Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Northside series.
Life on the Northside is looking up, thanks to the combined efforts of neighborhood and city leaders.
For nearly 20 years, Mattie Jordan-Woods, Executive Director of the Northside Association for Community Development, and other Northside leaders have been crafting and fine-tuning a neighborhood plan that meets the needs of residents based on their input, while promoting growth and opportunity.
At a city commission meeting in November, those efforts came to fruition as the Northside Cultural Business District Authority, part of the neighborhood plan for Imagine Kalamazoo 2025, was unanimously passed. The NCBDA is based on strategies to ensure affordable housing, support resident and minority-owned businesses, and enhance the neighborhood’s cultural identity.
The Northside Cultural Business District impacts 350 properties by creating and promoting economic growth through the creation of mixed-use zoning.
“It is not a secret that the Northside is catching the eyes of well-off developers,” says Jordan-Woods, who has been looking out for the needs of and advocating for Northside residents for 30 years. With increased downtown development, developers are naturally looking at the perimeters of the central business district.
“What the city and NACD are committed to doing is ensuring that the residents who are living here now, and who are poor people, are getting to remain and that they have incentives for housing, access to technology and art at low cost or no cost,” says Jordan-Woods.
The Northside Cultural Business District, bounded by Westnedge from the west, Burdick from the east, North Street from the North and Willard Street from the south, impacts 350 properties by creating and promoting economic growth through the creation of mixed-use zoning which allows residents to live in a home, and also run a small business out of it.
Art Hop participants read many of the stories published by On the Ground.
Currently, on the Northside there are 721 vacant parcels and 219 vacant structures, according to Christina Anderson, City Planner and Project Manager. Anderson points to cities such as Boston and New York, which have these pockets, which are “walkable little magnets.”
“We’re trying to meet those basic needs in the neighborhood, as well,” Anderson says. “We don’t want to establish a district so that the dollars can be seen on the streetscape, we want to actually improve the lives of people who live on poverty level. We don’t want to be spinning along fixing a street instead of helping a small business person who wants to get his business off the ground, that’s what we want to do.”
Jordan-Woods hopes to return local services to the Northside by encouraging resident-owned businesses while improving the neighborhood’s way of life.
“Northside residents wanted a general area where you could find a grocery store, a flower shop, a farmer’s market, a computer repair, foodie shop, restaurant. Little things that you use day to day without having to leave your community to get them,” says Jordan-Woods.
“What we recognize with this type of zoning is that it allows for a lot of freedom in terms of building up resident-owned business,” says Anderson. “If you can grow it (a business) in your own home first, you have that foundation. It gives you that time to walk before you can run.”
Art and culture are vital to neighborhood identity
Jordan-Woods sees these business nodes as attractive not only to Northsiders, but also to other city residents and even tourists who may want a different place than downtown to visit and shop. These pockets will also reflect the unique character and African American history of the Northside by promoting its cultural heritage through art and historical pieces, says Jordan-Woods.
“We need to have an area that really stands out,” says Jordan-Woods. “For a neighborhood that has traditionally been African American, the new developments were slowly wiping out the traditional community. not just for the people who lived there 20 40 years, but for the people who come because they want a sense of identity and pride.”
Last year, the NACD opened a literacy park behind its building that celebrates African American inventors and scientists, while providing a place to gather.
A vendor displayed products, including shea butter and scented oils, at the Northside Art Hop.
In its first of what is being planned as monthly Northside Art Hops in 2019, the NACD hosted feature artists, Ed Genesis and Thomas Woodruff last Friday, drawing an enthusiastic crowd of Northside and city residents to see art displays, hear performance poetry, and watch neighborhood youth dancers, as well as view On the Ground coverage of the neighborhood. Future Northside Art Hops will include both feature artists and Talent Showcases, giving the neighborhood a chance to celebrate the work of residents.
“We also want to make the arts a way of life,” Jordan-Woods says. “A lot of people can’t afford the arts. In creating this type of district, it is allowing us to look at ways that we can create access (to arts) for a minimum amount of money.”
