From litter to literacy: Trail and playstreet coming to Edison celebrate nature and reading

Edison neighbors are doing it for themselves.

On the last Saturday in October, neighborhood residents came to the dead end of Bryant Street, overlooking a brownfield, Portage Creek, and the old Kalamazoo County building. 

They spray-painted a hopscotch pattern on the street, erected a bench and little free library, and were putting the final touches on a mural depicting Albert White, architect of the County building just across the creek, in view of Bryant Street.

"Edison is a beautiful place to live!" the mural declares.

Before that day, almost weekly, they'd cleared out trash. A lot of trash. Truckloads of tires, old couches, and other household items, trash that makes the neighbors suspect it's mostly from landlords clearing out evicted properties.

A resident-led group, Edison Resident Scholars, had formed to improve the neighborhood. As one of their first projects, they brought out WMU interns and faculty on Earth Day last spring to remove the trash. But then someone dumped more trash.

Michael Evans, Kalamazoo Literacy Council's Exec. Dir., had a dream which is coming true with the help of partners and residents.Michael Evans, as he was painting finish on the mural, says, "All around here was just trash everywhere. Even after we clean it up, they trash it again. Clean it up, and they trash it again." 

Edison resident Jackie Mitchell says, hopefully, "The more they see folks care, the less they'll do it."  It should be made obvious "that people know and love this space" and that the neighborhood is not a place "for people to take advantage of, to just dump and destroy."

Literacy Trail to Literacy Lane 

Evans, Executive Director of the Kalamazoo Literacy Council, says the desire to do something started as he did his daily health walks from his office at Goodwill Industries on Alcott Street. 

He saw across Alcott "just some gravel trail, so I started walking it." The trail, unofficial and made by people taking a traffic-free cut between Reed Street and Alcott, runs along the Portage Creek, through what at first glance looks like a weedy, overgrown brownfield.

Evans saw how it could be transformed. Always mindful of the LKC's mission of spreading literacy, he thought, "This would be a good 'literacy trail.'" Signs along the trail could help promote reading, "tell the story of the neighborhood, the wildlife that's here." 

The Edison Resident Scholars installed Little Free Libraries to prepare for Literacy Trail.It could be transformed into an urban greenspace. They could get help to remove invasive weeds, and plant pollinator gardens. "If you listen right here, you hear the creek, you hear crickets, you hear birds." 

It could also serve, as the gravel path does already, as a trail for people without transportation to get to the service-heavy area of Alcott — the State of Michigan Department of Health, Kalamazoo County HCS-WIC, and Goodwill buildings are all clustered around the trail's beginning at Alcott. Instead of a rough and narrow gravel path, it could be paved, making it easier to roll along for parents with strollers and people with disabilities.

Evans would be thinking of his dream trail, but then when his walk reached the end of Bryant, he'd see the piles of trash.

"Right around Bryant Street, every time I'd be walking along the trail, I'd start seeing these incredibly disgusting dumping episodes, where they're dropping couches, tires, and kitchen trash. It's almost as if someone got evicted, and the landlord was just clearing out and dumping it. It was a dumping spot, and for me, I'd say, 'Man, it's messing up my eye-line!' This peaceful walk becomes a frustrating walk," he says. 

Around this same time, he was having these Literacy Trail thoughts, Evans and the KLC had formed Edison Resident Scholars. It's now a group of neighbors, WMU faculty such as Karika Parker of the Walker Institute and Joseph Kretovics of the Department of Educational Leadership, Research and Technology, and others who meet monthly to see what could be done to improve Edison. 

"They don't want to complain about it, they want to take action, to do some things about it," Evans says.

Fixing the Bryant trash situation became a goal.

"It started off as a guerrilla art project," he says. 

They plotted to get neighborhood kids to do a mural that would read, "Please keep our neighborhood safe and clean," Evans says."We didn't know if we could get permission from the city, but we were just going to do it anyway." 

They weren't keeping too quiet about it, however. The City heard, so it put up basic "No Dumping" signs.

Jae Slaby, Neighborhood Activator for the City of Kalamazoo, heard about Bryant, and thought,  "Oh, this is a perfect spot for a play street! We just did one at West Main Hill, this is even easier," Slaybe says. 

