Vine Neighborhood

Neighborhood legacy: The Ferraro family has been growing in the Vine for over 60 years

In 1959, the Ferraro family had recently moved into the Vine neighborhood and just sat down to dinner when nextdoor neighbor Fred Appledoorn, previous co-owner of V & A Bootery, walked in without knocking. 

To everyone’s surprise, Fred strolled around the dinner table, pausing to touch each of the Ferraro children on the head. Before leaving, he said one thing to parents Lance and Charlotte: “Nice family.”

With that unusual blessing, the Ferraros, six children and two parents, were welcomed into the neighborhood. Vine then was a natural paradise for the active Ferraro children who roamed the streets, sandlots and woods, and as they grew older, the many local businesses, especially on South Westnedge and Vine. Over the years, the Ferraros, one of the oldest remaining families in the neighborhood, have witnessed the many changes, from childhood paradise to blight and drug houses, then back to a vibrant renewal and entry of new families.

Recently, On the Ground sat down with father Lance (Lancelotto Angelo, as he was christened), 98, a well-known local photographer and former city commissioner, son Marc, former Vine Neighborhood Association board member, and daughter Sharon, Kalamazoo’s official City Historic Preservationist, all of whom still live in Vine, just blocks apart. Four other Ferraro children, Lance Jr. Laura, Kate, and Gina Chimner, have moved out of the neighborhood. The Ferraros shared memories of people, places and events in Lance’s living room, drawing on family and neighborhood lore.

Of Fred Appledoorn, the Ferraros remember a quiet, upright man with a big heart.

“He was a soldier in the Spanish American war,” says Lance. “Best guy in the neighborhood. He always visited people who were just moving in.”

“He kept an eye on the neighborhood,” agrees Marc, who now lives around the corner from the Oak Street home where he was raised and in which his father still lives. “He wasn’t social all the time. He’d come out on the porch when we were playing in the front yard. I remember this figure of a pleasant person.”

The Ferraros, who had moved to their Oak Street house from the Stuart neighborhood, weren’t strangers to Vine. Lance’s mother lived close by on Axtell. They were and are a creative clan, valuing art, community and authenticity. Charlotte, wife and mother, who passed away in 2015, was the first in her Battle Creek family to earn a college degree. She was an elementary art teacher in Battle Creek and Portage, but also a gifted seamstress and supporter of the performing arts. Four of the Ferraro children were heavily involved in Kalamazoo Community Youth Theater and Junior Civic.

Charlotte was also skilled with tools as she had grown up with a carpenter, tool and die maker father who had no sons and so taught his daughters his skills. Charlotte built her husband’s dark room. “She could make anything,” says Sharon.

Lance was one of the founders of the Barn Theater, “the man behind the camera, but not in the picture,” he says. From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, he was the official photographer of the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre. He developed photos in an old backstage dressing room. “I like the theater stuff.”

Members of the Ferraro family have lived in Vine since 1959. Here the Vine Ferraros sit on Lance's front porch.

He also served as the President of Professional Photographers of Michigan for a couple of terms, and was a longtime freelance photographer for the Detroit Free Press and Kalamazoo Gazette.

Taking care of the community runs in the family. Lance served – terms on the City Commission, and also was on the first Vine Neighborhood Association Board in 1980?. Son Marc followed in his footsteps.

The name Ferraro itself means blacksmith in Italian, fitting because the Ferraros are skilled makers of things, but maybe even more importantly skilled caretakers.

If you live in Vine and own an old home, you know Sharon and the passion with which she approaches preservation. Sharon considers the family “stewards” of the neighborhood. “We’ve got houses that date back as far as 1850. By and large, the housing stock is more sturdy than what you can buy today that’s new.”
New Vine residents choose the neighborhood for its quirks and its character.

“They’re not the first owner and they’re not going to be the last owner,” says Sharon, “but if they chose a historical district, they are going to pass their home on to someone who is like-minded.”

Random memories, some Vine, some not

Blanched Celery: A Kalamazoo delicacy

Many know that Kalamazoo was once known as Celery City, surrounded by wet flats, including what is now South Westnedge Park, the old Dairy Queen on South Westnedge that is now a drive-thru Taco Bob’s, and the site of Maple Street Magnet School. But some may not know that blanched celery was an area specialty.

“People used to stop at the train station on their way to Chicago or Detroit and buy blanched celery,” says Marc. “They put boxes around to grow it and it was creamy white, a delicacy.”

Vine orphanage for girls

On the east side of South Westnedge, the Ferraros recall, sat an orphanage for girls, where Ye Olde Laundromat now stands. The orphanage was demolished in 1971.

They had a huge, well-built swing set that Sharon envied when she was 7. “I didn’t understand what it meant to be an orphan,” says Sharon. “But I loved swings. I didn’t think it was fair.”

