Oakwood Neighborhood

Life's a beach, a picnic, a reunion, and a makeover in Kalamazoo's Oakwood Neighborhood

Editor’s note: This is the fifth story in Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s “On the Ground Oakwood” series.
The sinks clog easily in the community room of the Oakwood Neighborhood Association Community & Youth Center in Kalamazoo.

“The two sinks are jerry-rigged together and it’s awful,” says Cheryl Lord, executive director of the neighborhood association.

That didn’t help when Pacific Rim Foods conducted its very popular cooking class at the center. The weekly class ended there last year when the Asian foods business found a new home – and better facilities – on West Kilgore Road.

“It was always full,” Lord says of the class. “They would do like a couple’s dinner or a Valentine’s dinner, or a class for anyone who wants to learn how to make egg rolls or spring rolls. They would have a different menu in every class.”

The class struggled with the Oakwood center’s facilities, however.

But Lord wants that kind of program to return to the 3320 Laird Ave. center. And she says the prospects are good if plans to update the community room, along with its sinks and its bathroom, are realized this year.

“We’re going to re-do the community room,” she says. “We’ve updated the appliances but the carpeting is all worn out. Cabinets need to be replaced. Plumbing needs to be replaced. We need a new sink, new plumbing, new cabinets, new carpeting, a new center island, and new wall coverings. And by updating our cabinet situation, we’ll also be upgrading our room for our food bank.”

She says a budget for the improvements will be set after contractors are consulted and after she is able to match donations for the project with money she hopes to secure from a charitable local foundation.

It’s one of several projects that has Lord excited about the coming year.

“It’s all part of our capacity-building strategy,” she says of improvements at the community center. “Because I think as our room is improved, it will be even more usable to area families and businesses. Our room use is a source of donations for us as well as a means to bring more groups and activities to the neighborhood center.”

“Right now we have yoga and a faith group using the center regularly,” Lord says. She wants it to be attractive to a broad group of organizations and users.

Question: What else are you looking forward to in 2020?
Answer: “We’re going to be planning a charrette for April or early May,” she says. “… We’re going to ask people to come and help us plan a rain garden and how we can, without too much expense, improve our beach – at Oakwood Memorial Park. And the American Institute of Architects is supposed to help us in planning the rain garden. We’re looking at where would be the best place to do it.”

A charrette is an intensive planning session in which area residents will meet with planners, municipal officials and other project stakeholders to develop a vision and map out a strategy to get the project done.

There is thought of putting the rain garden on the second of three land breaks that descend to the beach from Parkview Drive, just west of Oakland Drive.

The Oakwood Neighborhood Association owns an oddly configured 1.7 acres of property between Parkview Avenue and Woods Lake. It includes about 470 feet of beachfront access. It is available for use by any Oakwood resident but needs improvements to make it more accessible.

The association will meet on March 25 with Katie Reilly, of the City of Kalamazoo’s Department of Planning and Economic Development, and representatives of the American Institute of Architects and the Kalamazoo Nature Center. They are seeking permission to host the charette on property near the beach, with food trucks and other attractions made available to participants.

Oakwood Memorial Beach Park honors Oakwood residents who lost their lives in past U.S. military conflicts, primarily World War I and II.

Q: What else is happening early this year?
A: “Spring Into Spring at The Community of Christ Church,” Lord says.  It will be a March 22 gathering that adds a push for participation in the 2020 census to traditional Easter events.

“We’re going to have the Easter Bunny, an egg hunt, and kids’ activities,” she says. “But we’re also going to be providing information on doing the census. That’s why we’re coordinating it on March 22. Participants can do the census right there or have any of their questions answered.”

Oakwood is a middle- to low-income neighborhood where a lot of people depend on municipal and government services, Lord says. But many people don’t trust the census-taking process and throw away the census information they receive. She wants to help people feel comfortable filling it out “because services to the neighborhood and the city depend on getting a good count.”
Q: What else is happening?
A: The community center and its programs will benefit from the proceeds of a fund-raising Bowl-A-Thon that is to take place in May. The event will happen at Revel & Roll West on Stadium Drive but an exact date has not yet been set. “Our big month,” Lord says, however, “is always June because we have our Kazoo Books reception and our annual reunion on the last weekend of June.”

Q: What is the annual reunion?
A: “The idea is it’s an annual neighborhood reunion picnic,” Lord says. “Anyone in the neighborhood is welcome and we have people who used to live in Oakwood and they come back to see their friends. We have people come from all over the country to see their friends and sometimes to go look at the house they grew up in.”

It’s at 1 p.m. on the last Sunday of June. It will be June 28 this year.

“The day before that, Kazoo Books does a reception for us,” Lord says.

Speaking of book store owner Gloria Tiller, she says, “She has authors come or we do something on the history of Oakwood, different kinds of things. She provides the food and the space and she’ll set something up.”

From 4 to 6 p.m. on that day (June 27), she says, “We’ve had everybody from Keith Howard (of the Kalamazoo Public Library) come and talk about Oakwood Park, and we’ve had Pat Henry (local historian), who wrote our book on Oakwood. She does presentations usually every year – a little something on the history.”

Q: Is there anything else she’s looking forward to in 2020?
A: “We’re excited about our neighborhood plan, that we did with the city,” Lord says. “And we are hoping that we can get the sidewalks and roads improved. We’re hoping that we can get a bus route through the neighborhood with Metro Transit in time because it’s something that the residents in our neighborhood want.”

She said many people use public transportation but have to walk a long way to bus stops on Parkview Avenue and Oakland Drive. Metro Transit eliminated bus stops inside the neighborhood, forcing residents of Oakwood’s estimated 900 households to walk to the periphery.

“A lot of people, because of their health or disabilities, can’t do that very well,” Lord says. But she says, “We’re optimistic that we can continue with the city’s help to make improvements in the neighborhood. Our whole mission is to improve the quality of life of Oakwood residents.”

Q: Why is she so excited about the neighborhood’s five-year plan?
A: “I don’t know that it’s the plan that excites me so much. I’m excited because we’re finally getting things done that I’ve been wanting to do since I started, just like the Springmont (Avenue) Tot Lot -- getting the playground equipment improved. And I’m hoping to get that completed this year -- just like I’m hoping to get the neighborhood center updated. It’s exciting for me to see that we’ve been able to keep our afterschool program and we’ve been able to keep our Youth Summer Art Program. And these programs continue to get better, reaching more kids. And I like this, the sense that things are progressing, continuing very slowly to get better.”

Last week marked Lord’s 18th year as executive director of the neighborhood association. It is a part-time position.  
Some other things to watch for:
• Youth Summer Arts Program – The program provides a creative outlet for children for six weeks of the summer, two hours per day. 

• May 3 the neighborhood will have volunteers maintain a water station on Parkview Avenue to help half-marathon runners during the annual Kalamazoo Marathon. Because of a change in routes, the water station was relocated this year.

• Cheryl Lord is meeting with Katie Reilly, of the city of Kalamazoo, to see about erecting street signs to help people find the Oakwood Neighborhood Community & Youth Center. A sign at Oakland Drive and Logan Avenue was removed but never replaced more than five years ago when that intersection was improved. The center has a 3320 Laird Ave. address but faces Logan Avenue.
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Read more articles by Al Jones.

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.