Editor's note: This is the first story in Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s “On the Ground Edison” series.
On a map, Edison, the most populous of the Kalamazoo’s 22 neighborhoods, is shaped like a work boot with one loose shoelace, an apt symbol for a neighborhood that is a little hardscrabble tossed with historical and urban charm.
The collar of the boot (the north border), includes Mayor’s Riverfront Park and the Kalamazoo River; the calf (west border) side bordered by Burdick up to the back ankle is the central downtown business district: the heel is Alcott Street, the sole is Miller Road (south border), the shin is the I-94 Beltline/Kings Highway (east border) down to the toe, which is Olmsted Road.
Named after a neighborhood school, the Edison Environmental Science Academy, a magnet elementary school, which was in turn, named after Thomas Edison, America’s best-known inventor, the Edison neighborhood is largely comprised of production, service and construction workers, people who have literally helped build and rebuild the city, as well as healthcare, office, and food service workers, people who take care of the city and its residents.
And in the spirit of its namesake, Edison continues to invent itself, even when growth and revitalization have failed to deliver on hoped-for promises. As the Edison Neighborhood Association this year celebrates its 50th anniversary, the city’s Foundation for Excellence is initiating efforts to improve its neighborhood systems, which means a new Edison Plan. With recent economic upturns both for the neighborhood and the city, as well as community and police efforts to lessen violent crime, the future looks bright.
Ask Edison residents what makes the neighborhood special, and without exception, the answer is diversity.
Many urban areas boast ethnic and racial variety, but Edison’s nearly 10,000 residents in 2.8 square miles represent a true melting pot with a population of nearly 19 percent Hispanic, 28 percent African American, and 49 percent Caucasian, a number that reflects a variety of European heritage, including Dutch and German. A small percentage of Asian and others also make up Edison’s residents, according to the 2016 census.
“Edison is what America should be,” says Geno Hinton,
56, a U.S. Postal Carrier who has lived in Edison for the past 20 years. “America should be diverse. We shouldn’t be so one-sided. We shouldn’t be separated. And in Edison, we’re not.” Hinton, whose former route has included his own neighborhood, says delivering mail to his neighbors has given him a unique and appreciative perspective. “I’ve seen kids grow up. I’ve become part of people’s families. As mail carriers, we tend to know more about the neighborhood than the police do.”
Steve Dupuie plans to invest in a small business in Edison. Photo by Fran Dwight.
Edison resident Steve Dupuie bought his first home in Edison on a street off Burdick. As a new homeowner, Dupuie fell in love with his house, a 100-year-old small bungalow that is filled with architectural character as many in the neighborhood are, built as they were mostly before 1939.
Now a member of the Edison Neighborhood Association Board of Trustees, Dupuie has since fallen in love with the neighborhood. “If I wanted to find something for this price in a more affluent neighborhood, it would have cost me a lot more, but now, I would never move,” he says, citing the proximity to downtown, affordability, but most importantly, the neighborhood's diversity.
“The diversity on just my little block in incredible,” says Dupuie, who is investing even more in his neighborhood by opening a small business, the Dormouse Theatre, on Portage Street in the next few months. “There’s me and my partner, who are an El Salvadoran and Caucasian gay couple, a Mexican couple who have lived next to us for 25 to 30 years, an African American mother and son who have lived here forever. There’s every ethnicity--gay and old and young and white and whatever--on just my tiny little block. You don’t come by that very often in such a concentrated space.”
You really don’t. Just ask Tammy Taylor. If anyone has a question about the Edison neighborhood, past, present or future, Taylor, Edison Neighborhood Association Executive Director for the last 20 years, is the person to see. It’s rare for a neighborhood association director to live in the neighborhood, but Taylor has done so for the past 30 years.
