Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Eastside series.
A peer learning exchange in Macon, Ga. last year to study place-related artwork that celebrates local history sparked an idea in Kalamazoo representatives to find a way to incorporate local history into the Eastside neighborhood.
“I’ve always had a soft spot for history,” says Pat Taylor, Kalamazoo Eastside Neighborhood Association director. But when she first became KENA director 10 years ago, Taylor says she wasn’t able to find any written documents about Eastside history.
“There wasn’t any booklets or written information, like some other neighborhood associations have, but I kept hearing all these stories about the Eastside that were really wonderful,” Taylor says. “I thought this needs to be public knowledge. So I was on the lookout for some kind of program that would fit that bill.”
At the initiation of the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, Taylor accompanied Kelly Clarke, Land Bank Executive Director, Kristen Chesak, director of the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo, Belinda Tate, director of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, and four others local delegates to the Georgia gathering. Following that trip, the idea for Eastside Voices was formed
“What came out of that trip was that was that in the development of the Eastside Gateway Project,” an Eastside beautification and small homes development, “
we could be really thoughtful about how intergenerational stories and the history of the neighborhood could be incorporated into something new.”
“When the Land Bank wanted to do the small homes, that gave the residents the opportunity to have input,” says Taylor. “The fact that they are already proud of their neighborhood and wanted a beautification component gave rise to celebrate the Eastside and the residents in general. It all connected together. A no brainer activity for me.”
As oral histories of residents are gathered and documented in video and writing by youth through the Eastside Voices project, elements of those stories will be incorporated into artwork and artifacts in the Eastside Gateway Pocket Park and in a mural at a currently unoccupied, 3,000 square foot Land Bank owned building located at 1618 E. Main, next to the East Main Food and Beverage. Eastside Artist Gerald King will design and paint the mural based on the oral histories. The building is currently unused, but available, says Taylor.
“We wanted the mural some place in the neighborhood to depict Eastside pride,” says Taylor. “That building is the perfect spot. That would get residents to possibly see what they would want in that building further down the road. It might awaken their imaginations. There are lots of possibilities for vacant properties of vacant buildings (on East Main), but business people are not thinking of ideas (for those buildings). Property owners are just leaving them set.”
Plans for the property that has been abandoned over the past 50 years.
The Eastside Voices multi-media project, Clarke says, aligns with one of the Land Bank’s missions to “activate abandoned and blighted space, but in a manner that is mindful of ways to engage the community
“We’re in a bit of a unique situation in Kalamazoo in that we have a very civic-minded community that has been willing to support these place-based initiatives,” Clarke says, pointing to the Washington Square Inside Out project and Prairie Gardens, 24 senior cottages in the Fairmont neighborhood that has walking paths and native landscaping.
“The Eastside has many notable figures, notable industries, notable institutions, like (St. Mary’s Catholic Church) and the former schools,” says Clarke. “It will be really exciting to see what the stories of the residents uncover.”
The artwork at the Eastside Gateway Pocket Park will be incorporated into a hardscape labyrinth, an idea promoted by the Sisters of St. Joseph Congregation who run Transformations Spirituality Center, 3427 Gull Rd,, and who are members of ENet, an Eastside network of residents, business owners and nonprofit leaders who promote the Eastside.
“A labyrinth is something that benefits us given our busy culture and busy lives,” says Clarke. “The sisters introduced the notion of a labyrinth in this space to encourage people to slow down, take a breath, enjoy the park, enjoy the neighborhood, and be mindful.”
Further development on the Eastside Gateway Pocket Park, which now includes a small, stone wall and cleared area where the labyrinth will be installed, will happen in May with volunteer planting under the direction of CJ Drenth, Eastside resident gardener who works with Kalamazoo in Bloom. The artwork will be installed following the completion of the Eastside Voices project later in the summer.
Taylor is excited about the entire Eastside Voices and Eastside Gateway project as it’s helping her realize some long-held dreams for the neighborhood. “The Land Bank really got this rolling,” says Taylor. “Many, many kudos to them for reaching out and believing in us that we have something to offer the rest of the community.
“The park will be a nice little gathering spot that we lack in the neighborhood,” says Taylor. “It will be nice to have families and people come to have fun and to learn about the Eastside.”