Volunteers from front to back: Mike List, Joe Kretovics, Kym Hollars, Michael Evans, Jae Slaby, Dru Seymour, Jane Asumadu, Jackie Mitchell, Drew Duncan, Aiden Aldrige, Xilyanna Underwood, and Duane Underwood III. Bryant is a dead end, so no need to worry about traffic flow. The City plans on placing bollards by this spring to protect kids playing in the space and to keep out trucks looking to dump trash. New lights are planned to illuminate night-time activity. The City also removed a guardrail, mangled from some long-ago collision, at the end of the street.

Slaybe says the City is asking, "How do we activate this entire space and shift the energy and perception of this area, so when people come by, they don't want to dump here?" 

But the Edison Resident Scholars have been way ahead of them. "I do want to make the point that this was all resident-led, completely," Slaby says.

When the city proposed a play street, Evans says he thought, "That sounds like a great idea, but play implies that the only people who are going to use this are kids." The Edison Resident Scholars wanted parents to be able to come to the spot with their children, sit down, read a book, and learn about Kalamazoo's prolific African-American architect Albert White, all in a natural area. "We think that you could learn in this space as well."

If there's going to be a Literacy Trail, then this part of Bryant can be Literacy Lane.

"Neighboring activities"

Evans says the Scholars went door-to-door with a petition, informed people living on Bryant and surrounding streets so they knew what was going on, and agreed to plans to improve the area. Reactions were near-unanimously positive, he says.

They also keep checking on the trash situation, and removing whatever shows up. "And because we've been cleaning the trail, and using it more often, more people are using it," Evans says.  "I see lots of people, families, that are making their way along the trail."  The trail goes by the Family Health Center's outdoor fitness area, and he sees people use that more, too.

Michael Evans, Kalamazoo Exec. Dir. of the Kalamazoo Literacy Council, helps prepare signs for the trailThe next step is to pave the Literacy Trail, he says. 

The City will be paving the trail from Alcott to Bryant when construction season begins in the coming spring, Slaby says. There is a development planned for land between Bryant and Reed, which is "in the site plan review process right now," she says, so that portion of the trail will have to wait.

While they've got the City's attention, the Edison Resident Scholars got a promise to put in a crosswalk with a raised median across Alcott. Next year it should appear by the street's only bus stop, near all the buildings that provide services.

"People treat it like it's a racetrack," Mike List, KLC Early Learning Specialist and Edison resident, says of Alcott. "You'll have people who are disabled, elderly, in wheelchairs, with children in strollers." If they cross Alcott to get to KLC and Goodwill, "they play Frogger to get over here."

List expressed a common feeling other Edison residents share, that some other neighborhoods "with a higher tax base tend to get these things. Sometimes I feel we get table scraps."

"Even the Northside is starting to get more love financially than we did for a while," Mitchell says. "The City is finally stepping up their game here."

Evans points out the large recreational trail system in Portage. He'd love for the Literacy Trail to be something like Portage's Bicentennial Trail, which is also along Portage Creek just two-and-a-half miles south. "Other communities have made investments in walkable safe neighborhoods. Why not us?"  

But the Edison Resident Scholars aren't about complaining, they're about doing, Evans repeatedly points out. 

The Literacy Trail mural honors Kalamazoo architect Albert White.The Scholars' partners now include LISC Kalamazoo, WMU's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, Edison Neighborhood Association, and Community Homeworks.

"I like that it didn't take a $100,000 grant to do, just people who cared and got it started," Evans says. Now the Scholars have been getting funding from LISC and the Michigan Humanities Council.

With Community Homeworks, they've begun to learn home repair, forming a team of Scholars who can help their neighbors fix up their homes. 

"One of the goals is to have a support network of residents that can help each other through what we call neighboring activities," Evans says. 

They've already done some work on Edison homes. "We've patched holes in walls that were from gunshots." That leads to another issue the Scholars want to address, local gun violence.

"It's our properties, it's our neighborhood. Stuff gets done faster, instead of waiting for something that should've been done a long time ago," Evans says. "We didn't ask for any permission to move the trash, we just moved it." 

To get involved with the Edison Resident Scholars, contact the Kalamazoo Literacy Council at 269-382-0490, ext. 222.

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Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see