Today I meet resident and community activist D’Angelo Knuckles in an office at the St. Luke’s Foundation.
We’d been planning to talk there for a while, but it’s a sunny day and we’ve both gotten an invitation to help plant sunflowers at the local library, so instead we head outside.
Tall and full of infectious energy, D’Angelo is one of several neighborhood residents who’ll work with me and Seth in an official, paid capacity to help tell the story of Buckeye.
That’ll mostly consist of letting us follow him around once a week or so as he circulates among his array of jobs and volunteer activities.
I’ll have my work cut out for my trying to keep up. To name a few of the activities with which he’s involved: He’s cofounder of a grassroots organizing initiative called Hub and Spokes, which covers Buckeye and surrounding neighborhoods, and promotes healthy living as a community organizer for the local Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) initiative at Harvey Rice Wraparound, a PreK-8 public school on E. 116th Street.
Today, as D’Angelo and I approach the library, we see branch manager Ali Boyd hauling out boxes of gardening equipment.
He looks nothing like the stereotypical image of a librarian: He’s wiry, wears a T-shirt and jeans, and sports a goatee. He runs an online forum for African-American men and plays in a reggae band (I hope to do a fuller profile of him in days to come.)
The two men slap hands and fall into what seems to be a continuing conversation about a broken-windowed apartment building on E. 130th Street north of Buckeye, near where Ali lives. Largely abandoned by legitimate tenants, it’s become a haven for squatters and suspected criminals.
They want the owner fined or otherwise held accountable for failing to address his citations - but he keeps bailing on his court dates.
After listening to them exchange frustrations for a few minutes, I break in to ask how they met.
“Where was it?” Ali asks. “Hub and Spokes?”
“Just being around, man,” D’Angelo says. “Just being involved.”
Ali checks his cellphone. His friend who’s delivering the sunflowers has been delayed.
I point out that landscaping doesn’t seem like a typical job for a library branch manager.
“Oh, I do it all,” he says. “Circulation desk, programming - wherever I’m needed.”
De facto childcare is one of his duties, too.
“We close at 6 or 7 every night, but a lot of times I’ll have kids here whose families don’t show up to get them, or who don’t have anywhere to go,” he says. “So I’ll stay open until someone does come.”
Almost always, someone shows - especially after Ali starts making calls. But a few times, he’s had to call the police to pick up an unclaimed kid.
“That’s the last resort, because you don’t want to expose them to that whole police system unless you have to.”
D’Angelo and Ali are both single dads. D’Angelo has four kids at home - three of his own and one he adopted after breaking up with a former partner. Ali has a son who splits his time between his house and his mother’s.
D’Angelo tells me something that surprises me: He’s comfortable sending his daughters to Harvey Rice Wraparound, but not his sons. Black boys need strong male role models, he says, and the school currently has few or no male teachers or administrators. Ali agrees.
“It’s not a thing about homosexuality,” D’Angelo explains, “but just giving them male images other than what they’d see on the streets or in movies.”
The sunflowers still haven’t shown up, so when Seth arrives from another meeting, D’Angelo suggests we walk.
“I want to show you guys something,” he says.
The first thing we note, as we walk south on E. 116th Street toward Buckeye, is some graffiti sprayed onto the overpass crossing the Rapid tracks.
“JAILWORLD,” it reads, in neatly printed letters.
D’Angelo doesn’t like that it’s there - graffiti is vandalism, in his view - but he sees its meaning as ambiguous.
“See, to me, that could mean one of two things,” he says. “Either it could be a put-down of the neighborhood, or it could be a warning to people who live here - like, don’t go to Jailworld.”
Our true destination, though, is a mechanic shop on E. 116th just south of Buckeye. The sign out front reads: “Club L&M Community Stop, Members Only.” About a dozen boys, ranging in age from about 8 to 20, hang out in the front lot. Some of them are working on cars and scooters, others are talking to each other. D’Angelo introduces me to the owner, a ballcap-wearing man who greets us warmly but then has to take a phone call.
“See, this is what I was talking about,” D’Angelo says. “This is a place where boys can come hang out, learn some skills, stay off the streets.”
And it's the kind of local business the neighborhood should be investing in instead of dollar stores, he says. There's already a proliferation of those in Buckeye, with plans for another just announced.
As we head back to the library to see if the sunflowers have shown up, I ask D’Angelo what neighborhood residents might be thinking as they watch two white guys walking with him.
He doesn’t hesitate to answer. “Something’s about to happen,” he says.
“Something bad or good?”
“Like either you're developers, or you're drug shoppers.”
At the same time, he says, people are accustomed to seeing Caucasians around Buckeye. Nearby Shaker Square and Larchmere have significant white populations. So the feeling isn’t suspicion so much as curiosity, he says.
Still, he says he wishes more residents would take the lead in making things happen where they live, so there was less chance of intervention from outside.
He promises to show me examples of just this when we get together again next week.