A story of a foreclosure
Francesca Bisi, Undergraduate student, Art History
When students from the 2016 Buildings-Landscapes-Cultures Summer field school stepped inside one of the foreclosed homes in the Washington Park neighborhood, they found what remained of the life of a family that had been evicted. Toys were scattered around the home, a prosthetic leg laid forgotten among other possessions, and a graduation gown hung in a closet. These objects told the story of a family that had strived for the American dream: a home in which they could raise a family, a safe haven that they could return to after long hours of work. This family faced many of the same obstacles that aspiring homeowners across the nation face. Unfortunately, they were unable to overcome the difficulties that blocked their path, and were eventually forced to leave their home.
The family is originally from Tennessee, but Thomas and Georgia Flippin moved to Milwaukee after 1950. They lived in Milwaukee until their deaths in 2002 and 1986 respectively. Although Georgia had only completed eighth grade and Thomas worked as a porter, both invested in a better future for their children. This is evident in how they took out insurance and purchased a memorial through the Wisconsin Memorial Park, but it is also apparent in some of the more personal objects found in the home. Among the items were two bibles, passed down from Georgia to Sherral, presumably one of the couple’s daughters. The religious object was preserved through multiple generations of the family.
Dedication to the wellbeing of the household did not end with Georgia and Thomas. Pearline, one of their daughters, took out a mortgage and held several jobs. Quinton, one of Sherral’s children, attended Milwaukee Area Technical College, and his brother, Rory, applied to several schools and played on his high school’s football team. Despite the efforts of generations to preserve the stability of their home, they were faced with foreclosure.
Evidence of the financial struggles of the family first became apparent in 1987, when the Wisconsin Memorial Park that Thomas had been investing in sent a letter warning that the agreement would be cancelled if a payment was not made soon. The same letter appeared twice in 1987 and twice in 1988. From that moment, most of the mail arriving at the home consisted of fees for unpaid bills and inspections, and ended with a letter from the City of Milwaukee Department of Neighborhood Services, notifying the family that they were obligated to vacate the premises.
The first disruption to the harmony of the home appears to be the death of Georgia. One year after her death in 1986, the Wisconsin Memorial Park letters began arriving. However, the most impactful disturbance to the cohesion of the household is the incarceration of Pershonne, one of Thomas and Georgia’s daughters. Her removal from the home and from the potential workforce hindered the family’s chances at keeping their home. Although there are no letters from Pershonne, there are quite a few written to her, mostly from her daughter, Cynthia. These letters, her only connection to the outside world, reveal what led this family to their loss of home.
Cynthia and Pershonne, although kept apart during Pershonne’s time in jail, appear to be very close. Cynthia refers to her mother as “best friend” and “angel”, and frequently asks when they will be able to see each other again. In one letter she even says that she wants her mother to come home so that “[Pershonne] can rock [her] older daughter to sleep like [she] use to.” This close mother-daughter relationship shows that Pershonne’s incarceration must have been very difficult for Cynthia, who herself appears to be kept from her home. In her first letter, she tells her mother that when she “gets out” she will “have that party with you, I just want to see the kids, daddy, and mama.”
Pershonne relied on letters from Cynthia and other friends and family to stay in touch with the developments of what had before been her world. All of the letters contain updates on the lives of friends and family members. Cynthia often speaks of her sister, calling her “dumb”, accusing her of trying to keep Pershonne and Cynthia apart, and claiming she “gets everything.” Later on, she recants by claiming she is not jealous of her sister and that “she won’t run off and leave her again.” Cynthia also tells Pershonne to not worry, because Pershonne’s “Little brother, he will come around…”
References to discord among family members and delinquency are not uncommon in the letters that Pershonne held on to. Most are in reference to Cynthia and Pershonne. Cynthia assures Pershonne that she is saving a spot for her mother on her visit paper, and that Pershonne will be able to see Cynthia once “her time is up.” Cynthia also asks Pershonne to call a man named John Husz to find out how long she will have to stay away from home. The daughter in particular seems distraught at her situation, and at one point practically begs her mother to “come here and get me and my sister from this hell hole please.”