“I love this neighborhood. I really could not fathom living anywhere else,” says Taylor, who moved into Edison as a single mom who needed affordable housing. Taylor reflects a neighborhood trend as more than 36 percent of Edison’s households include single mothers and 16 percent are comprised of single fathers. “I love the diversity. When you go to Chicago or other cities, you see this is where all the Greek people live and there is where all the Spanish people live. In Edison, we’re all next door to each other.” Even though Taylor remarried two years ago and her husband owns a home in Richland, she says she refuses to move out of the neighborhood.
Not only is the racial diversity high, but Taylor points out there is also a large elderly, disabled, and LGBTQ population, though they are harder to quantify, she says. Edison also attracts an abundance of artists and entrepreneurs who are lured by the neighborhood's convenience, affordability, and sense of community. Taylor cites friendliness as part of Edison’s charm.
“I know that when I have to go places, people will watch my kids in a heartbeat. When I had surgery, three of my neighbors brought over casseroles. For the senior population, neighbors go out of their way to make sure their lawns and mowed and their walks shoveled.
“Everyone takes care of everyone around here,” Taylor says, “which is really amazing since we’re a very low-income neighborhood.”
While diversity and neighborliness are highly valued in the Edison community, so are addressing some of the area’s issues, ones which are typical of many inner-city neighborhoods. Parts of Edison experience overcrowding. The average household size in Edison is 6.8 compared to 2.5 in Kalamazoo, according to the 2016 U.S. Census. Among the neighborhood’s most pressing concerns are maintaining affordable and safe housing, creating a flood plan, continued business and residential revitalization, and continuing to address violent crime, which has decreased dramatically (41 percent in 2015 alone) in the years since the tragic 2014 death of 13-year-old Michael Day.
Day, a Milwood Middle School Student, was shot and killed due to gang violence, an event that united the neighborhood, focusing safety efforts and outreach, including “Enough is Enough” at Stockbridge United Methodist Church, as well as a Kalamazoo Group Violence Intervention Strategy, which resulted in a meeting between the police, community members and gang representatives in 2017 to help build trust, among other initiatives.
Three creeks (Portage, Axtell, Davis) and .19 miles of the Kalamazoo River run through Edison. So do the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Some of Edison is a former celery bog and lake, low-lying land that has contributed to the neighborhood’s tremendous issues with flooding, most recently in February when Kalamazoo River levels reached a record high. Many Edison residents and some businesses were displaced.
As of last week (March 28), some houses continue to have standing water in the basement, issues so significant that some residents have been living temporarily in their cars. Many nonprofits, such as Community Homeworks, a local nonprofit that helps with home repairs in low-income neighborhoods, have stepped up to assist.
Workers from BDO help clean up the property after the Deja Vu has been removed. Photo by Fran Dwight.
Economic growth in Edison has been touch and go. In 2005, the neighborhood celebrated when Déjà Vu, a former nude dance club and adult video and bookstore on Portage Street was demolished. Many saw it as the beginning of urban renewal that Edison had so long desired. But the promise of rejuvenation was broken as the recession hit. With many ideas on the table for land use, the empty space was seeded and tended as a short-lived Monarch Waystation that ended up looking weedy and unkempt and was difficult to maintain.
“It’s one step forward, three steps sideways,” says Dupuie, “We’re constantly doing this weaving back and forth pattern towards the goal.”
In 2012, however, a long-needed local banking option, the Community Promise Federal Credit Union, opened. Slowly the block along Portage and Washington has been revitalized, looking clean and chic, with Pho on the Block
, a Vietnamese restaurant flanking the corner, and Jersey Subs on the other end. In addition, the neighborhood has been serving for three years as an Art Hop satellite in an effort to encourage both Edison and Kalamazoo residents to experience the Edison vibe.
Those changes have come through heavy investment by the Kalamazoo County Landbank, which has poured $1 million, including $400,000 for Pho on the Block, into Edison's commercial district. The result is six commercial suites of local businesses where there once were empty buildings.
The Edison Neighborhood has been an Art Hop satellite for three years with the leadership of the Kalamazoo County Land Bank. Photo by Fran Dwight
With increased demand for locally grown and produced foods, the Bank Street Farmers Market continues to flourish, bringing in thousands of visitors through the Edison neighborhood each week. The ENA and the Edison Business Association would like to capitalize on that traffic, but have not yet felt successful in encouraging farmer’s market visitors to spill into the neighboring businesses.