Awareness of systemic racism motivating those who seek solutions
Segregation and poverty have had long-term impacts on all aspects of the Northside neighborhood. The Northside is one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, ranking 18 out of 21 neighborhoods with an average household income of $29,000, according to 2016 census figures
. But committed residents and community members are determined to create a better future. Awareness of historically racist practices, such as redlining, is helping to fuel more sustainable transformation
In October, Matt Smith, Kalamazoo Public Librarian and historian, presented “How FDR Segregated Kalamazoo,” at the Douglas Community Association. Over 200 people attended the talk, which included a panel of Northside residents and community leaders, including City Commissioner Shannon Nehring-Sykes, Gwendolyn Hooker, Executive Director of H.O.P.E. Thru Navigation, and Tim Ready of the Lewis Walker Institute, which studies poverty and racism.
Redlining is a discriminatory real estate practice, particularly by lenders, that refuses to lend to people in ‘red-lined’ areas like the Northside where primarily people of color or lower-status whites lived, Smith told the crowd. This practice, coupled with racially-restricted covenants, which were built into deeds prohibiting sales to minorities, made it difficult for African Americans to move or own homes.
Ed Genesis, a featured artist for the Northside Art Hop, assembles his display of drawings.
As Smith points out, these policies weren’t necessarily due to racist realtors and homeowners; they were “baked into” governmental policies. But they resulted in poverty and enforced segregation.
The awareness of systemic racist practices, such as redlining, has helped motivate many Northsiders to work tirelessly for low-income and disenfranchised residents. Hooker, through H.O.P.E., helps those formerly incarcerated or dealing with substance use disorder to lead better, healthier lives.
In fact, Tiny Houses of H.O.P.E., which features small houses built for rental and ownership by those formerly convicted of crimes and who have substance abuse disorder, was intentionally placed within the NCBD on nearly an acre on the corners of North Westnedge and North. The Tiny House Project will include a leasing facility that will have an employment training hub. Tiny Houses and Trailblazers, an open house and tribute event, will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 at NACD.
The NACD, while moving forward with the city on zoning issues, has also been purchasing land, three blocks worth, some already used for Living Gracefully senior housing, some to be used for resident housing, including the Tiny Houses for H.O.P.E. project, and some for buildings that will host a teen tech center, minority and women business center, entrepreneurial, job training and finance literacy hub, farmer’s market and food court, all features requested by residents.
“It takes time because we don’t yet have the money to do it,” says Jordan-Woods. “But it’s okay. We own the land. You need to have control of the land before you can do anything.”
“We’re trying to turn the narrative around and actually do work that impacts those most affected by the historical things that were been done in the '30s, '40s, and '50s,” says Hooker. “We want to let folks know that there are positive things going on on the Northside.”
Blending the lines: Longtime resident business owner and new kid on the block
While the NCBD is aimed at supporting Northside residents like Ricky Thrash, whose Ennovy Beauty Salon is located within the NCBD and who plans to open an outdoor cafe, the Boneyard Cafe, on his property next spring, Jordan-Woods also knows that other developers and entrepreneurs will be part of the fabric of the neighborhood, but she’d like to see developers work with the NCBD’s mission to improve quality of life for lower-income residents.
Take Kyle Gulau, for instance, who purchased three abandoned buildings on Burdick in 2015, property that lies within the NCBD.
After rehabilitating the middle building and turning it into a duplex, Gulau became a Northside resident himself in 2018 and part of a new wave of young investors who are seeking not just to make money, but to experience their investments in an integrated way.
“The opportunity is what brought me to the Northside,” says Gulau. “There’s a bunch of buildings with really cool histories and really cool stories. And I was excited about the opportunity to preserve those. I want to build where I live, and I want the opportunity to grow and be a part of the neighborhood.”
