Editor’s note: This is the second story in Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s “On the Ground Oakwood” series.
Two well-fed deer round the back of a house on Madison Avenue and saunter into a grassy area near the quiet, southwest corner of Kalamazoo's Oakwood Neighborhood.
They stop -- unthreatened by people, cars or 5 p.m. city noise -- and stand in a putting green of space that looks out onto a secluded section of Portage Creek.
It’s a postcard-worthy image, even on an overcast January afternoon in Michigan. And it’s part of what makes Oakwood a place that its residents recommend to others.
Oakwood Neighborhood can feel like the city or the country — depending on where you’re standing. Three miles southwest of downtown Kalamazoo, it has become home to a diverse socio-economic mix of people by offering an affordable piece of the American Dream to families who haven’t been able to find it in other parts of Kalamazoo.
About 10 blocks away, near the northern fringe of the neighborhood, a hulky delivery truck finds a parallel parking space to deliver a large appliance to a house on Laird Avenue. It’s two blocks south of busy Parkview Avenue, and around the corner from Kalamazoo Public Safety Fire Station No. 7. The area abounds with tall, mature trees. But spacing between houses is narrower than in other parts of the neighborhood. And on adjacent blocks, children play in the street when the weather is good. The area bustles. It seems a long way from a place where deer run free.
“Almost every street is a dead-end,” Cheryl Lord says with good humor. But the executive director of the Oakwood Neighborhood Association says the close-ended streets give parts of the neighborhood the feel of secluded country living. Many of the Oakwood’s streets come to an end at points where they meet trees and natural areas that are parts of the Hill N’ Brook and Parkview Hills neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods border Oakwood on its south and west, respectively.
Lord describes Parkview Avenue and Oakland Drive as the only “through” streets in the Oakwood Neighborhood although they are actually
its north and east borders. They frame an area where people began building small houses on large lots in the early 1900s. Radiating south from Woods Lake, plots of land in Oakwood benef from interesting land breaks, slopes and towering trees.
“It’s a good, solid neighborhood,” says Jim Hess, a Realtor with Chuck Jaqua Realtors. “Home values have held up. And it’s a great location because it’s centrally located for lot of things.”
Asked about “affordability,” Hess says, “If you’re employed and have decent credit, you can buy a house in Kalamazoo.” Oakwood is considered “affordable,” he says, because a family can buy a nice three-bedroom ranch-style or Cape Cod-style house there between $90,000 and $150,000. An individual can buy a small two-bedroom house in the same price range.
That has helped the small neighborhood thrive. Two-thirds of its residents live below federal poverty guidelines, according to Lord. And she says the area has become home to lots of extended families, who typically combine resources to make ends meet.
“If you say, ‘I want to spend $90,000, $100,000 or $110,000,’ you could get a decent home,” Hess says. “It’s a solid neighborhood that has good resale value.” At the same time, Oakwood has lots of smaller, 600- to 700-square-foot houses. That’s something no other local neighborhood has, Hess says.
Alfonso and Ashley Espinosa with their two children, Gia, 5, and Rosa, 17 months.
“This reminds me a lot of the area where I grew up; when I lived in the Dominican Republic,” Alfonso Espinosa says of his home on Benton Avenue. “It used to be very quiet. You could play in the streets. You could ride your bicycle. You could walk in the street without having to worry much. And this kind of resembles that for me personally. We thought it was just a prime place.”
Espinosa, 33, and his wife Ashley, 36, didn’t do a lot of research before they settled in the neighborhood six years ago. But he says, “I kind of was familiar with the area a little bit.”
He became acquainted with Oakwood after he arrived in Kalamazoo in 2005. He relocated from the Dominican Republic’s capital city, Santo Domingo, to swim at Kalamazoo College and study business.
Espinosa says a friend lived nearby in the Winchell Neighborhood. “But when we found out we were going to have our first daughter, we were like, ‘OK, this is becoming a priority for us to find a place to live together,’” he says.
