Oakwood Neighborhood

Oakwood: A Kalamazoo neighborhood hidden in plain sight

Editor’s note: This is the first story in Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s “On the Ground Oakwood” series.
They say people – particularly young folks who want to start a family – are looking for good neighborhoods with affordable housing.

They want a neighborhood that’s quiet, safe and friendly, community leaders say.

If you add “centrally-located,” “with large yards” and “with neighbors who help one another,” you have Kalamazoo’s Oakwood Neighborhood, its residents say.

Bordered on the north by Parkview Avenue and on the east, for all but a few blocks, by Oakland Drive, Oakwood is one of Kalamazoo’s most centrally located communities.

It is relatively small, with about 755 households (about 1,500 occupants) that are bypassed daily by hundreds of cars and trucks bustling along Parkview Avenue and Oakland Drive. Most of those motorists are headed to and from Portage or to the Winchell, Parkview Hills, Westnedge Hill, and South Westnedge Avenue neighborhoods – all of which conjure images of nice houses, tree-lined streets, and a generally more affluent lifestyle. Although it offers a relaxed setting with a lot of natural beauty, Oakwood is a more difficult landscape to conjure.

A good reputation 

The area doesn’t have a big reputation and Oakwood residents seem to like it that way.

“It’s like being in the country but you’re still in the city,” is the best description Cheryl Lord has heard for the neighborhood.

The executive director of the Oakwood Neighborhood Association says, “The roads are narrower than in the rest of town. There are lots of trees. There are bigger yards. You just feel like you have more space. And it’s quieter. You don’t feel like you’re living in the city.”

It is also a very diverse community where neighbors take pride in helping each other, whether it’s taking down Christmas decorations (as visitors to the Oakwood Neighborhood Association Community & Youth Center did last week) or pitching in to help spread gravel on a driveway (as they did for Lord and her husband when the couple was new to the area in 1978). 

Seventy-five percent of its residents are white, 9 percent are Asian, 8 percent at Hispanic and 7 percent are black, according to information provided in the 2019 Oakwood Neighborhood Plan. With an annual median income of less than $42,000, two-thirds are considered to be living below federal poverty guidelines. But property foreclosures are rare, blight is all but non-existent, and Oakwood rarely makes the evening news for crime.

A good starting place

Longtime resident Albert Rizzo, says, “I call it a starter-home kind of community. People move here to start a family, start a home.”

Katie Reilly says Oakwood has natural assets, referring to its mature trees and the nearby Woods Lake.  Reilly, who is the neighborhood activator for the city of Kalamazoo Planning & Economic Development, says it is also close to commercial assets such as the nearby Oakwood Plaza “and on Parkview Avenue, there’s a couple of small businesses like Kazoo Book store, a really cool book store.”

Katie Reilly, neighborhood activator for the city of Kalamazoo Planning & Economic DevelopmentShe says she is personally a fan of houses in the neighborhood – some in the $100,000 price range. They are well-suited for first-time homebuyers, ranging from 700- or 800-square-foot abodes, many of which were built just after World War II, to those maybe twice that size, built in the years since then.

“My mom actually recommended this neighborhood,” says Andy Ringle, 32, who relocated to Oakwood from Mattawan, a little more than two years ago. “She’s in run groups and runs around this neighborhood all the time. She says it’s a really good neighborhood for kids. It’s safe.”

His wife, Micaela, 27, agrees, saying, “Everyone here is really friendly. It’s a good location.”

The couple says they wanted affordable housing that’s not far from work, shopping, and other amenities. They’ve found that, along with a good-sized lot, in Oakwood.

“We have a big yard (and) a second lot,” Micaela says. “And it’s realistic and it’s family-oriented.”

Micaela is a hospital worker. Andy is a sound production worker. They are raising two young children in a 726-square-foot house.

Finding friends and feeding the hungry

Nearly all of the ladies who make up the Wednesday afternoon card clutch at the Oakwood Neighborhood Association building became residents of the neighborhood in order to raise families. Of seven who visited on a recent Wednesday to play Canasta and have snacks, all say they liked the family-oriented focus of people in the neighborhood when they found it many years ago, and they like that about it now. The women have lived in Oakwood from 47 to 74 years.

“People are friendly,” says Martha Austin, who claims the longest tenure in the neighbor (among the card clutch). She and others say only two of them were acquainted before they started meeting several years ago to play cards in the community room of the neighborhood association building.

With support from D&W grocery store, neighbors keep a food pantry stocked at the Oakwood Community Center.

Challenges on the horizon
Like all communities, Oakwood has its struggles.

A food pantry at the neighborhood association’s office is busy, offering foods from many sources to those in need. Area residents proudly stream into the office to turn in grocery receipts from the D&W Fresh Market at Oakland and Parkview. The grocery has a program that makes contributions to the association by tracking receipts from neighborhood residents.

Another challenge is that the neighborhood association wants to offer more activities for its young people and its elderly population. Reilly says about 8 percent of the neighborhood’s population is 65 and older.

“The association does provide different opportunities for them,” she says. But it wants to offer more services. Ideas being considered for youths include leadership skills programs and family-oriented activities such as outdoor movies at the neighborhood center.

And Oakwood is looking for help from the City of Kalamazoo to create a network of sidewalks to better serve the area. Less than 65 percent of the neighborhood has sidewalks and many of those that exist are cracked and need to be repaired to make travel easier for elderly and infirm area residents as well as the many who walk or use bicycles to connect with public transportation.

Looking for more greenspace

Although the neighborhood was started in the early 1900s with small houses that had big lots, nearly all of those lots are now taken and the neighborhood has very little public greenspace, Lord says.

