Longtime residents who choose the Northside create the backbone of the community

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

For many longtime Northside residents, a rich heritage of churches, institutions, and history defines the neighborhood they know and love.

"The backbone of the Northside is the people who have been working all their lives, bought a home, volunteered in the social services agencies, sent their kids to college and remained in the neighborhood," says Mattie Jordan-Woods, Executive Director of the Northside Association for Community Development (NACD). 

Issues with poverty, drugs, and crime often presented in the news undoubtedly exist. But they don’t define the 1.7 square mile Northside neighborhood, bordered by Douglas Avenue to the west, the Kalamazoo River to the east, Dunkley and jutting out around Versluis and Dickinson Ballpark Fields to the north, and just past Willard to the south.

Most importantly, the neighborhood is comprised of a stable community of families who have "fought the fight and stayed," says Jordan-Woods. "We have people who have chosen to stay. They have money to leave, but they didn’t."

Northside families and institutions

Well-known generational family names, such as the Walkers, Stuarts, Jacksons, Plairs, Locketts, and Parkers, among many others, both living and not, have deep roots in the Northside and are known throughout the neighborhood of over 6,287 residents as stalwarts and champions of their community.

Many of these families have members who are in the history books for fighting local racial injustices, whether it was so black girls could join the Kalamazoo Central High School cheerleading squad in 1967, picketing Van Avery Drug Store in 1963 because they would not hire blacks, or fighting segregation in the schools during the late '60s.

Others have contributed time, energy and money to bring support and resources to the Northside, such as longtime resident Moses Walker, who as a board member and proponent of a new Northside health facility, was honored by having the Paterson Street health center named after him when it opened in 2017. 

The Northside also boasts neighborhood institutions, such as the many churches, two of which vie for being the oldest in the city (AME Allen Chapel and Second Baptist) and who both claim documentation to prove it, the Northside Ministerial Alliance, NACD, the Kalamazoo Deacons Conference, and the Douglass Community Association, to name a few, that have legacies of  outreach and working for social justice.

Unlike many Kalamazoo neighborhoods, the Northside still remains a mostly front porch community, though that may be fading, according to some. On a typical warm day, the sidewalks, streets, parks and porches are teeming with people enjoying the weather and camaraderie. La Crone Park, with its tennis courts, play structures, open field and basketball courts, is a bustling and well-used recreational area, festival site, and Northside Falcon Rocket Football practice zone. 

"In all honesty, I don’t think the Northside has any more problems than the others," says Wendy Fields, 59, whose family has lived on Edwards for 64 years. "I worked for the county government for 39 years doing home visits. I don’t care where I go, my windows are up and doors locked.  For me, it’s overall common sense and safety. I’ve never been assaulted, never been attacked, never been robbed. I’ve gone in so-called bad areas of the neighborhood, and I’ve never felt threatened."

"Some of the negative images of the Northside have to do with the reporting and media," says Fields. "I have been in certain nice areas where there is domestic violence, but it doesn’t get reported. But if it happens on the Northside, it does."

Changing faces of the Northside

Once home to sprawling Dutch-owned celery fields, the Northside, with the proximity of the railroad, transitioned to become the home to factories, such as Checker Motors, Gibson Guitar Co., and the Kalamazoo Stove Co., among others. Factories required workers and housing to accommodate them. Churches, schools, and groceries opened by the late 1800s and early 1900s. Over time, the Northside has undergone many changes.

Wendy Fields’ mother, Mattie Fields, 86, raised eight children in her 130-year-old Edwards Street home and has witnessed many of these changes. Four blocks of houses on her street, once filled with dozens of kids of all races and ethnicities, shrank to just two homes, hers and a neighbor’s, due to the construction across the street of the Gibson Guitar Factory, where her husband worked for years, and then later, the expansion of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church next door. 

"We lost neighbors," she says. "But I didn’t want to move. I liked it here and I still like it here."

Mattie Fields, 86, raised eight children in her 130-year-old Edwards Street home. Photo by Theresa Coty O'Neil
Fields says she couldn’t see herself living anywhere other than the Northside, even if she had to move out of her house. Many of her children, 12 grandchildren, and 13 great-grandchildren still live in the neighborhood and come in and out all day. "That makes it really nice," she says.

The close connection of the neighborhood is clear at meetings or events. Neighbors meeting neighbors ask first what street they live on, and next, who they know. 

"I was born here and raised here. It’s like any other neighborhood," says Moses Walker, 77, who was born in a house on Krom Street and has lived on the Northside his entire life.  "All of our life experiences in growing up and doing things were related to our neighborhood, our schools, and the Douglass Community Association. That’s what we did and that’s what we knew and we had a very pleasant and happy childhood."

Walking the walk

The Northside is one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, ranking 18 out of 21 neighborhoods with an average household income of $29,000, according to 2016 census figures.  

