Eastside Neighborhood

Kalamazoo, look East: Growth is on its way

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

With its hilly views, plentiful old trees, gabled houses, and deep yards, Kalamazoo’s Eastside is a quiet, steady neighborhood that is home to single folks, families, some who represent generations of Eastside living, and neighbors who aren’t nosy. 

“You can be your own person on the Eastside,” says Pat Taylor, Director of the Kalamazoo Eastside Neighborhood Association (KENA). “We have quirky people. We have conservatives. We have liberals. We have artists. We have families. We have grandparents. We have people—what are they? Hermits, come to mind. We have variety.”

Over the past few years, the neighborhood of nearly 3,000 has expanded its housing options, improved its two parks, and launched a group of engaged neighbors, business owners, governmental officials, and nonprofit leaders called ENet who are working together to improve the Eastside.

All the neighborhood needs now is some passionate small business owners and investors with vision and heart.

“The Eastside just needs a little love,” says April Ouweleen, a Kalamazoo Eastside Neighborhood Association board member who has been living on the Eastside for 30 years, at a city commission meeting in December. “We would like to see the main corridor on East Main cleaned up. We need to bring that into our town. This is our side of the town. It belongs to all of us.”
April Ouwleen, KENA board member and longtime Eastside resident, is also a Building Blocks Site Coordinator.
And the neighborhood is waiting with open arms and a bundle of support from residents, the city and local organizations. (For more information, please click here.)

With recent small business city incentive programs aimed at the urban core (Eastside, Northside, and Edison)  there hasn’t been a better time post-recession to start a neighborhood business. KIVA Microfund loans matched through LISC, mentorship through SCORE, Western Michigan University’s Small Business Development Center, and KENA are all poised to assist local business owners.

What neighbors say they most want: A regeneration of the East Main and Riverview corridors to include family-friendly businesses, as they did in years past.

Ouweleen, who raised her daughter in the neighborhood, remembers the unique charm of the former businesses along East Main, especially Triemstra’s Drugstore, the In-between Inn, which served what some called the area’s best potato salad, and two laundromats. Her daughter fondly remembers walking to the Dairy Queen on East Michigan, which closed its doors in 2014.

“Everything is gone,” says Ouweleen, “We need to bring that back.”

Taylor agrees. “We are already a family-friendly environment that is home to multiple generations, which I think is a real cool aspect,” of the neighborhood she says. “But we don’t have the family-friendly businesses or the walkability component that would make a neighborhood complete.”

The Eastside draws residents in part due to affordable housing and proximity to the city, in addition to its old, character-filled homes.

“It’s a nice view because of the hills,” Taylor says, citing reasons why people choose the Eastside. “They find a house that suits them and has decent yardage. The houses are not crammed together like a lot of other spots in the city.”

Residents appreciate the Eastside neighborhood in part because of its hilly views, old homes and large yards.Along Riverview, there are several automobile businesses and a Walgreen’s, Lee’s Restaurant, McDonald’s, Fish Express, and Lil Bros BBQ. On East Main between Trimble and Southworth, there are only a few, including East Main Food & Beverage and Lil Fish Dock. Most former businesses are boarded up.

With the neighborhood plan drafted and approved by the city commission, “uppermost in our mind is getting businesses up—coffee shops, sandwich shops,” Taylor says.  “At the top of East Main Hill, there are several vacant storefronts, that used to house all kinds of businesses—a drug store, shoe store, an ice cream shop.”

Taylor says she cannot think of any larger current conversation among residents than “the businesses or lack thereof in the neighborhood.

“Everything else is moving forward at a comfortable pace.”

From farms to paper, with a few surprises thrown in

Like a lot of Kalamazoo’s neighborhoods, the Eastside used to be home to Dutch-owned farms, including several 100-plus acre farms, some of which grew wheat, Indian corn for feed, and included dairy cows and sheep, says Lynn Houghton, Regional History Collections Curator at Western Michigan University. Many of the streets, parks,  and developments now boast the names of the former farmers and other well-known natives, such as Thomas R. Sherwood, a Michigan Supreme Court Justice, and Horace Phelps, a farmer, and windmill maker.

