Northside pride abides, takes fire in stride, rallies behind fire survivors

North Street residents were awakened Tuesday, June 2, by fire in an abandoned house two blocks from Douglas. Firefighter Scott Brooks says it was the hottest fire the department had ever seen. It was so hot that it spread to houses on both sides, which were, each, probably 30 feet away. It's important to note that there were no protests in the area. The fire was not due to any riot activity. And the city is still investigating the cause of the blaze.

The blaze didn't cause a lasting malaise, however. By Friday evening, there was a community rally and celebration at the site of the burned property. Refreshments and drinks were provided by the Mothers of Hope.

Mayor David Anderson, who lives in the area, was in attendance, as was County Commissioner Stephanie Moore. Twala Lockett-Jones ("Twala the Realtor"), the owner of one of the destroyed homes was also there. DJ Chuck provided music from across the street. Dancing ensued.

Nancy Harwood escaped from this house with nothing but the pajamas she was wearing. The burned remains of the houses were quickly demolished.

Then, on Saturday night, a group gathered at Cookie's Five Star Grill, near the corner of North and Douglas. Attendees held signs, such as "Black Lives Matter," "Say Their Names!" "No Justice, No Peace," and "Respect Existence or Expect Resistance." The Black and White attendees were not there in anger, but rather as a show of community strength and desire for change. They chanted, "Black Lives Matter," and "Black Businesses Matter!"

Fundraisers have already begun, to help those whose homes burned. The house that appears to have been intentionally torched belonged to a person from California, who purchased it last August at the Kalamazoo County tax auction. There were two houses on that property, one in front, and one in back. It was the focus of the fire.

The large house on the corner of North Street and Woodward belonged to Twala Lockett-Jones. A GoFundMe site has been set up to raise $25,000. 

As of deadline Sunday night, $22,411 has already been raised, from 449 donors.

The request indicates that the property was the dream home and business of Twala Lockett-Jones. She is described there as: "a wonderful member of our Kalamazoo community and entrepreneur who has been passionate about providing quality housing in our city for the past 30 years. Her vision was to create four units of affordable housing, a small neighborhood tea house, and a community outreach program called 'Girls Build Kalamazoo' that would be dedicated toward teaching construction trades and sewing skills to middle and high school girls.

"Twala was born and raised on The Northside of Kalamazoo and had always dreamed of owning this property. Just a week before she learned it was for sale, she and her friend walked by it and discussed how much they loved the once-grand home. Where others may have seen a dilapidated house beyond repair, Twala saw so much opportunity to better her community through this beautiful dream home. Twala and her husband Kenny used their own money to purchase the home and were unable to insure it because of its condition and vacant status."

The appeal goes on to indicate that Twala says, "I feel this recent setback is just a setup for a great comeback. I remain encouraged that my vision will come to pass in due time." 

All funds received through the fundraising campaign will be used towards building a new mixed-use building on the now-vacant lot. In addition to a small business and outreach program, this new building will provide at least four units of safe, affordable housing to residents of Kalamazoo's Northside neighborhood, which is one of the most underserved communities in the city, the financial appeal says.

In addition to this funding, the city has committed to help Lockett-Jones rebuild.

The house on the other side of the main fire, at the corner of North Street and Staples, belonged to Robert Washington. He also purchased it at the August tax auction. Washington says he has been approached by a number of media to give an interview, but declined. This report is an exclusive to On The Ground/Second Wave Media.

Washington says that all four of these homes were originally owned by the family of Nancy Harwood, the 84-year-old who was in Washington's house the night of the fire. In fact, Washington says that when he went to his house to change the locks, after the tax auction, he met Harwood for the first time. She asked what he wanted, and he said he was the new owner. She said, no, it was her house, she's had it for over 40 years.

"Nancy didn't know about the auction," Washington says. "She was upset and called her daughter to find out what was going on. It was only then that she found out that the house no longer belonged to her family."

The County has the legal right to foreclose and take someone's home if the owner owes property tax that is more than three years in arrears. It doesn't matter how much is owed, or how much the property is worth. In one case last year, on the east side of the State, a man made a simple arithmetic error, paid all of his taxes-except for $8, and he lost his entire investment. The legislature is considering enacting laws to force counties to collect only what is owed and to return the rest of the purchase price to the owners. There are also court cases heading for the Michigan Supreme Court, on the subject.

When asked about this, County Treasurer Mary Balkema says, "We need that additional money collected above what is owed, to pay for razing condemned properties. And, of course, people abandon properties in hopeless condition, so there have been instances of the sale price being a lot less than the taxes owed." It's obvious that some properties will not sell at auction, or would sell for nearly nothing, so the County packages such properties together, and sells them in a group.

"I was asleep until I got a call from my girlfriend, in Nashville," says Washington, who lives on the Eastside. "'Do you know your house is on fire?' she asked. Then Nancy (Harwood) called. She was sitting on the curb, in her pajamas, across the street, so I went over there to join her."