However, for most identifiable issues, whether drug addiction, employment training, support for young families, or youth development, there are neighbors and supportive nonprofit partners, many founded by caring residents who walk the walk, to step up and look for solutions. 

These include Gwen Lanier, Executive Director of Mothers of Hope, an organization that seeks to empower women and families to help create stronger communities, and Charles Parker, founder of Charlie’s Place, an organization that provides diverse social services and youth leadership training and recreation to help transform the community.
"If you want to live in a good neighborhood, you have to work to make your neighborhood better," says Marjorie Lipsey, 79, who lives on Rose and who raised her six children on the Northside. "Moving out is not a good answer. The answer is to stay there and fix it. And it’s a whole lot cheaper."

Lipsey moved to the Northside in 1979 because she "wanted a neighborhood where all my kids would be welcome because I got more than one color kid." Lipsey, who also liked the proximity to Western Michigan University where she was a student, appreciated the affordability.

Marjorie Lipsey raised her six children on the Northside. Photo by Theresa Coty O'Neil
"Poor people need a place to stay, too," she says. "Just because I have a rich sister, doesn’t make me rich. She had one child and bought property. I had six children and bought groceries. But I’ve raised all six of them with a wonderful work ethic, and that’s worth a whole lot to me."

Now that she’s retired as a seamstress from Haworth, Lipsey’s small Rose Street house is paid off, which means she only pays for taxes, insurance, upkeep, and maintenance, some of which she receives help for from various nonprofits through the support of NACD.

A model of resourcefulness, Lipsey was wearing a house dress made of a striped, flat bed sheet. Lipsey also made most of her children’s clothes when they were young, including jeans and a few winter coats, as well as the white robe that her AME pastor wears to serve communion.

"I like living over here. This part of the Northside is very peaceful," says Lipsey. "I would like to see a little better things for young people to do to keep them out of trouble. There are some things over here, but there’s not nearly enough. The future’s so much better if you stay out of trouble." 

Imagine Northside 2025

People like Jordan-Woods are pedaling furiously to keep young people out of trouble and employed, searching for ways to provide Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) enrichment, job training, and work opportunities, particularly for youth. The NACD, in fact, has become a hub of planning and supporting Northside entrepreneurial activity.

In the NACD backyard sits a literacy pocket park that includes statuary and plaques featuring black inventors and entrepreneurs to remind Northside youth and others what is possible and achievable.

The Northside Imagine 2025 Neighborhood Plan, one of the first of the city’s 21 neighborhood plans submitted, features a Northside Cultural Business District with goals to increase the number of resident-owned business, especially those by African American and low-income residents, preserve existing housing and create new housing, increase access to arts and culture, and strengthen workforce development and youth programming. The City Planning Commission will vote to include the neighborhood plan in the city’s master plan in August.

For so many years, says Jordan-Woods, she and the NACD staff, volunteers and board kept busy looking for nonprofit support, funding,  and programs to help solve neighborhood problems, particularly related to affordable and suitable housing. Jordan-Woods says now she's realized they didn’t take the time and energy to celebrate what riches the Northside does have -- the "work ethic of its residents." 

Those residents include not just the higher wage earners, but the working poor and those who are under-employed or working several jobs in order to support themselves and often a family.

A buried elephant

According to a historical overview online by the Kalamazoo Public Library, in 1862, an elephant was likely buried on the Northside east of Frank Street and between the railroad tracks. Before much of the land north of the city became celery fields, the P.T. Barnum Circus yearly set up in a vacant lot east of Frank. Later the circus tents were pitched in an open area near North and Douglas.

In many cultures, elephants are symbols of stamina, longevity, and a cooperative spirit. Aptly, those qualities are well-represented on the Northside, through its institutions, people, and spirit.

The Northside neighborhood has benefited from the hard and dedicated work of people like Walker, Willie and Lee Stuart, Duane Roberts, Cindy Alford, Alex Plair and so many others. The next generation, people like Parker, Lanier, Jordan-Woods, Stephanie Moore, Sadie Miles, Pam Roland, Gwendolyn Hooker and more, have stepped up to fill big shoes. It’s this legacy of community-building and service that the older residents would like to see passed down and carried on by the younger generation.

"I love it here," says Wendy Fields. "I love my people. l love being a black woman. I love the culture. And this is where I belong."

Her mother agrees. "This is my home. This is my roots right here."

Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s “On the Ground Northside” 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

For more Northside coverage, please follow these links.

On the Ground moves to Northside neighborhood for 120 days
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.
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Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is the Managing Editor of Southwest Michigan Second Wave. As a longtime freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher, she has a passion for sharing the positive stories in Southwest Michigan and for mentoring young writers. She also serves as the Project Editor of the Faith in Action series and Project Lead for Battle Creek Voices of Youth.