She says the association hopes to realize a community planning goal by having public greenspace within a quarter-mile of any of its residents. It is working to find such space to create more areas like the Springmont Tot Lot, at 2416 Springmont Ave. It is dedicated to astronaut James McDivitt, who once lived on Hoover Street in Oakwood and was known as a cross-country athlete years before he was part of NASA’s Gemini 4 and Apollo 9 space missions. The park as a rocket-shaped play apparatus for kids.

Ironically, the need for people to have more recreational space was among the catalysts for the founding of the neighborhood. Factory workers, laborers, professional people and others who worked in gritty and smokey downtown Kalamazoo in the late 1800s and early 1900s were attracted to the Woods Lake area to relax at an amusement park that drew thousands of visitors each day.

They were enticed by one of the many enterprising trolley companies that grew their profits on weekends and non-working hours by building amusement parks on the outskirts of burgeoning towns. They expanded their trolley lines and charged 5-cent fares for people to ride there. In the case of Oakwood, a trolley line that took workers up to what ultimately became the Kalamazoo Regional Psychiatric Hospital was extended another mile to take riders to Woods Lake.

Always a relaxing area

Lake View Amusement Park opened in 1893 and after several ownership changes was known as Oakwood Amusement Park before closing in 1925, according to Keith Howard, digital preservation specialist with the Kalamazoo Public Library. He became fascinated with the history of the amusement park while living in the Oakwood Neighborhood for about 10 years (1985-1995). He hopes to wrap up years of research by publishing a book this year titled “Oakwood Park: Kalamazoo’s Coney Island.”

“It was intended to be a Coney Island-like place,” Howard says. For workers who toiled each day in manufacturing companies in central Kalamazoo, he says, “It was THE place.”

This is a look at part of the thriving amusement park that was operated on the east and then south side of Woods Lake. Known as the Lake View Amusement Park and the Oakwood Amusement Park, the venue underwent management and name changes.

On the eastern bank of Woods Lake, and later the southwestern bank, the amusement park featured dance halls, a merry-go-round, picnic grounds, a roller-coaster, a roller rink, a Ferris wheel, boating, and dare-devil hot-air balloon stunts. From 1898 through 1903, it was called the Lake View Casino Park, the “casino” being a reference to its outdoor Vaudeville theatre rather than gambling, Howard says. And during its heyday, from 1911 to 1914, it attracted as many as 15,000 visitors a day. Howard says amusement park managers and workers were among those who built homes south of the lake in what is now Oakwood.

Oakwood Amusement Park is part of the lesser-known history of the community. The Oakwood Neighborhood Association wants more of its residents to know about -- and utilize -- a private beach that it owns on the southeast side of Woods Lake. Called Oakwood Memorial Beach, it is adjacent to the more familiar public beach on the east side of Woods Lake. But it is tough to reach because its access road is not serviceable and users have to get there from the public beach or by walking down a steep hill that is across from the D&W Fresh Market on Parkview Avenue.There is also a steep and rocky descent to the beach. Lord says the neighborhood association hopes to find ways to make changes that make it more accessible. It is open to any resident of the Oakwood Neighborhood and is dedicated to residents who fought and died in World Wars I and II.

A laid-back place to be

What many people may consider the most recognizable feature of Oakwood is not actually part of the neighborhood. Oakwood Plaza, which sits on the east side of Oakland Drive, just north of Whites Road (it is home to Sawall Health Foods, Treat Street, the Water Street Coffee Joint and other businesses), sits in the Oakland/Winchell Neighborhood. Lord and the Oakwood Neighborhood Association have, however, routinely helped coordinate meetings and other events for the businesses in the plaza.

The Tulips shop is one of the businesses in the cluster of small businesses along Parkview Avenue that is part of the Oakwood Neighborhood.

A cluster of small businesses along Parkview Avenue, directly across the street from Woods Lake Elementary School, are within the neighborhood’s official boundaries. They include Tulips Little Pop Up Shop, Comerica Bank, Sheldon Cleaners and Chemical Bank.

“It’s the best place you could possibly be because we’re close to everything,” resident Al Rizzo says of Oakwood. “We’re two minutes from I-94, two minutes from U.S. 131, 10 minutes from downtown. The malls are right around the corners from us, it seems. And we’re surrounded by Parkview and by Winchell and by Bronson Boulevard.”

Longtime Oakwood resident Albert Rizzo says Oakwood is the best place to live in Kalamazoo from a location standpoint.Now 67, Rizzo relocated from New York City to Oakwood with his family at age 21. His father worked for The Upjohn Co. Since then, he has lived in Los Angeles and San Francisco to work in the film, music and energy industries. But he returned here in 1995 and bought his own home in Oakwood. 

Why? He says he likes the feel.

“I call it a starter-home kind of community,” he says. But he also says, “We’ve got older people living here. We’ve got some people who are artists and some people doing regular 9-to-5 things. And young families who are trying to get started. It’s a real neighborhood. There doesn’t seem to be any tension in the neighborhood. It’s a very laid-back place to be.”

Photo of card players above:
Members of a Wednesday afternoon card clutch have lived in the Oakwood area from 47 to 74 years. Only two of the women were acquainted before they started meeting several years ago to play cards in the community room of the Oakwood Neighborhood Association building. Cheryl Lord, executive director of the association, stands and watches the women play canasta on Jan. 8, 2020. At the head of the table nearest to Lord is Cyndy Verhage. Going clockwise from her are Sharry Cook, Donna Walker, Fran Hosier, Martha Austin, Georgetta Tober and Janet Loucks. Photo by Al Jones
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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.