Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Milwood series. If you have a story about the neighborhood to tell please let us know here.
John Hilliard does what the neighbor down the block used to do – years ago.
He checks on people, asks how they're doing, and keeps an eye on things.
As president of Kalamazoo's Milwood Neighborhood Watch Association, that’s what you’d expect from someone in his position. He hears about neighbors who never seem to cut their grass, about people who pile wrecked furniture and trash on their curb lawn well after the city’s bulk trash pickup days have passed, and people who use their driveways to store cars that should be junked. And he helps people address those concerns.
But his activities in his volunteer position go far beyond that. He also hears from people who simply want to know what’s going on, and who are interested in being a part of the community around them. He and the association help bring them together to try to accomplish that.
Milham Park is considered one of the green jewels of the City of Kalamazoo. It is located in the Milwood Neighborhood, where members of the Neighborhood Watch Association hope to recruit members to help with some needed maintenance work there.
“I think they play more of a dual role now,” says Chris Praedel, a Milwood resident and member of the Kalamazoo City Commission. “I think his (Hilliard’s) role in the Neighborhood Watch is monitoring safety trends and educating people about how to be safe. … He’s really doing a great job and his group is doing a great job of kind of being the (people’s) eyes and ears on the ground.”
He also says it makes sense for the organization’s role, after 26 years, to evolve a bit.
“I think he has morphed in recognition that, hey, we need to get this neighborhood together because it’s a big neighborhood. And educate people about community issues.”
No office … no matter
Among other things, the Neighborhood Watch Association coordinates the neighborhood’s annual mass garage sales. Its annual community-building event, National Night Out, has also been a success. It attracted about 450 people last fall. And its monthly meetings are THE community meetings for the area, “because of the quality of the meetings,” Praedel says. Before the COVID-19 shutdown, they regularly attracted 50 to 75 people per month to hear informative reports from city officials and community members.
John Hilliard, president of the Milwood Neighborhood Watch Association, patrols the huge neighborhood two to three time per week in his car. He looks for residential ordinance violations and checks on complaints made to him by area residents.
Before the pandemic caused the group to halt its monthly gatherings, the city’s director of Park and Recreation was expected to explain improvement projects planned for 2021 at Milham Park. A representative of the city’s Department of Planning & Economic Development was also to help neighborhood residents in the drafting of a long-range neighborhood plan.
Janice Glasser, a Milwood resident who has worked with Neighborhood Watch for the past year and a half, describes Hilliard as a real visionary who wants to have more events in the neighborhood.
“He wants to have an office for people to come in and voice concerns,” she said. “He has some really great ideas.”
Hilliard, who works from his home, says he wants to see the association evolve into an organization that has its own office and location to give area residents a focal point for meetings and other activities. He also wants it to have an official executive director and staff with at least part-time pay for the work of helping the community. He would like to see it set up to qualify for federal community development block grants and other funding to help it pay for programming and other resources.
John Hilliard has been involved with the Milwood Neighborhood Watch Association Since 2003. He has served as its president since 2019.
One hurdle Hilliard says is the income levels in the neighborhood are too high for it to qualify for help some other neighborhoods receive. In 2016, the median annual income of Milwood residents was $45,346, compared to $40,441 for all of the city of Kalamazoo, according to citydata.com.
An organization to watch
On the association’s drawing board for the near and post-COVID-19 future are plans for:
• Organizing concerts in Milham Park.
• Recruiting volunteers to help clean up Milham Park in the spring, primarily helping to clear away brush as the city cuts down overgrown trees and bushes.
• Organizing neighborhood pride contests. The neighborhood recently had its first annual curb-appeal contest winner. Similar home-decoration contests are planned for Halloween and the holidays.
• And completing the Milwood Neighborhood Plan, the area’s list of wants, needs and strategic goals for the future. It is to be added to the City of Kalamazoo’s multi-year Master Plan.
