Howard Dukes visits 2300 Jackson Street

This is a reflection by SoulTracks senior writer Howard Dukes, who is a Gary, Indiana native and visited Michael Jackson's childhood home on the evening of MJ's death. 

jackson homeThe Midtown section of Gary, IN., my hometown, is the blackest neighborhood in what - by percentage - is the blackest city in America. It is likely the poorest neighborhood in what is one of the least affluent communities in our country, and by reputation it would not be surprising if it is the most dangerous neighborhood in what is one of the least safe cities in America. In short, 2300 Jackson St. in the Midtown section of Gary is the kind of place that the parents of the Asian and white fans who were snapping pictures of the late Michael Jackson's boyhood home warned them to stay away from.  That they were among the music fans who turned this modest home into a shrine can be seen as nothing less than a validation of Barry Gordy's vision for the music of Motown and Jackson's belief that music can be transcendent. Here it was approaching dusk and ominous threats of the kind of trouble one can in Midtown if one makes the wrong turn were all around - vacant, trash strewn lots, borded up and burned out houses, men standing idly in front of liquor stores on a hot, muggy Friday night.

Yet, this multi-generational, multi-racial army of GPS and map-quest wielding fans knew exactly where to go. Some drove down West 25th Avenue to the corner of Jackson Street where they made a turn and slowly cruised down the street until they got as close to Jackson's childhood home as they could. Others, like me, continued to Harrison St., hung a right and drove past Roosevelt High School to intersection of 21St Ave., where they hung another right so that they could approach 23000 Jackson Street from the north.

To be honest, both Gordy and Mike caught heat for the post-racial designs they had on the music. Gordy, Motown's founder, had a goal of making R&B music that softened some of the gospel shouts, field hollers and juke joint groans just enough so that it would appeal to a broader audience. Mike, both during his Motown days and after he left the label, wanted to reach as many listeners as possible. Gordy was a business man, and his primary goal was to sell records. Jackson wanted to sell records too, but he clearly had more humanitarian designs. Jackson wanted his music to be a way to reach across boundaries of age, race, class and national origin and in doing so be an agent for change. How else can we explain Jackson reaching out to Ryan White at a time when AIDS victims were modern day lepers? How else to explain songs such as "Man in the Mirror"? Both men were called sell-outs. Jackson was called naïve.

It's easy to parody songs like "Man in the Mirror," and lord knows Jackson became an easy target for satirists in recent years. Yet, you can't have witnessed the scene that I saw in front of 2300 Jackson Street on Friday night without thinking that Jackson's vision of music as healer and unifier was on point. Here on this night in this neighborhood, Gary residents peaceably shared these streets with fans who drove down from Chicago bedroom communities, from Michigan, Asian tourists, white 20 something fans wearing tattered jean shorts and flip flops - all of them united in the desire to share the one thing the definitely united them: the music. Who knows, they might talk and find out they have more than the music in common. I think that would make Mike very happy.

And now for a personal note. In 1970, the Jackson Five held a concert at the West Side High School gymnasium. It was both a thank you concert and a farewell concert because they had moved to Los Angeles. I didn't know the Jacksons, but they are my contemporaries. The youngest, Janet, is two years my junior. Michael was five years older than I. What the Jacksons meant and mean to me - and I would suppose what they mean to the generations of Garyites who came up with me - is that nothing is impossible.  

The 1970s were the beginning of Gary's ongoing season of suffering. In short, Gary went through what scores of communities are going through now as economy changed and the factory jobs dried up. We viewed the Jacksons with pride. Yes, we loved the music, but for me - and I assume others - it went deeper than that. Michael, Jermaine, Janet and the rest of the family proved that it was possible to get there (wherever your personal "there" might be) from here - provided you were willing to sacrifice, stay focused and work hard. It didn't matter if you were from Gary, or if your dad (like Joe and my pops) worked in the steel mills or that you were black. You could, in the words of Sly Stone, make it if you tried.

By Howard Dukes