In addition to the numerous references to Pershonne and Cynthia’s troubles with the law, there are some other individuals in their social circle who are struggling to stay on the good side of the law. Cynthia tells Pershonne to give “John” and alibi if he was with Pershonne, and later says she is sorry that John is in jail. Kimberly, a woman that sent Pershonne two letters, tells her that she should be glad that she is not in the same place as Kimberly, describing it as “the frontlines.” Another woman who writes to Pershonne, signing her letters as Mrs. Roberto Walls, tells her that a 21-day investigation period will soon be over and that “they will have to let her out.” A final set of letters is written by a woman that calls herself Sweetness. She describes her anger management program and writes about a place that resembles a jail.
Dolores Hayden described the home as “a physical space designed to mediate between nature and culture, between the landscape and the larger built environment.” Pershonne and Cynthia were forcibly removed from this mediator, and therefore lost a vital connection to their home and community. Although they felt the effects of incarceration, the family also struggled after losing at least two members of the family that were potential members of the workforce. This drastic change in the organization of the household affected several aspects of family members’ lives, specifically in their role as consumers. There are several investments and loans up to the 1980s, and the early 2000s brought notices from the city and businesses regarding unpaid services and bills. The 1990s, however, are oddly quiet apart from the letters that Pershonne received. It appears to be a time when the family shifted from a comfortable financial situation before Pershonne’s incarceration to struggling to keep their home. The time Pershonne spent in jail affected her more than anyone else, but it still had a large impact on her children, relatives, and the financial situation of her family. Brendan O’Flaherty wrote that “the costs of prison do not end when you walk out the gate. Parole and probation impose strong restrictions on individual freedoms, and a criminal record follows you for life.”
Pershonne and her family faced financial struggles that ended with the loss of their home. The abandoned house that the students of the BLC field school entered is nothing like the home that Georgia and Thomas envisioned when they moved from Tennessee to Wisconsin. Yet this struggle to purchase and maintain a safe haven that connects individuals and families to a larger community is an issue that many families find themselves facing.
This family’s misfortune is a paradigm of a widespread issue that affects not only their neighborhood, but various cities across the nation as well. The recent housing crisis and spike in number of foreclosures across the nation landed many families in the same position as this Washington Park family. An increase of foreclosed homes on the market, often lacking conservation, can drive down the prices of other houses in the neighborhood, as well as making nearby real estate less desirable. This family’s story, then, parallels the neighborhood’s story. Their home was not the only one to be foreclosed in the Washington Park neighborhood. It is important to understand the events that lead to their loss of home because they are imperative to comprehending the history of the neighborhood itself, as the family’s tale is just a piece of a puzzle that tells a larger story, that of the neighborhood and, to an extent, that of cities across the United States.
This house itself is just a building. The correspondence, pictures, and personal effects left behind make the tale much more human and relatable. The graduation gown and stuffed animals are familiar objects to many households. Disseminating information about diverse neighborhoods can help a wide audience understand that most families, such as Pershonne’s, have the same dreams and aspirations as many other households. This can help connect communities and people that would otherwise not cross paths.
Being aware of the stories of individual homes in a city may seem like a secondary detail, but it becomes paramount when exploring the city’s cultural landscapes. Collecting stories from individual households and combining them into a narrative of the neighborhood is an important step in discovering the story of a city. By sharing this narrative with the surrounding communities, the problems that bring poverty and violence into a city can be more effectively addressed.
This specific house and the objects it contains hold the history of at least three generations. This allows for a longitudinal approach to the story of this family that can reveal the fine-grained evolution and eventual disbandment of a home. The analysis of the building and the objects it contained can serve as an element in the larger picture of Milwaukee’s cultural and historical landscape, but it can also accomplish a more human objective by returning these lost items to their original owners.
 “U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995”, indexed database and digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 18 July 2016)
 "Obituary Daily Times Index, 1995-Current", indexed database and digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 18 July 2016), citing "The Obituary Daily Times. The Obituary Daily Times"
 U.S. Census Bureau, “United States Census 1940, http://www.census.gov/, (accessed 18 July, 2016).
 “U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995”
 Dolores Hayden, Redesigning the American Dream: The Future of Housing, Work, and Family Life (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1984), 58.
 W. Keith Bryant, The Economic Organization of the Household (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
 Brendan O'Flaherty, The Economics of Race in the United States (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2015), 331.
 Charles Towe and Chad Lawley. “The Contagion Effect of Neighboring Foreclosures.” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 5, no. 2 (2013): 313-35.
Photos from Foreclosed Home