Paper routes

Marc and his sister, Kate, had paper routes for the Kalamazoo Gazette. With two other neighborhood friends, the four would join forces and deliver 625 papers to doorsteps a day. “It was almost a ‘Leave it to Beaver’ neighborhood,” Marc says. 

Central Bakery, now home to Satellite Records

A popular meeting place in the neighborhood was Central Bakery on South Westnedge. “In the back, there was a horseshoe counter,” remembers Marc. “In the morning, gentlemen would be in there smoking their cigarettes and drinking their coffee. Then high school students would flood the place. The men would come back at night for social club, which was open until 7.”

Sharon remembers coming in for lunch. “I remember feeling so grown up sitting there with a cup of coffee and a roll,” she says. “Back then, with the metabolism of a hummingbird, I would order a Pershing doughnut, cheese Danish, a cookie and a carton of chocolate milk. That was lunch.”

Laura, Sharon and Lance Jr. Ferraro pose near the family's popular Oak Street porch.

Mushroom steaks

Once when exploring in the “gully,” the wooded area behind Long and Short streets and the old Dalton house, (which they called the Gilmore Woods), the Ferraros and friends found a mushroom as big as a large pizza. They came home to fetch the wagon. When they returned with their prize, Lance called WKZO At Your Service, an old radio show you could phone in an ask other listeners for advice. After describing the mushroom, a woman called back and said is was safe to eat.

“We had mushroom steaks for a while,” he says.

Grim years: neighborhood watches and drug activity

In the late 1960s, Oak Street became “the hippy neighborhood,” Sharon says. Near where O’Duffy’s is now, was a head shop with its bongs, tie dyes and incense, and a waterbed store, a leather store, a used bookstore, and then Souk Sampler, a vintage clothing store.

As the '60s passed into the '70s and then the '80s, more and more drugs began to infiltrate Vine. Once a rich childhood paradise, that environment waned during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when a recession and the rise of the crack epidemic began to take its toll on urban neighborhoods. Sharon remembers McCourtie and Burr Oak as a hub of drug activity.

Lance helped organize a march against drugs.

“Society changed,” says Lance, who also helped start a Neighborhood Watch. Out of those watch meetings grew the idea for a neighborhood association, which Lance helped form and then became the first VNA director in the 1908s..

In the late 1970s, the city was debating the future of Vine, considering whether to let it fall into decay and then replace the housing stock, says Lance.

“Then people said, ‘We have to get together and preserve it. We don’t want it to fall apart,’” says Sharon. A historical house lover since she was young, Sharon had returned to Western Michigan University for a degree in history. Her father was then serving on the city commission and he was approached. “We are creating a new historic district and we want your daughter to run it.”

Heart of the Vine

Vine’s Central Corners, the main commercial area on Vine and South Westnedge that the VNA owns and rents out to local businesses, was recently renamed in a voting contest as Heart of the Vine. Not many may have known it as Central Corners and how many beyond the neighborhood will know its new name is yet hard to tell. But the choice by residents says a lot about their beloved center.

“That’s what it is,” says Marc. Heart of the Vine.

“I loved that we were close to downtown,” Lance says. “The kids could walk down to the library and the museum. It was a good neighborhood for kids.”

None of the most recent Ferarro generation has yet to move their own families into Vine, but it could still happen.
Marc’s twin 9-year-olds are growing up during a Vine resurgence—more families moving in, rehabilitation of Davis Park, new businesses, and El Sol, an elementary school. Their neighborhood is more akin to the Vine the Ferraros were raised in, though the circumference the twins can roam is smaller. Still, they’re growing up in a neighborhood with traditions—the annual VNA meeting at O’Duffy’s, Fourth of July Parade, National Night Out at Davis Street Park—and a safe space to play.

“What I’m seeing now when I drive around in the summer and evening is kids on bikes and roller skates and playing games in their yard,” says Marc. “I haven’t seen that since I was growing up in the '70s.”

Right now, Marc allows his twins to play on Axtell where they live and sometimes to go down the street to Davis or Pioneer Street Park. But he can envision a time when he will send them for an errand at Midtown Fresh Market like his parents sent him over to the old A & P on Michigan Avenue.

“I’m seeing a slow rise in owner occupancy,” says Sharon. “We’ve always had around 80 percent rental, but I think that number (of homeowners) is going to go up in the next census.”

Creating the Historical District in Vine has been positive, despite the expense of remodeling to conform to the requirements that some people complain about. “It’s preserved housing and it hasn’t gentrified the neighborhood,” says Sharon. “It’s made a difference in the character.”

As Lance, Mark and Sharon posed for a photo on the porch where Lance spends so much of his time that he was featured in a former Google maps satellite photograph, Lance reminisced about the many portraits he has taken over the years of people, some famous, some not, including John F. Kennedy on the steps of City Hall.

While On the Ground Photographer Taylor Scamehorn focused her camera, Lance was inspired to repeat what he used to say to loosen up his own subjects.

“Smile, dammit, smile,” he sang.

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.