Johnnie Johnson, sitting in his Graceland-inspired African room in his home, is much more than a retired school teacher with a delightfully alliterative name. He is the one constant in the evolution of the northeast neighborhood in South Bend, “the yardboy” he calls himself, who transformed a tiny room he bought in 1982 into a 2,500 square foot labor of love.
“That right there I call ‘God’s halo.’ Have you ever seen a tree so straight?” Johnson said as he admires his favorite maple in front of his house. He still remembers the day he found the seed in the forest 25 years ago.
In his garage sits a ‘62 Thunderbird he’s had as long as his prized maple tree. The car’s sierra rose paint is perfectly polished and detailed, just like the artifacts he has collected for what he calls his “African room” – a themed living room complete with animal print blankets, dazzling green plants, and tribal masks hanging on the walls that sing of an ancient time.
On game days in the fall, Johnson can be seen perched in his yard amidst a sea of parked vehicles. If the garage door is open, you might be able to sneak a peek at the poster sitting next to his Thunderbird – a sign painted with Olympic rings and the name of the Olympic sprinter he coached at LaSalle High School, Leroy Dixon Jr. If the door is shut, you can still enjoy the view of Johnson’s exquisitely manicured lawn in full, glorious bloom.
“I’ve had cash offers from people in Colorado, Florida, Ohio,” said Johnson. He knows better than anyone how desired his property is. “Some are alumni, some are just plain developers.’
“Sometimes people just send me a postcard: ‘I’ve been trying to get a hold of you for a month and you don’t even call me back! How can we talk?’ And all this stuff, all mad at me,” Johnson laughed.
Notre Dame has offered to buy his property on “several occasions,” said Johnson. In terms of wanting to sell, he said, “Some days I do and some days I don’t. I think about Florida and I think about somewhere warmer.”
When asked what his magic number is to sell, Johnson said, “(It’s) in my head. I won’t even tell anybody, but if somebody’s not close to where I want to be I’ll just pass it on to my son and grandson.”
Johnson said his property is the largest privately owned piece of land within a half-mile of Notre Dame Stadium, occupied by him and his darling 10 year-old Tibetan Terrier, Sprocket. When asked if he’s had the property appraised, Johnson responded with a smile. “Don’t really need to,” he smirked.
Johnson would not disclose the exact amount the university offered him, but simply stated: “The money is out there. It’s a lot of money. It’s up there.”
Greg Hakanen, director of the Northeast Neighborhood Redevelopment said in an email that the university’s goal was to “find an arrangement that was acceptable to both parties, including making provision for Mr. Johnson to continue to live in the neighborhood if he wished to do so.”
“We made several proposals to build him a new residence in the immediate area, but obviously did not reach agreement,” Hakanen said.
The rest of the properties surrounding Johnson in the northeast neighborhood were purchased by the university to begin developing the first phase of Eddy Street Commons in 2008. Notre Dame and Indianapolis-based Kite Realty, their partner in the project, recently broke ground on the second phase of Eddy Street in December 2017.
The second phase includes a grocery store, a revamped Robinson Learning Center, 22 single-family houses, 17 “flex” units, more than 400 new apartments, and 8,500 square feet designated to restaurant space, according to Notre Dame News.
“This used to all be the hood,” said Johnson, “From what this neighborhood used to be, what they built, and one thing about Kite and Notre Dame… they do it first class.”
Despite the ongoing transformation of Eddy Street, one original feature will remain: Johnson’s house.
“This house stays. The plan is to build up to me unless something else happens,” said Johnson. The property will remain untouched where it sits on the corner of Napoleon St and N Eddy St, but his residence will soon be cushioned by newly constructed townhomes and retail space.
“One thing I know for sure is my western sunlight is going to disappear,” Johnson laughed, “because those big buildings are going to be over there, but it is what it is.”
Hanaken said in an email, “Johnnie Johnson is an institution in the northeast neighborhood. He takes meticulous care of both the house and the grounds. Over the years he extended himself to elderly neighbors, helping them with homeowner tasks that were difficult for them to address. In short, he is a wonderful neighbor, and we are glad to have him in the neighborhood.”
Johnson said he has witnessed these neighbors gradually disappear in the last decade as Notre Dame bought up the properties in northeast neighborhood one by one to develop Eddy Street Commons. He watched as a new demographic moved into sparkling townhouses where familiar sights and people used to be.
“The most obvious change is that people who bought property around here, some don’t even live here in some of those townhouses and just come for the games,” said Johnson, “They’re super, super expensive so that literally changed the population – the income and the whole bit.”
“It’s like ‘People moving out, and people moving in, all because the color of the skin. Run, run, run but you can’t hide,’” sang Johnson, quoting the song “Ball of Confusion” by The Temptations. “Basically it’s the money people that moved in. We went from literally rottweilers to fluffy dogs like Sprocket.”
Johnson joked that he would consider selling his house in exchange for Maui. In reality, it’s impossible to put a price on the love and labor that went into his beloved home of 36 years. Johnson’s decision to stay amidst the expansion of Eddy Street is not about the money.
“Some girl came up to me and said ‘You’re a hero, you didn’t sell to Notre Dame,’” said Johnson, “and I said ‘No, I’m not a hero, i’m just living.’”
Put best by Johnson himself, “Where are you going to get a place like this?”