Eastside Neighborhood

CJ Drenth: Spreading cheer, one plant, one stage, one butterfly at a time on Kalamazoo’s Eastside

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Eastside series.

CJ Drenth has three "homes," and one happens to be on the Eastside.

As a master gardener and theater sound board operator, she has been cultivating beauty in Kalamazoo for over three decades.

Her Edwin Street home stands out for its abundant gardens, which fill every inch of her soon-to-be grassless yard.

Her Bronson Park "home" is where she can be found most summer mornings tending the flowerbeds that she has carefully planned all winter while befriending the park patrons, including the homeless.

And in the sound booth of Farmers Alley Theatre, her third "home," she cues performers and mixes sound for every musical performance from The Marvelous Wonderettes to Avenue Q

“My life is a really neat symbiosis of strange things,” she says of her part-time jobs. “I’m the cheapest frickin’ person you’ll ever meet, but I work on my own schedule and get tons of flexibility.”

While she admits her “creativity is almost a curse sometimes,” Drenth says she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Home Number One: Spreading plants on the Eastside

Drenth was just 25 and single when she purchased her Edwin Street home, which she proudly paid off five years ago. Little did she know that the property was next door to a house where her parents had lived in the 1940s with her two older siblings, but before she was born. 

Prior to purchase, she invited her dad, a carpenter, over to see the place, and as they were putting the key in the lock, her dad said, “Hey, I put on this door,” a sign she had made the right choice.

Props from over 200 shows and 45 productions, including this gong from "The King and I," decorate CJ Drenth’s home.To step into Drenth’s home is to feel immediately in the presence of a strong creative force. Colorful stained glass art, made in her own studio, decorates the walls and hangs like glittering curtains from the doorways. Her walls and shelves are filled with plants and mementos of the over 200 stage shows she has participated in in the last 30 years. And jeans? Well, ask her friends who donate them to her regularly. She is the Martha Stewart of denim.

Drenth says the neighborhood has changed a lot over the years. “When I first moved in in 1987, I would not have lived here without my dogs,” she says. “There’s a cycle of good years and bad years for crime.” She mentions a period in the late '90s where there was a “drug craze” and red shirt and white shirt gangs. “It was scary for a while,” she says. “Then it went away.”
What followed was of host of large families with small children on her street. “And then they all became teenagers and it was very different.”

During that period, Drenth kept a tomato garden across the street in the boulevard. Two teenage boys decided to have a tomato fight, and she woke to find hundreds of green tomatoes littering the street.

Because there are still many rentals on her street, Drenth says it’s a challenge to achieve “a really good neighborhood vibey thing.” But Drenth tries. She is a self-appointed neighborhood coordinator with a chart that has neighbors names and contact information.  She also encourages her neighbors to recycle and re-use.

In the summer, she can look down her street and see her garden babies, divisions and seeds she has shared with neighbors, many of whom compliment her regularly on her verdant yard filled with perennials. 

As a monarch protector, Drenth hatched out 11 butterflies last year and registered them with Journey North, a national monarch reporting service.

“I was like a mother,” says Drenth. “I’m following their journey.”

Not one to sit idly by, Drenth has in the past volunteered as a board member of the Kalamazoo Eastside Neighborhood Association and has made over 70 denim bags to help clients carry supplies for the Loaves & Fishes Pantry. In mid-May, she will be planting a garden at the new Eastside Gateway Pocket Park.

Pat Taylor, Director of the Eastside Neighborhood Association, has worked with Drenth in a number of capacities over the years. “CJ's energy, her many talents and her commitment to the neighborhood is one more reason the Eastside is a great place to be,” says Taylor.

“The Eastside has informed my life,” says Drenth. “I still can’t believe that I was able to achieve the life goal of paying off a house at 52. That kind of American dream is bypassing people any more.”

Drenth also appreciates the Eastside’s proximity to downtown. “In all of the many jobs I have had, I have always been able to come home for lunch. I’m on the hill. I don’t flood. It’s relatively quiet,” except sometimes in the summers when cars booming their bass drive past. “But that’s part of living in the hood.”

Drenth, who graduated from Kalamazoo Christian High School, says she’s grateful to live in an urban neighborhood that even includes a few chickens down the block.

“I’m glad to be in a diverse neighborhood. I grew up very isolated,” she says. “I almost wished my parents hadn’t put me in a private school. Living here changed my perspective. I see outside of the box now that way. It has made me more open-minded.”

