Remembering the queen of Corktown’s parking lots

Signs like this greeted drivers as they parked near Tiger Stadium in downtown Detroit.

There’s plenty to miss about Tiger Stadium, which hosted its last major-league game 13 years ago this month. The stale cigar smoke, the vendors hawking their dogs and beer, the crabby-ass ushers wiping down seats. All part of the ballpark ambience. But for some reason I recently found myself reminiscing about Irene Sember and her E-Z In, E-Z Out lot, where I often parked my wheels on game day. The place was so easy to find. “Just look for the plastic rabbit,” I’d tell friends.

For some 30 summers, Irene waved baseball fans into parking spaces with a smile. Her immaculately landscaped 60-car lot and attached corner house on West Elizabeth, three blocks east of the ballpark, were the pride of Corktown. Parking at Irene’s was like pulling into your grandma’s driveway. If you’d had one too many beers, she’d even let you use her bathroom.

Irene Sember was a gentle soul, the kind to step around an ant on the sidewalk. But, hoo boy, just let someone accost one of her patrons. “She can be a tough lady,” one of her regular customers once told me. “I remember one time there was a wino panhandling by the lot. She chased right after him. ‘Get outta here!’ she was yelling at him.”

Irene, a roundish but sprightly 70-something as I remembered her, was a bit of an icon, but she never sought publicity. She was always friendly enough, but a reluctant conversation was unlikely to reveal much. OK, she once admitted to me, her husband came from “the old country” (Russia) and she had her perfectly coiffed lawn fertilized four times a year by ChemLawn. Anything else I wanted to know, I could just interview the pink flamingo out back. She wasn’t being mysterious, a friend explained, just careful.

It was impossible to miss Irene’s place. Her house had the only flowers in about a quarter-mile area. (You have to remember, this was before hipsters took over Corktown.) She also had the only welcome signs—plus rabbits, flamingos, and other assorted plastic animals and whirligigs. In the backyard, an American flag attached to an 8-foot whitewashed pole rose Suribachi-like over the otherwise drab neighborhood.

Irene’s neatness was contagious. I wasn’t the only regular who felt obligated to clean the candy-bar wrappers out of my ashtray before pulling in.

I don’t know what happened to Irene, but I do know what happened to the ballpark she was a part of for so long. I miss them both.

3 replies on “Remembering the queen of Corktown’s parking lots

  • Bonnie Yoman

    What a sweet, funny reminiscence. I can just see and hear the all the sounds, colors and excitement of what “going to the game” meant back then. Bless you & the boys, Irene, where ever you are. Go get’ em Tigers!

  • Lizzie Miller

    This is my grandma, she was a very strong, independent, outgoing, and verbal woman lol never had a drivers license in her life and managed on throwing great times in a wonderful world it was of baseball parking lots!! Dear grandma past away in May 2003 she left behind 5 grandchildren John, Michael, Mary, Ann Kennedy and myself Elizabeth Miller. Also survived by 9 beautiful grandchildren!!! The memories always at the for front of the ol’ ball park “Tiger Stadium” “Tiger Grandma” was her nik name and so dearly loved by many!!!!

  • Ann Bowen

    Irene Sember was my grandmother. Irene had
    One daughter another Irene. She was born Dec 5, 1921.
    After the ball park was no more. My grandmother
    Sold her house and moved out to Shelby Twp Mi
    To be closer to her daughter and us, grand kids
    Grandma (Irene) died on March 6, 2003. From COPD. Lack of oxygen.
    Lets say that was the worst day of my life
    Grandma had five grandchildren John Kennedy (oldest) Mike & Mary ( twins) Ann then Elizabeth (lizzy). She was the most giving person, she would give the shirt off her back.
    Grandma was devastated when the stadium
    Moved. That was her life, she looked forward to opening day every year. Like it was the first time they ever played.
    The grand kids grew up down there most of our childhood. The beautiful lawn that she manicured had a house on it. Our house, which was Right next door to Irene’s house. Cork town bought it and moved it, to restore and continue the cork town feel of certain neighborhoods
    That’s why her yard was so big.
    She was a inspiration to All that know her. And I am so proud of her and the lives she impacted while she was here. If you would like any more info on this wonderful lady. Please email me at [email protected]

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