Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s On the Ground Edison series.
Is it fair to complain about a neighbor’s overgrown yard if you’re not sure why it’s that way?
Tammy Taylor didn’t think so when she was the Edison Neighborhood Association’s volunteer secretary and housing specialist in 1998 and 1999.
“Part of my responsibility was to drive around the neighborhood and identify blight issues,” Taylor says of efforts to improve Kalamazoo’s most populous neighbor. But she says, “We felt really guilty turning in complaints about tall grass when I knew that the homeowner didn’t have a lawnmower.”
Her reaction was to start a neighborhood tool-share program. It allows residents to borrow tools to help keep their yards up to snuff. Twenty-four years later, the program continues with a shed full of tools including such things as a power washer, a roto-tiller, and, of course, a lawnmower.
As Taylor winds up a 21-year career as executive director of the Edison Neighborhood Association – following eight years as a member of its board of trustees and two years as its Americorps housing specialist – she recalls a number of large projects she has helped to prosper over the years. But she is particularly proud of the small ones that simply helped people who needed help.
“The thing I’m most proud of, for just me, is the housing referrals,” Taylor says. “There are so many housing issues in this neighborhood.”
She fields about 200 calls each year for housing assistance, ranging from people who need housing to those who need resources to help fix their homes.
A ground gathered to salute Tammy Taylor for her years as executive director of the Edison Neighborhood Association.
“People call here and I help fix their problem,” says Taylor, who was born and raised in the Parchment area but who has been an Edison resident for more than 30 years.
“I help with rent, help with maintaining their house, those kinds of things,” says Taylor, whose experience seems to have come full circle since she herself found the neighborhood just south of downtown Kalamazoo. “I was a single mom trying to raise two kids and the house that I found was the only one I could afford at the time.”
She says she found an affordable house (less than $25,000) on Lake Street that allowed her two children (now in their late-30s) to walk to elementary school. But she says back then, “There were criminal issues going on with my children walking to school and for other children who walked to school who were my neighbors. And something needed to be done. That’s how I got started.”
She became a volunteer with the neighborhood association and helped the area get rid of blighted properties, identified places where drugs and criminal activity were happening, and helped make it safer for everyone to come and go.
State Rep. Sean McCann and Rep. Julie Rogers presents a proclamation recognizing Tammy Taylor for her work for her years as executive director of the Edison Neighborhood Association.
About five years ago, she and her husband of six years, Gary Hurd, relocated from that first, fixer-upper house she bought years ago. But they still live in Edison and they still own her old house.
Asked why she is retiring her post, Taylor says, “It’s time. At least in my opinion, it’s time to let someone else take over and use their imagination and create the neighborhood that they see.”
She will step down at the end of 2021. She says she has worked long enough to take a few months off to find a new challenge. Although she does not disclose her age, she says she is in good health and young enough to pursue other options. But she says she has no plans to leave the neighborhood.
“She served her community,” says Mattie Jordan-Woods, executive director of the Northside Association for Community Development. “She really loves the neighborhood and she’s such an organized person. I think she will be missed.”
She described Taylor as a champion for Edison and as someone “who believes in doing what the residents asked her to do.”
Mattie Jordan-Woods speaks at Tammy Taylor’s retirement gathering.
“I’m happy for her,” says Patricia Taylor, executive director of the Kalamazoo Eastside Neighborhood Association. “She has aspirations to do other things and she’s young enough to be able to pursue those.”
“She got a lot going as far as how the Edison Neighborhood has evolved,” Patricia Taylor says of Tammy. “She’s gotten a lot of people interested in building up that neighborhood and that area. I think she’s done a really nice job stabilizing that particular area and working with people who want to move forward to continue that stabilization activity.”
Crime reduction has been a focus of Edison (as well as the Eastside and Northside neighborhoods) for as long as Tammy Taylor has been involved. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a wave of drug dealing and related crimes plagued Kalamazoo’s core neighborhoods. Taylor says major drug dealing was beaten back by more community policing and better communications between area residents and the police. That included her gaining enough trust with area residents to have them call her or send forms to report problems. She, in turn, reported those concerns to the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety, insulating one neighbor from having to interact with another and from a potentially difficult situation.