Alfonso is a co-owner and the master grower for The Hemp Co., a hemp production business in Paw Paw. Ashley is a registered nurse for a Kalamazoo medical center. They have two daughters. Gia is 5 and Rosa is 17 months.
Four or five houses were for sale when the Espinosas wanted to buy. “We went to all of them,” Alfonso says. “When we came to this one here, we really liked it.”
They bought the house, which has three bedrooms and one bathroom in about 1,000 square feet of living space, for less than $100,000.
“For the size, it was perfect. And it’s conveniently located,” Alfonso says. Speaking of Oakwood, he says, “(It has) two main roads and is still quiet. Access to highways is really simple and it is safe. We were concerned with how we were going to raise our daughters.”
Chad and Alicia Hutson looked all over Kalamazoo before finding their house a few years ago in Oakwood. “We were looking to buy a house and her friends actually owned this house,” Chad says of his wife Alicia and their house in the 3300 block of Laird Avenue.
They bought the dwelling after her friends made upgrades and wanted to sell.
“He’s a handyman,” Hutson says. “So he kind of went through the whole house and re-did it. It’s from the '30s, I believe.”
He says the four-bedroom, 2.5-bathroom house was at a good price (less than $150,000) and was in a good area, “right between the Westnedge and Portage area and downtown (Kalamazoo),” Chad says. “It’s really kind of low-key around here. This end of the area has got a real low crime rate.”
The couple considered the Winchell Neighborhood. But they were still paying off student loans, he says, and Oakwood was much more affordable.
Chad, 34, is a business consultant who primarily works from home. Alicia, 36, is a dental hygienist. They have two young sons, ages 3 and 1.
While the value of some houses in neighborhoods like Milwood and Westwood have the potential to push higher, Hess says, “I think Oakwood gives folks a solid choice. You can still get a decent home between $80,000, $90,000 and a $110,000. And not a little crackerbox (house).”
Residents say one of the things they like about the Oakwood Neighborhood is being within walking distance of Kazoo Books.
According to data provided by Jaqua Realtors, 129 homes were sold in Oakwood during the past three years. That’s a strong number for one of Kalamazoo’s smallest neighborhoods. It has about 755 households in total, according to its 2019 neighborhood development plan. But Lord says her association has a mailing list of more than 900.
The average selling price of a home in Oakwood during the past three years was $93,137, according to Jaqua. The high selling price was $170,000 for a four-bedroom, two-bathroom house with a little more than 1,200 square feet of living space. It was built about 45 years ago and was sold late in 2018.
Aside from houses that were sold in distress (such as home foreclosures and estate sales of houses in poor condition), the least-expensive homes sold during the time period were two houses that sold for $52,000 and $53,000. Each was a two-bedroom, one-bathroom dwelling. One was about 1,400 square feet. The other was about 850 square feet. Two-bedroom houses accounted for more than 50 percent of all the homes sold during the past three years.
The most recent home sale was one that closed this month and involved a 1,400-square-foot house with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, built in 1932. It was originally listed for $149,000 but sold for $155,000.
Oakwood residents say location also makes the neighborhood very attractive.
It is within 15 minutes of downtown Kalamazoo, the South Westnedge Avenue retail corridor, and many other services, businesses, and entertainment venues.
They say they’re also within walking distance of some simple things that families like: Beach time at Woods Lake (off the northwest corner of Oakland Drive and Parkview Avenue); sledding at Woods Lake Elementary school; hiking at the Kleinstuck Preserve and the Asylum Lake Preserve; coffee at the Water Street Coffee Joint; and shopping at D&W Fresh Market, Kazoo Books, and the Oakwood Plaza.
Ashley Espinosa says she likes Oakwood because it’s safe and affordable. “I like the sizes of the houses and young families that live here (and) the kids play in the street,” she says. “I wanted somewhere safe and conveniently located.”
With that in mind, she says, “I would encourage anyone to live here.
Photos by Susan Andress. See more of her work here.