She befriends a lot of the young neighborhood kids, teaching them about the garden. “Living here,” she says, “There’s a dual education going on.“

Home Number Two: Bronson Park

An executive secretary for 26 years, Drenth tired of getting repeatedly laid off, often due to cuts or computers. “I was over it,” she says. “Secretaries were always getting fired for no reason.”

While gardening with a girlfriend, they hatched the idea to make a business out of their passion. Together they took a Master Gardener’s class. Following certification, Drenth worked at Wenke’s Greenhouse for a while, and then one day, received a call from someone at Kalamazoo in Bloom asking if she’d be interested in being the gardener for Bronson Park. 

Drenth said when she got the offer, a dream job, she cried. “Wait a minute. Is this a joke?” That was ten years ago.

In her position as Garden Educator for Kalamazoo in Bloom, Drenth, now a certified Advanced Master Gardener, not only designs the park’s gardens, she transplants the 10,128 plugs at a greenhouse in the early spring. “I get carte blanche to order my beds and I know them well. I never plant the same thing. The bar is pretty high.”

In the summer, Drenth, who also gardens for the city of Portage, can be found most mornings tending the Bronson Park beds, weeding, removing debris or chatting with patrons of the park, including those who are homeless.

“One of the first lessons I learned at the job was from the homeless. It was very humbling,” says Drenth. “The same people were hanging there every day. I’d smile and say good morning and watch their faces light up. Immediately, I befriended them. Some of the best conversations I had all day were with my homeless friends. Sometimes they’d pour their hearts out to me. Sometimes I’d pour my heart out to them.”

A mutual respect arose between Bronson Park’s chief gardener and the people who congregated daily at the park. They watched out for Drenth and the gardens, often picking up trash in the mornings, and she was a liaison with the city for them. “They’d say, ‘Don’t you mess with that. The Garden Lady takes care of that.’ They started monitoring the gardens.”

Last year, when over 200 homeless staged a protest with an encampment in Bronson Park, Drenth supported their endeavor. “I was proud of them,” she says. “They did their research. They came to commission meetings. They organized themselves.

“The majority of people in Kalamazoo don’t realize there is a homeless problem. When they are camped out in Kalamazoo, you have to be aware.”

With new city regulations prohibiting loitering, Drenth won’t be seeing as many homeless this summer.  “I’m going to miss them,” she says.

Home Number Three: Farmers Alley Theatre

To get to her second job, Drenth only has to walk a couple of blocks down South Street and take a left on Farmer’s Alley.

Thirty-five years ago, Drenth saw an ad in the Kalamazoo Gazette for the Kalamazoo Civic Community Theater and she volunteered. Since then, she’s participated in 45 productions and 200 shows all over town, from Portage Northern and Portage Central High School’s popular, high-tech musicals to her current position at a professional equity theater.

“One year I earned the Triple Crown of Tech with Kathy Mulay, at Portage Central,” says Drenth, including the ambitious productions of Les Miserable, Miss Saigon and Phantom of the Opera in one season.

Over her career, CJ Drenth, Resident Sound Board Operator for Farmers Alley Theatre, has been involved in over 200 performances and 45 productions. Courtesy of CJ DrenthPart of Drenth’s job at Farmers Alley as Resident Sound Board Operator is to “mix sound and singers,” she says. “I’m artistically affecting the outcome of the show. Because of some training in music, I have the ear.

“For all musical productions, I mix the microphones and the orchestra so the audience hears both,” says Drenth. “It's kind of like playing a piano; my hands are always on the board controlling the mix, highlighting solo instruments and voices. It, too, is an art.”

Her favorite part of the theater, she says, besides the creative outlet, is its inclusivity. “It doesn’t matter who or what you are, you are accepted. There are few places like that in our society. Gay, straight, nerd, popular, unpopular, introvert, extrovert—it doesn’t matter.”

Some of Drenth’s protégés from local high schools and Western Michigan University over the years a have gone on to become stage managers around the nation, including in New York. “I’m proud of my inspiration and my babies,” she says.

When Drenth reflects on her theater work, gardens, coworkers, neighborhood, family, friends, dogs, jobs, and the many neighbors, park and theater patrons she has befriended over the years, she says she feels grateful.

“It doesn’t matter what I make a year, I’m the richest person I know.”

Photos by Eric Hennig, VAGUE photography, unless otherwise indicated.

Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is a freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher with over two decades of covering people, places, and events in the Kalamazoo community. She is the Project Editor of On the Ground Kalamazoo.
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