Strawberry Mansion: Mrs. Palmer of Diamond Street
Mrs. Palmer Hall’s life is an exercise in patience–patience that her tenants will eventually pay rent, patience that she will eventually get rid of the tenants who plague the building she owns, and patience that she will eventually sell the homes she owns and move out with her two sons and infirm brother.
Hall bought the adjoining property at 3226 Diamond St. in early 1999 with intentions to rent to people “to keep a little walking around money in my pocket and pay the yearly tax bill,” Hall says. Her venture into real estate never materialized and her conscience got the best of her.
“This woman, she shows up with her kids and she needed a place to stay. It was raining so bad that day. What could I do? It was raining and they were just kids,” Hall recalls.
This single event began a decade-long cycle of tenants who effectively took advantage of her kindness and reaped the benefits of Hall’s altruistic mindset. “They never pay. How can I take money from them? They got no money to give and the money they do have goes to bills and food. I see to that,” Hall says.
Hall, born and raised in rural North Carolina, is no stranger to struggle. “I was one of nine children. We worked my daddy’s cotton farm just so we didn’t get kicked off the land,” Hall recalls.
When speaking about her childhood she doesn’t make direct eye contact and her blue eyes mist over. Hall looks as if she is amidst a lucid dream where she is back on that farm sharing a warm Sunday afternoon picnic with her family.
“When I get upset or sad I just stare off into the park and look at the trees and grass, and it all goes away,” Hall says with a sadness that is palpable. She barely chokes back tears. Slowly, Hall’s stammering fades and molasses cadence returns and she regains composure.
Hall has been forced to stare much more often these days. Her rental home has been taken over by tenants who berate her, pay no rent, drink all day, start fights and occasionally make eye contact with her. “They are just horrible. I wish they would leave, but they just break back in. I got tired of replacing the doors they kicked in,” Hall says quietly.
Hall is genuinely afraid of her tenants, who originally were brought in to keep people from stealing the copper from the walls and harvesting metal to scrap. “I got them to watch the place and they ended up stealing from me too. People do just about anything for money when they are on drugs,” Hall says.
Hall’s property bears the scars of thievery. Hallways have drywall split open from when people yanked the copper tubing from the wall. There are portions of her home where the dry wall now resembles a ragged road map where chalky white lines and right angles intersect and criss-cross one another. One bathroom has had the piping removed right to the ceiling only to be stopped by thick molding that runs the perimeter of the room. The cast-iron radiators proved to be too much for the metal pickers and were left marooned in the middle of the heavily scraped hardwood floors. Hall says she used to be infuriated by this, once prompting her to call the police. “They said they couldn’t do nothing, so I stopped calling,” Hall says. Learning to pick and choose her battles has become a sort of calculus for her.
“I don’t argue much with them anymore. I just say ‘okay, you’re right,’ to avoid a fight, unless I know I can call the police on them,” Hall says.
On occasions she does take up with them and doesn’t mince words. During one of my visits, one of the tenants was not happy to have his living quarters videotaped and photographed. The tenant shouted from the dilapidated porch into the musty hallway, “You got no right taping my room. Y’all need written permission to tape my stuff.” Mrs. Hall curtly replied: “You don’t pay nothing to live here, you got no right to say nothing. This is my house, thank you!”
Hall alternates between this matronly, nurturing persona and fiery Southern belle who refuses to be marginalized. Hall’s demure smile belies her Sybilesque nature, but her outbursts present themselves in times where she feels ashamed. Hall readily admits her shame that she has lost control of these men and women, but when tenants try to belittle her in front of company her ferociousness rears its well-mannered head.
Hall’s true weakness is children. “I could never throw these people out especially since they have they children with them,” Hall says. Sweeping the street, already unkempt and exacerbated by the reconstruction of the brownstones across the street, Hall tries to make the play area out front of the stoop safer for the neighborhood children.
“I love children. They are the best part of my day, my sweetness. They don’t curse at you or tell you nasty jokes,” Hall says. Opening her adjoining property and her own home to the homeless with children, Hall ensures that have they stay safe, happy and well fed.
“I don’t do this for the adults, I do this for the children. They’ve done nothing wrong, they innocent. They deserve to be taken care of and I try my best to provide for them,” says Hall. Disappointment has become routine for Hall, but her resolve to forge ahead remains strong. “When they do these things like ruin my pipes, I was hurt, but I kept my strength and kept on moving,” Hall proudly says.
Hall now looks forward to the future rather than reflect on the past. “With all the construction going on across the way, I am praying for the day when someone comes and makes an offer on the buildings,” Hall says. True to her unselfish ways, Hall hopes that whoever buys the buildings will help her find housing for her two sons and younger brother, who is ill.
“I just hope that when someone buys these places or even when I am gone, they make them look beautiful for the children in the neighborhood.”