Washington says, "at the auction, they told me there were tenants, and said to approach with caution. But I didn't know the 'tenant' thought she was still the owner. I told her I would let her stay in the house, as a renter, as I work to renovate it." True to his word, Harwood has live in the lower level, as Washington began work on the upper story.

Washington says he talked to Officer Scott Brooks, who says the investigation of the fire is still underway. 

Pearlie Williams, who lives a few doors to the east, reports there were no protests in the area where the fires burned. Rumors quickly arose that the fire was set intentionally as a way to collect insurance money.

However, Mayor Anderson says an insurance scam is unlikely since it is so difficult to get insurance on an older house, that is also abandoned. When asked if he had any guess about the motive for the fire, he said, "why does anyone start a fire?" The implication is that it is usually a senseless act of destruction.

Washington did have his house, on the corner of Staples, insured. But companies will only insure up to the purchase price, not for the actual value. The reason for that is obvious: if someone buys a house at auction, they have no emotional tie to the building, and if they could insure for five times the purchase price, the motive for arson would be overwhelming.

"I'm about thirty or forty thousand behind now," Washington says, but he adds, "I am committed to my long-term goal and vision of upgrading housing on the Northside. I will be in contact with the zoning and historical district people to get guidelines, and I intend to build a home that will improve the value of all the nearby homes."

Washington was asked if he had considered a GoFundMe request. He says he's looking into a number of funding sources to make sure his new building will be done right. "I've spoken to Stephanie Moore, and she wants to get together with me to see if we can find funding for the new project."

Living in the house at the time, was Nancy Harwood. She lost everything and a "Go Fund Me" account has been set up for her:

The financial appeal says that Nancy Harwood made it out of the blaze with nothing but her pajamas. "Unfortunately, she had no insurance and is struggling to figure out what she is going to do." She has lived on the Northside for 40 years and really loves the community, it continues. "She walked a mile every day down the street and socialized with everybody in the neighborhood, no matter their skin color or economic background. It's terrible to see this happen to someone who should be enjoying her golden years, but instead is a victim of the craziness and hatred our world is experiencing right now."

All funds will go to buying Nancy's clothing, food, all basic necessities, furniture, "and anything else we can afford to get her back to the point where she can enjoy a normal life again," says her grandson Cody Harwood, who established the fund.

They asked for $35,000 for Ms. Harwood, and as of Sunday morning, the total raised was $37,753, from 950 donors.

Cody Harwood, who now lives in Crossville, Tenn., organized the fundraiser and gives us this update: "24 hours later and we’re in awe. We wanted to share how appreciative grandma Nancy is and she feels SOO loved from everyone. She feels like she doesn’t deserve this, but we know she does. We hope to have a video from her tomorrow personally thanking everyone. She found out about this amazing fund first thing this morning and still is shocked by the outpouring love and kindness from neighbors and strangers. Words aren’t enough, but it’s all we have right now."

Meanwhile, Cookie's Five Star Grill put up a sign and has begun to collect donations from customers at the Grill. Owner Christen ("Chrissy") McKinney has promised to donate restaurant money directly to Nancy Harwood, as well.

Friday evening's rally was organized by Gwen Lanier, leader of the Mothers of Hope, whose mission statement is, "Mothers of Hope empowers and strengthens women, families, and communities to rise above the effects of substance use disorders, poverty, violence, and systemic inequities." The center is at 603 Ada St., with the slogan, "Women United to Uphold Families." They recently provided free face masks to members of the community, have worked to get people to participate in the 2020 Census, and to register to vote.

Pamela Coffey, director of Healthy House, also helped out, saying, "I was just passing out cookies and helping to get people to sign their names and give their email addresses, to build the list for Mothers of Hope."

Friday's gathering was to show that Mothers of Hope believe in the community and to encourage the community to work together and care for one another.

Saturday's get-together occurred just as Cookie's was closing for the evening, so they did not disrupt customers. The group chanted "Black Lives Matter," and also, "Black Businesses Matter," encouraging residents to stay in their community and patronize Black-owned businesses, especially Black family-owned businesses. 

Nearly every person on the premises was a mother, sister, daughter, or son of the owners, Christen McKinney, and Tina McKinney. The event was organized by a gentleman named King Ryan.  

Tina's stepdaughter, Jabria Lamar said about Tuesday, "the fire was really shocking-I mean, emotional. That was a house people were living in-just sad." Regarding Saturday, she said, "that was really sweet. It brought my Grandma to tears." She was referring to Tina's mother, who also works at Cookie's-Pearlie Williams.

The Northside knows a thing about overcoming adversity -- there's a lot of spirit there. This was one weekend full of spirit.

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Read more articles by Gerry Hoffmann.

Gerry Hoffmann has lived on the same corner in Edison since 1969 and is past president of the Board of the Edison Neighborhood Association.