Mott Haven tenant leader passes away

By Maria Clark
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Shirley Flowers was more than just a lifelong resident of the Jose de Diego-Beekman houses which span East 138th, 143d St., and St. Ann’s and Jackson Avenues.

Flowers, who died in May from complications related to diabetes, was Beekman’s most ardent protector for over 30 years, fighting to keep crime and violence from creeping into the 1200- apartment complex.

In the late 1970s, Flowers co-founded a tenant organization to get drugs out of the 38 buildings that comprise the Beekman houses. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, she tried to helped fight a ruthless drug gang called the Wild Cowboys that had taken control of the neighborhood while using Beekman Avenue as a crack peddling center.

Flowers set up a tenant patrol in the late 1980s to keep drugs away. A New York Times article from November 5, 1991, describes her sitting alone in the lobby of her building six days a week from morning until night trying her best to ward off suspicious strangers.

Despite the dangers, Flowers continued to work with troubled youth in the neighborhood.

Her friend, Mott Haven housing advocate Arline Parks, remembers Flowers as “a mother figure to a lot of people in the neighborhood. She wasn’t just a resident, she was involved in everything that had to do with the neighborhood.

“She would get on the kids when they were doing something they had no reason doing,” said Parks. “She would see what a lot of kids were doing and she would tell their mothers.”

Flowers’ daughter Sharon White remembers her mother sitting on their front stoop with a mason jar by her side, asking for donations to fund block parties she organized every year on Beekman Avenue. She organized the parties every year for the past 20 years, until last year, White said.

“She didn’t just live here, she was always involved,” Parks remembered.

  • MottHavendude

    It would have been nice to know anything else about this lady besides the fact that she was against crime and drugs. She was a lifelong resident of the same housing project…..why? In the past 30 years..did this woman ever work? If so where? Was she on welfare and section 8 all those years..if so..why? Was this woman ever married? She clearly has one daughter,..what is this daughter doing today? Yes I get that she sat around the lobby all night “warding off strangers”, but what about the rest of the 90% of her life. Why is that ignored? I suspect the other 90% of her life would paint a different picture…why can’t we also know that side of her?

  • editor

    MottHavendude might be interested in this description of Mrs. Flowers by the author Jonathan Kozol in a 1995 article adapted from his book Amazing Grace.

    Mrs. Shirley Flowers, whose neighbors call her “Miss Shirley,” sits for several hours every day at a table in the lobby of her building to keep out drug dealers. . . .

    She speaks of toddlers in the streets who sometimes don’t know where their mothers are. “If it’s dinnertime, I’ll bring them in and feed them. If they’re dirty, I’ll give them their bath.” Many of the kids, she says, have little bugs all over them. “Piojos is the word the Puerto Rican children use. They get into their hair and skin. I say to them, `Stay here with me. I’ll keep you safe until your mamma’s home.’ The children know me, so they know that they don’t need to be afraid.” . . .

    I ask Mrs. Flowers, “Have you ever seen a shooting victim die before your eyes? ”

    “I’ve seen a generation die,” she answers. “Some of them were killed with guns. Some lost their minds from drugs. Some from disease. Now we have AIDS, the great plague, the plague of AIDS, the plague that can’t be cured. It’s true. I’ve seen it. I’ve been there. I’ve been here in this building twenty-four years and I’ve seen it all.”

    Despite the horrors she has seen, she seems a fearless person and almost serene. I ask, “How do you keep yourself composed?”

    “I pray. I talk to God. I tell him, `Lord, it is your work. Put me to rest at night and wake me in the morning.'”

    “Do your children have the same belief in God that you do?”

    “Yes,” she says, nodding at her daughter and her son-in-law. “They do. This family talks to God.”

  • MottHavenDude

    Editor thanks for the info about the book, unfortunately the description is the same as the article: she looked out for her building and neighbors. I get that…I do the same as do many other people in the neighborhood who will never get any credit for it. That being said, we still don’t know the first thing about this lady or her life, unless of course she has done nothing else since the age of 12 besides live in this building, scare off drug dealers, and have a daughter. So I again ask…who is this lady? Where did she come from? Where is her family and who are they? How many people does she leave behind? Where has she worked? What schools did she attend? This story would have been far more effective had we known alot more about this lady, and not just that she tried to keep her building from drug dealers.