But integrating into the neighborhood took some intention. Gulau says he’s thankful that early on, he was encouraged to speak with Jordan-Woods. “She’s an important member of this community,” he says. “She helped teach me a lot about the Northside community and what I was walking into and how I can help serve and be a part of it rather than just taking it over. The skin color that I have and my upbringing were difficult conversations, but having those conversations with Mattie has been really eye-opening.
“You don’t consider there’s hundreds of years of systemic racism that you have to unpack going into this. You have to meet people, figure this out, and get to know each other,” says Gulau, who appreciates the spirit of the neighborhood. ”People just have this spirit of, 'Yes, let’s make this happen,'” he says. “That’s what I’ve come to know of this neighborhood.”
Kyle Gulau is redeveloping property on the Northside.
Still in the decision process for what to do with his other two buildings, one of which was an old Chevrolet dealership, Gulau hopes to have plans finalized by the spring.
“I love the idea of what he’s got,” says Jordan-Woods. “I do love it. It’s confusing to some of my residents. I didn’t fight anything he did. He bought enough to want to be in our community.
“We just need to protect the interests of our poorer people.,” says Jordan-Woods. “You have to protect people who are already here, and not suppress people like Kyle.”
The Bottom Line: Policies work best when supported by funding
In the past, several Northside neighborhood plans were created, but the funding wasn’t there to promote them, says Jordan-Woods. Thanks to an upturn in the economy, and the city’s Foundation for Excellence and Imagine 2025, the future looks hopeful.
In addition to anticipated investments and grants, NCBDA will be partially funded through a Tax Increment Financing. Known as a Corridor Improvement Authority, the TIF allows a commercial corridor to leverage future investment and direct it toward the improvement of a designated area. These gains will help support residents to achieve economic independence and lead to structural improvements.
In September, the NACD was presented with $100,000 from the state, bestowed by State Sen. Margaret O’Brien, to help provide job training for residents and entrepreneurial support. Other grants are likely forthcoming.
“The Northside is a beautiful neighborhood,” said Hooker at a City Commission meeting in September. “The architecture and structure of a lot of the buildings are very historical. If we invest in the Northside, we are ultimately investing in the city as a whole.”
The first of the city’s neighborhoods to have its plan approved, the Northside is poised to improve and grow in ways that will support its unique character.
Following the passage of NCBD, City Commissioner David Anderson applauded the efforts by residents and the city for its progressive zoning changes, which he called “a bit of an experiment.”
“I really want to give some credit here, not only to neighborhood folks, but to city staff, who are actually infusing some energy and some aspiration and some hope into the new zoning,” Anderson said. “They are attempting to do more than just the perfunctory things, but are looking for creativity and some consistency, all at the same time.”
Growth on the east side of North Rose Street, including Mackenzie’s Bakery, the People’s Food Co-Op, the River’s Edge housing and businesses project, and many other businesses, has been unprecedented. Designated as an Opportunity Zone by the State of Michigan, and less dense in terms of population, the east side rent is 67 percent higher and the median income is $10,000 higher than the neighborhood’s west side, according to a city study completed in March 2017.
Northside residents love their neighborhood, as reflected in the mural at the Northside Association Community Development.
The character of the growth to the west side of North Rose will more directly reflect and impact current residential needs in terms of housing, services, and potential employment if all goes as planned.
“The whole objective really was to create a district that reflects the culture of the neighborhood,” says Hooker. “People who have businesses in their homes can actually live and work in the spaces that they have without getting variances to jump through extra hoops to legitimize them.”
Jordan-Woods and the NACD board are focused on creating every possible opportunity for residents, offering financial literacy and employment training, STEM programs, and computer classes, to help Northside neighbors thrive and be self-sustaining in the tech-oriented world of today.
“It’s going to take a lot of work to bring things together and a lot of different people to make it happen,” says Jordan-Woods. “But that’s what we’re committed to doing. My mother taught me a long time ago, all I have to do is my best. Doing my best is trying to make our neighborhood more equitable so that people who want to stay here get to stay here.”