Inspiring the Déjà Vu strip club and an adjacent adult book store/adult cinema to relocate from the neighborhood’s main business district was another milestone. In 2005, the strip club relocated from the 1300 block of Portage Street to Ravine Road.
“We had a lot of trouble getting family-friendly businesses in Washington Square because they were here,” she says. The area is now home to two restaurants, a credit union, and other small businesses.
With lots of older but well-built wood-frame homes that sell for less than $200,000, the neighborhood is considered affordable. And it is also the city’s most ethnically and financially diverse. According to data from City-Data.com, the median household income is about $42,200, with some incomes below the poverty line and some well above six figures. Of its residents: 39.3 percent are White; 32.6 percent are Black; 23.2 percent are Hispanic or Latino; 2.8 percent are of more than two races; 0.70 percent are Asian; and 0.01 percent are Native American.
“I love, love, love the diversity of this neighborhood,” Taylor says. “When I say diversity, it goes in all different ways. We are all peppered in next to each other and the amount of care that people show toward each other … I’ve never seen that anywhere else and I’ve lived in a lot of places.”
Ticking off a list of positive developments in the neighborhood over the past 15 years, Chuck Vliek says, “She was actively involved and engaged with the culinary school at KVCC and their new campus. She was actively involved with the whole (Bank Street) Farmer’s Market, the redevelopment of the market. She was actively involved in the whole Market Square (housing) development. Now that doesn’t mean she did it. But it means she was an active, willing partner and helped move the ball forward.”
Behind the scenes at the retirement gathering saluting Tammy Taylor for her years as executive director of the Edison Neighborhood Association.
He says she supported all the recent development on Alcott Street, which has included new locations for the Kalamazoo County Health & Community Services Department and the Family Health Center of Kalamazoo.
Vliek is a 14-year member of the Edison Neighborhood Association Board of Trustees and the recently retired program vice president for Local Initiatives Support Corp., a community development support organization.
“Tammy is a person who will help anybody anytime,” he says. Mentioning incidents where people lacked food or housing, or simply had title issues with their house, he says, “She has helped countless individuals in the neighborhood. And has done it very willingly.”
He says a search firm that was hired to find a new director may finalize its choices by the end of this week and, if approved by trustees, the board may announce a new director during the first week of January. “They have been working through that process,” he says.
“It is a great loss,” Venessa Collins-Smith says of Taylor’s departure. A member of the Edison Board of Trustees and former community development coordinator for the City of Kalamazoo, she describes Taylor as caring, compassionate, loyal, focused, determined, and a leader.
Tammy Taylor at the retirement gathering saluting her years as executive director of the Edison Neighborhood Association.
“She has been a very valuable asset for the neighborhood, devoted and everything positive that you can really think of,” Collins-Smith says. “Tammy has just been a great person for Edison.”
Is the Edison Neighborhood where Taylor wants it to be?
“No,” Taylor says. “I would have liked more. I truly believe that everybody should have decent, affordable housing – highlight on that decent part. And not everybody in this neighborhood does. There’s a lot of housing issues. You get that when you have 100-year-old houses. And yes, there are still crime issues that need to be addressed here in the neighborhood. But it’s a lot better and I’m happier with that.”
She says she also wants to see more youth activities. And healthy things for people to do.
“I want this neighborhood to be healthy,” Taylor says. “It’s better than it was back in the early ’90s. But it still has a way to go.”
Taylor suggests that her replacement do a good job of communicating with people, and work to build partnerships with other community organizations, local churches, and funders. The new executive director also will want to identify people who are like-minded with the organization “and do what you can to help them push the agenda forward,” she says.
Taylor says there are far too many people to thank for helping her serve the community, but she thanks Jordan-Wood, Patricia Taylor, and Vliek. She also mentioned various members of her Board of Trustees as well as Sonja Dean of LISC, Carol Snapp of the Gilmore Foundation (“Actually most of the foundations have been nothing but amazing,” she says), Adrian Vazquez of El Concilio Kalamazoo, Kelly Clarke of the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, and the Edison Business Association.
“I have a wonderful, amazing group of partners,” she says. “... And nothing could have happened without all those many wonderful partners.”