NEWARK, New Jersey (Reuters) - The New Hope Baptist Church, where pop star Whitney Houston first sang and family and friends will gather on Saturday to pay her a final tribute, sits in a hardscrabble corner of Newark, New Jersey. Its well-maintained red-brick facade seems at odds with the dusty parking lot and derelict housing projects around it.
But to hear the gospel choir sing on Sundays, which once featured teenager Houston and her mom Cissy, was to be briefly transported to a faraway, trouble-free world, its patrons say.
“You ain’t never heard anything so beautiful in your whole life,” Adgelean Thomas, 75, said on Friday after looking at some of the flowers, balloons and other tributes left in Houston’s memory at one corner of the church.
Houston died late last week at age 48 in a Beverly Hills hotel room on the eve of the music industry’s Grammy Awards. She was found underwater and unconscious in the room’s bathtub, but a cause of death has yet to be determined pending toxicology tests that could take weeks.
The shocking news of her demise led to an outpouring of grief by family, friends and fans, and earlier this week, her body was returned to Newark from Los Angeles for Saturday’s memorial service and burial.
Stephannie Miller, 54, was a little older than Houston when she first joined the New Hope choir as a teenager, but she knew from the start her own voice could not compete with Houston, who would go on to claim pop superstar status with hits such as “I Will Always Love You.”
Miller said that, on special occasions, Charles Thomas, then the church’s pastor, would ask Houston to lead the choir in one of his favorite songs: “He Would Not Come Down From the Cross.”
“She would do the solo,” recalled Miller, who now lives in South Carolina. “Every time she hit that special note the church would be knocked out, the spirit was so heavy, so strong.”
Besides her exceptional voice and looks that would earn her teenage modeling gigs in New York City, Houston was remembered as a polite, down-to-earth kid.
“She was not a teenager that hung out. She was very conservative,” Miller said, adding that the Houston family was fairly low-key and private.
The old, Houston family home is situated in East Orange, New Jersey, a quiet suburb outside Newark that became a magnet for a wave of middle-class families, including the Houstons, who left the city in the wake of 1967’s six-day riots.
The white clapboard house is one of the smaller properties along the street, with a small front yard and no sign that its most celebrated resident ever lived there.
“It was a good city then, the cleanest city in the country,” said William Nicholas, who has worked at a diner only a short walk from the Houston home for more than 50 years. He said the Houston family frequently ate there during the 1970s and 1980s.
“It was always a neighborhood that was family oriented and very safe,” Diamond Walker, 37, said outside Houston’s old elementary school, now a performing arts school known as the Whitney E. Houston Academy, a short walk down a tree-lined street past neat clapboard houses and handsome stone churches.
Although Walker was a neighbor of Houston for awhile, they only met after she was cast as a dancer for one of Houston’s music videos. She went on to perform with Houston on several other occasions, she said.
“She was very down to earth,” Walker said about Houston. “If she slept in a hotel, she made sure her dancers slept in the same hotel she was in. She made sure everyone was fed. She never made herself seem separate.”
The Houstons left their East Orange home in 1986, according to Lewis Hogans, whose family moved into the property afterward and has lived there since.
Not long before that, Williams, Houston’s former choir-mate, recalls watching television and seeing the debut music video from a then young, unknown singer.
“Oh my god,” she remembers screaming out to her husband, “that’s Whitney!”
Reporting By Bob Tourtellotte