you name it; we got it,” she said, adding that finding marijuana growing in the community garden was one of her juiciest discoveries.
 
At 83, Brooks is arguably the oldest resident in the Klondike community. Living in one community for 80 years is a record that is hard to beat in any city.
 
Her family moved to Klondike from Yazoo City, Mississippi when Brooks was 3 years old. She hasn’t strayed far from the few blocks of Klondike.
 
For Brooks, family life was hard with Brooks raising her daughter and three sons on her husband’s meager salary as a bus driver for radio station WDIA. In later years, he retired as a recording engineer.
 
As her children grew up, married or moved from Klondike, Brooks was left with only memories of what the neighborhood used to be.
 
“The community was busy with businesses, churches and people,” she said. “Our children could play outside with no problems of drive-by shootings, robberies and senseless violence.” 

Willie Mae Brooks, who some say is the oldest resident in Klondike, stays civically active in her longtime neighborhood.
 
As gradual troubling changes to the neighborhood became more evident, she took on civic duties. In 1996, a group of residents wanted to create a Klondike Neighborhood Association. Brooks was tapped as secretary, a role she embraced for 15 years until issues with her hands made it difficult for her to take notes.
 
Shortly after the Klondike Neighborhood Association was created, Brooks organized the Neighborhood Watch Program and volunteered to take the six weeks course that was offered by the Memphis Police Department.  She organized the captains for each block and kept the organization afloat.
 
"The monthly crime stats have gone down from 22 per month to 15.  That's the lowest in the city of areas with high crime rates," Brooks said with pride.
 
Earlier in the 1960s, in the era of the Klondike Civic Club, Brooks volunteered in the neighborhood’s civic events.
 
Eventually, the Klondike Community Development Corp. and the Klondike Neighborhood Association merged and banded together with the nearby Smokey City neighborhood. In 2009, the former Klondike Civic Club reopened as the Klondike-Smokey City Resource Center, a community hub that continues to serve the North Memphis neighborhoods.
 
That grand opening galvanized Brooks to become more involved with her community. As a member of the board of directors, Brooks is a key community leader and watchdog.
 
“I don't allow a lot of signs in my yard because my neighbors trust me,” she said. “They know if I have a sign in my yard, it's someone they can vote for.”
 
During monthly meetings with the police and joint agency committee, an initiative to promote neighborhood revitalization and communication between city and community groups, Brooks joins residents and officials to plan development strategies and designate areas of concern in the neighborhood.
 
“We (the residents) have to go out and look for houses that need to be boarded up, grass that needs cutting and trash and abandon property that needs to be picked up,” she said.

Read more articles by Thelma Balfour.

Thelma Balfour has been a freelance writer for USA Today and Newsweek. She also worked as a reporter for The Commercial Appeal, the daily newspaper in Memphis. She is the author of two books, Black Sun Signs: An African American Guide to the Zodiac and Black Love Signs.
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