Houghton has long been intrigued by a couple of interesting historical happenings on the Eastside. One is a former Tuberculosis Sanatorium (literally a tent city) in 1908 and 1909 on Gull Street across from Borgess Hospital, and the other is the former Michigan Female Seminary, a private high school, founded in 1867 and located near where St. Mary’s Catholic Church currently sits. 

With the river so close, the neighborhood attracted people who worked in industries, such as paper mills like James River Co.  But the Eastside’s initial residential development took place in the 1880s, with the first school built on the corner of Gilbert and East Avenue, in 1883, called the East Avenue School.

Like other city neighborhood business nodes, such as Washington Square, the East Main Hill area, was a thriving neighborhood shopping district of mom and pop shops. Over the years, the onset of shopping malls, a dying paper industry, and the recession of the 80s and 90s, all took their toll. Many businesses have since come and gone.

“Edison and the Northside are more familiar because people drive through them. People don’t necessarily have to drive through the Eastside to get to from Point A to Point B,” Houghton says. “But with what all’s been going on in the middle of the city, the Eastside is a diamond in the rough.”

One square mile on the river’s edge

Unlike the other downtown-linked neighborhoods of Kalamazoo’s urban core, the Eastside can sometimes feel like it’s a "forgotten section,” says Taylor. A square mile separated from the city by the river, and with scant destination businesses and a currently dormant East Main corridor, most city residents may not know much about the Eastside, a mostly residential area that has unusual borders.

In fact, some Eastsiders may not know their own neighborhood designation, especially because the neighborhood is like two large scraps of fabric sewn loosely together.

The larger portion, shaped like an arrowhead, fans out from the north at Gull and Humphrey, bordered on the south and west by the Kalamazoo River, and on the east by East Wallace Avenue.

The eastern spur, shaped like an old shoe, is bordered to the east by Wallace, south by Shippers Lane, north by Lincoln Street and west by Nazareth Road. 

If you’re not watching the city signs, you may actually be in one of the sister neighborhoods, Burke Acres to the west, or Eastwood in Kalamazoo Township across East Michigan to the north, which share parks and an independent, can-do, working-class vibe.

When neighbors are asked what makes the Eastside home, they mention, of course, the hills and views, along with places like Eastside Boxing, Kzoo Makers, the city’s only makerspace, a growing Hispanic population, Peace House, the parks, St. Mary’s Catholic Church, and of course, Taylor, who has worked tirelessly to lift up the neighborhood,  

The Eastside has also grown a number of Kalamazoo movers, shakers and creatives, including Kalamazoo County Commissioner Michael Seals, C.J. Drenth, an avid gardener and educator with Kalamazoo in Bloom, artist James Palimore, Mayor Bobby Hopewell, City Commissioner Eric Cunningham, and Eastside matriarchs, Eva Ozier and Magnolia Bodley, Hopewell’s mother.

Hopewell remembers the Eastside he grew up in as “a pretty special place,” mentioning the laundromat where as a child he would buy bubble gum and take trips to the Dairy Queen.

“It’s our smallest neighborhood,” he adds, “but has some pretty cool parts.”

Affordable housing and the Eastside Gateway

Every neighborhood needs a statement, and the Eastside, just across the river from downtown, is creating one on East Michigan with the help of the Kalamazoo Land Bank. Most of the Eastside houses are single-family dwellings over 80 years old, but the entry to the Eastside will soon look fresh and new with its tiny house development and pocket park known as the Eastside Gateway.

Many Kalamazoo residents might be surprised at how hilly the Eastside neighborhood is.The Kalamazoo Land Bank, with its offices on nearby Riverview, has been offering love to its Eastside neighbors for quite a while, but the Gateway is the most ambitious of its efforts. The first house, a fast-build, 1,000-square-foot, energy-efficient structure, was constructed in Sept. 2018, on the Gateway property.

An exciting addition to the development is a pocket park that will reflect the voices, art, and stories of the Eastside. Known as Eastside Voices, the storytelling, and art project is led by local artists and community leaders Buddy Hannah and Sid Ellis, and is sponsored in part by the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts and the Greater Kalamazoo Arts Council. The project will reflect the neighborhood demographics, which is 42 percent white, 34 percent black and 17 percent Hispanic.

“The Land Bank is beyond excited to be a part of the Eastside Gateway Project,” says Kelly Clarke, Executive Director of the Kalamazoo Land Bank.

