Let there be more light, say resident-empowerment groups working together in Kalamazoo

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Northside series. f you have a story about the neighborhood please let us know here.

Residents of Kalamazoo’s Northside neighborhood are working to enhance the neighborhood, by shining light on problems that need attention and working to fix them -- literally.
Building Blocks of Kalamazoo, which has Action in The Neighborhood as its “building block” on the city’s North Side, is working with residents to decide how many new solar lights it will add to darker and trouble-ridden ­sections of the neighborhood this year.  They installed about 60 solar lamp posts in 2020, and 30 in 2021.
“We continue to do it every year,” Katie McPherson, executive director of Building Blocks of Kalamazoo, says of the solar lighting project, which was launched in 2020 after neighborhood residents suggested it as a way to deter crime, keep away unwanted pedestrian traffic, and add more curb appeal to homes in the area.
“That project was in response to the increase in the gun violence in that area,” McPherson says of the city blocks that include Ada, Florence, Simpson, Mabel, Simpson, Elizabeth, and William streets, as well as Woodbury and Cobb avenues. “We work with a resident group that was six blocks (large) then, but it is nine blocks now."
Called Action in The Neighborhood, the group is made up of residents of the area who are “fighting for their community, fighting for their blocks,” she says.
“The problem identified by residents in the area was that the streets at night were extremely dark because the street lights are extremely old and clouded and do not produce enough light to really make residents feel safe in their neighborhood,” McPherson says. “And with there being an increase in gunshots and trespassing and people cutting through other people’s yards, getting the solar lights was a way of addressing those behaviors.”
Stephanie Vallar, a resident leader and coach for Building Blocks and a leader of Action in The Neighborhood, says “Hopefully, this year we'll install 30 to 50 lamp posts.” The longtime resident of Florence Street says Action in The Neighborhood started in 2018 in response to needs that longtime area residents saw. The solar lighting project was started to address safety concerns but also to beautify the neighborhood.
Building Blocks of Kalamazoo does resident-led home repairs and fix up projects.“The reason for the lights is we were doing a curb-appeal piece (project) and the residents were confused and still complaining about the weekend's unwanted traffic,” says Vallar. “As residents, everyone understood that the crowd of people that comes in and invades the neighborhood on the weekend, partying and trashing the area, they do not like lighting at all. So anything that we could do to make it safer for us to come in and out of our homes and then to help lighten the area at a body-height level (as opposed to high street lights), we were willing to go in and say let's get it done.”
Although McPherson says she does not have crime data to indicate the effectiveness of the light program, she says installing security lights and cameras is a strategy that residents believe in and are expanding into other types of projects. Moving forward, Action in the Neighborhood’s plan is to try to incorporate solar lamp posts as a part of the curb-appeal and safety aspect in front of any of the homes joining the resident group.
Building Blocks is a community-organizing, non-profit organization that got its start in 1995 as a Kalamazoo College sociology professor worked to engage his students in community organizing and urban sociology. He assigned them to do volunteer work in the community. Efforts in each of that instructor’s 12-week courses evolved and by 2010 had become the program it is today – with the focus shifting to the development of resident leaders rather than student leaders.
“We work to empower resident groups to take the lead on neighborhood enhancing projects that they want done on their blocks,” McPherson explains.
Stephanie Vallar is Northside community organizer and resident leader/coach with Building Blocks of Kalamazoo.Working in the core neighborhoods of Kalamazoo, Building Blocks identifies and does small home repairs, and home and property beautification projects, including such things as corner gardens and driveway repairs. “It’s resident-led (projects) and based on what the residents feel needs to happen within their community,” Vallar says.
Everything is done with the intention of helping build a better sense of community, she says. The core neighborhoods the organization serves are Eastside, Northside, Edison, Vine, and Oakwood. In those neighborhoods, it has a total of 20 block action groups that work with neighborhood associations, the City of Kalamazoo, and other community partners. It intends to add another eight-block action groups this year. Those are to include two more on the Northside, two on the Eastside, two in Oakwood, one in Edison, and one in Vine.
Building Blocks is operating this year on a budget of just under $250,000, up from about $150,00 in 2020. That is provided entirely by private funding.
“Our theory of change … is that we really believe in and respond to the strengths and the geniuses of the residents,” says McPherson, who was hired to lead the organization two years ago. “So the resident groups decide all of the projects. And we really believe that neighborhood enhancement is going to happen when it’s authentic and when resident voices are at the core of decisions.”
Each block of the Northside Neighborhood that is part of Action in The Neighborhood has a block captain. Prior to social-distancing for COVID-19, they met twice a month along with other neighborhood residents, with input from guests. They now have a virtual meeting once per month.
Katie McPherson, executive director of Building Blocks of Kalamazoo, is shown working beneath the porch of a house during a fix-up project in 2021.Working with Action in The Neighborhood last year Building Blocks did landscaping overhauls – restoring grass to the front yards of about 17 homes generally between Ada and William streets. This year, it will start the fair-weather season on April 30, with a gravel-resurfacing project at several sites. Homeowners, volunteers, and members of the Building Blocks board of directors will participate, helping to use loads of gravel to help restore rutted driveways and other areas.
As with all of its projects, unless the occupants are physically unable, each household that requests assistance is required to have its people participating in the work.
Residents are choosing and providing the manpower for repair projects in Kalamazoo’s Northside Neighborhood as well as others.“We are going to be working between Ada Street and William Street, including Cobb Avenue,” Vallar says of the gravel-resurfacing project. “And then we will also be on Church Street.”
The project will follow a community clean-up and luncheon that same day. The organization does a neighborhood beautification project in the spring and another after the Fourth of July. Volunteers ranging from ages 4 to 85 sweep, rake, cut grass and pick up litter.
“Project levels can be small. Some can be larger,” Vallar says, “Specifically for the Northside, we focus more on being supportive with doing home repair work.”
McPherson describes the work of Vallar and Action in The Neighborhood as phenomenal and inspiring. Building Blocks tries to support them by providing resources, connecting them with representatives from the wider community, and connecting them with resident groups in other neighborhoods.
“The vision and the mission of residents is to restore the pre-existing properties that are in the neighborhood and revitalize,” Vallar says. “So you remove the stigma and it returns to a family-oriented neighborhood and community.”
Vallar says she remembers the neighborhood when things were better and says she knows it will take time to restore it to a place where children are always outside playing, and where properties are all well-maintained and lawns are manicured. But she’s working on it.
For outsiders who don't know Kalamazoo’s Northside neighborhood well, Vallar says, “Never judge a book by the cover. … What you hear and what you see is when the negative activity occurs within our neighborhood. Those individuals that come in and terrorize our neighborhood are not actually residents of the neighborhood. They get in their cars once they terrorize. And they drive home.”
She says, “I invite you to actually drive through. Ninety-five percent of the time, our community is quiet.”

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Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.