In 2012, the Kalamazoo County Landbank, the Kalamazoo Home Builders Association and the City of Kalamazoo, completed a 23-home development to the south of the farmer’s market, the first new homes built in the neighborhood since the 1970s.
When they were built in 2012, homes next to the Farmers Market were the first new homes to be built in the neighborhood in many years. Photo by Fran Dwight.
Patti Townsend, president of the Edison Business Association, has spent much of the last 20 years encouraging businesses to move to Edison, especially along the main artery of Portage Street, as well as helping the many residents who have mom and pop businesses, such as a woman she met recently who was selling burritos to people at the library.
“A lot of good people like the woman selling burritos are trying to prosper, not trying to be the next Bill Gates, but trying to provide for their families and bring in an income.”
The Kalamazoo County Land Bank purchased, rehabbed, and helped fill those buildings with local businesses. The Land Bank owned properties are now filled and Townsend would like to see neighboring buildings populated by even more businesses that directly serve the community.
“When I was a teenager, we had the Laundromats, coffee cup doughnut shops, two grocery stores that I remember as gathering spots. You felt safe,” she says. “Businesses need to know it is safe and there are good people here.
“No offense to anyone, but I would like to see more than car businesses along Portage. What about a nice Laundromat to help people? What about more family-style restaurants that do dinnertime? What about a cafe that provides a cup of coffee that’s not a Starbucks?”
Over the last few years, Townsend has been pleased with the improvements she’s seen. “I think it’s looking a little better. It’s changing the perception now, for people to visibly show that pride, for the word to get out to show Edison really is a neighborhood to do business in.”
Much of this Edison spirit is reflected in the urban-flavored art and historical landmarks such as the Washington Square Branch of the Kalamazoo Public Library, St. Joseph Catholic Church, and the 1903 fire station, now the home of Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative
, a youth-driven space for art and social justice.
“We love our art and we love our murals,” says Taylor, mentioning in particular the large, striking black and white portraits along the windows of businesses near Portage Street that are part of the Land Bank led “Inside Out Project: We are Edison,”
undertaken by photographer, Edison resident and On the Ground Edison photographer, Fran Dwight.
The "Inside Out Project: We Are Edison" is weathered now, but the smiles still are there. Photo by Fran Dwight.
Through these faces, even to the passerby, Edison is made visible and close-up. Over 100 of them feature mostly smiling neighborhood faces--disabled, elderly, young, old, Hispanic, white, black, gay, straight. The art project mirrors the work of internationally renowned artists. The portraits are meant to invite the community to take a look at itself, but they also open a window for others to see the community in an intimate and humanizing way.
Installed in July and August of 2017, the portraits have since been exposed to the rain, snow, and wind. Some are beginning to peel and fade, but the promise and hope in the many open faces shine through, a fitting testament to the can-do spirit of the Edison neighborhood where struggle and decay intermingle with hope and determination.
As Thomas Edison himself says, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
And residents in Edison are not giving up. They keep putting on their work boots.
Theresa Coty O'Neil is a Kalamazoo area freelance writer. Her articles have appeared in many local publications and her short stories have been published in Alaska Quarterly Review and West Branch, among others. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Edison.
All photos by Fran Dwight.
Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s “On the Ground Edison” series amplifies the voices of Edison Neighborhood residents. Over the next three months, Second Wave journalists will be embedded in the Edison Neighborhood to explore topics of importance to residents, business owners and other members of the community. To reach the editor of this series, Theresa Coty-O’Neil, please email her here
or contact Second Wave managing editor Kathy Jennings here
The On the Ground program is made possible by funding from the City of Kalamazoo, LISC, the Fetzer Institute, the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region, Michigan WORKS!, the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, and the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo.
Grapic by Kathy Jennings and Wikipedia Creative Commons
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