Taylor adds, “We have the older housing stock, but we are beginning to get new housing stock, especially with the Land Bank. That has been really good at boosting the morale of the neighborhood.” 

Gathering Places: KENA, Neighborhood Parks and Public Library 

Nearly 40 percent of the Eastside’s population of 2,600 is under the age of 17, the highest percentage of children per capita in all of Kalamazoo’s 22 neighborhoods, according to the 2016 census.

But the neighborhood no longer has an elementary school and hasn’t since Roosevelt Elementary School closed nearly 40 years ago, and was later replaced with Roosevelt Hill Apartments, one of the neighborhood’s subsidized-housing units. 

Taylor says the lack of a school is one reason the Eastside, at times, has struggled to create a sense of community. The renovation of the two neighborhood parks, she says, should help. In the summer of 2018, Building Blocks and the Kalamazoo Parks and Recreation Department joined together to spruce up Sherwood Park, adding a new sign, planting flowers, raking leaves, and building picnic tables. 

Rockwell Park, built under the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal,  along Trimble Avenue is currently under renovation and will include new playground equipment, asphalt walking path, picnic tables, and basketball court when it is finished this spring. 

KENA hopes that Rockwell Park improvements will draw more residents to the large park which is divided by Trimble.Plans are to add a utility building and two restrooms. The hope is that when Rockwell Park is completed, it will be used for community events as a gathering spot, Taylor says.

KENA has a large gathering room and often hosts meetings. Other gatherings take place in churches. The two large annual neighborhood events include National Night Out and a once-a-year celebration, which draw many neighbors. 

“We have a lot of creative people,” Taylor says. “We have a lot of groups that serve the youth. We just need to get the word out that these programs are available.”

Two Buns and a Patty: A dream for neighborhood eats

Ouweleen dreams of a unique East Main eatery, like a burger joint, that if she owned, she would call Two Buns and a Patty, in honor of KENA Director Pat Taylor. “With all those empty buildings sitting around here, why can’t we take one and turn it to a soda fountain, for instance, something different, something unique?”

“Everybody who has actually lived on the Eastside has fond memories of the neighborhood, but they don’t actually come to the Eastside now,” says Taylor, who would like to see that change.

As Edison and Northside undergo revitalization, the Eastside is a natural next spot. It is a neighborhood, as Hopewell points out, that has a lot of untapped potential.

“The opportunities of the East Main corridor are huge,” says Hopewell. “With the properties that are there, there are opportunities seen and not seen. I’m excited about the Eastside.”

And with the Foundation for Excellence, and Imagine Kalamazoo 2025, the city is ready and willing to support the needs of the neighborhood.

The Kalamazoo River serves as a boundary between the Eastside and downtown.Ouweleen, for one, is pitching in, not only by her involvement with KENA but also as a Building Blocks Coordinator. As one of the first ongoing Building Blocks site coordinators on the Eastside, Ouweleen is helping create a sense of community by slowly folding in more streets to Building Blocks, a program which encourages neighbors to support each other in home improvement and landscaping projects. 

At a city commission meeting in December, City Commissioner Jack Urban said that at recent Eastside meetings he attended, he was struck by the topography of the neighborhood. “It is really gorgeous because you have a steep hill there and a great view overlooking the city in two directions. The whole area is really ripe for investing.

“It won’t come back the same way that it was, but we would like to restore the feeling of the neighborhood that was there up until the '60s,” Urban says. “I think we’re setting up the framework there for that possibility.”

And that’s what KENA, ENet, Taylor, and residents like Ouweleen are working hard to achieve.

A few years ago, Ouweleen spent a lot of time in New Orleans assisting her daughter who had been in a car accident. While there, she witnessed how the city was rebuilding after the devastation of the 2005 hurricane.

“If New Orleans can do what they did after Katrina, there is no reason on God’s green earth, we cannot bring a rebirth to the Eastside of Kalamazoo,” says Ouweleen, who is clearly fond of her neighborhood.  “We need to bring that love back to that community. That’s my hope.”

Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s “On the Ground Eastside” series amplifies the voices of Northside Neighborhood residents. Over four months, Second Wave journalists will be in the Northside 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 Kalamazoo 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.

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.