Crime prevention still comes first
Along with area residents, the Neighborhood Watch Association hears from business people in Milwood, the city’s second largest neighborhood by population but its largest in terms of geographic area.
Milwood is the southeast corner of the city of Kalamazoo, bordered on the north generally by Miller Road, and ranging on the east, south, and west to Sprinkle Road, Romence Road, and portions of Burdick Street, respectively. It is primarily residential in the north and east but has an impressive mixture of residential, commercial, and industrial properties in other areas.
Business owners tell Hilliard about vandalism, graffiti and vagrants who appear to want to make the neighborhood their home. He, in turn, relays almost everything that seems like a real problem -- criminal or otherwise -- to the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety or the City of Kalamazoo.
“The big thing here is to try to keep things as safe as possible,” he says. “I react to complaints that residents phone in to me or email in and go check them out.”
But, at age 79, he doesn't try to solve those concerns on his own.
“Depending on what it is, I turn it over to Kalamazoo Public Safety or, if it’s ordinance-type things, the city. And they come and check it out.”
How does everything work
Hilliard uses a combination of technology and elbow grease to get things done. The tech side includes sending out email blasts to neighborhood residents, publishing a monthly newsletter, downloading daily reports of police crime stats, and promoting the use of two well-trafficked neighborhood Facebook pages. The online resources, along with the Next Door app, allow neighbors to very quickly tell one another about problems and warn one another about crime.
Hilliard, in the meantime, scours crime statistics at the middle and end of each month, highlights streets that have had a fair number of incidents, and emails those trends to Kalamazoo Public Safety and its community policing officer.
“They are very active when we give them the information and they will do directed patrols in those problem areas,” he says.
Hilliard also patrols the 4.8-square-mile neighborhood in his car two to three times a week. It takes about two hours to travel the main streets and get a look at the commercial and industrial areas. He is non-confrontational when he sees a problem, although he may mention an ordinance violation to a neighbor if the situation looks right. He says Milwood has remained a safe neighborhood over the years. It has a reputation for being a friendly community where young families can find a solid home for not much more than $100,000.
A unique community to watch
Praedel says Milwood may be the most economically diverse neighborhood in the city (although neighboring Edison Neighborhood has long held onto that claim). While a considerable portion of its 8,000 residents are sales and office workers (19.4 percent of the men and 38.2 percent of the women), according to citydata.com, many others are involved in service (16.4 percent of the men and 14.6 percent of the women) and production (6.6 percent of the men and 4.3 percent of the women).
Milwood is unique in having single family homes, apartments and multiplex dwellings as well large companies, industrial operations, hotels, motels, and schools, plus the Wings Event Center and the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport.
Praedel, a Kalamazoo native who grew up on the northeast side of town in the Burke Acres Neighborhood, remembers walking through Milwood at age 17 and feeling like he belonged there.
“I just remember seeing a big canopy of trees over the road, and saying, ‘Someday I want to live here,’” says Praedel. “And sure enough, when my wife and I were looking for a home, I said I really want to look at homes in that area.”
He and his wife, Erin, bought a home in Milwood about six years ago with plans to start a family. They have since had three boys, Lincoln 5, Simon, 4, and Felix, 5 months. Chris, 34, says this area has become a great place with lots of people under age 40 who are recently married, new parents or young parents.
Like most other Americans, they are coping with the stress of a nation that is wrestling with political, racial and economic uncertainty. But they are managing. Praedel says. The Neighborhood Watch helps them with more tangible day-to-day problems.
Of late, the neighborhood is guarding against a rash of automobile break-ins and thefts from people’s driveways. But Hilliard says, “That’s happening here and in a lot of other neighborhoods.”
Reacting to the matters at hand
“We send out email blasts with crime alerts,” he says. “And they spell out: Keep your doors locked; keep your garage door closed; keep your house door locked; don’t keep valuables in your car.”
He describes those as crimes of opportunity. He adds that there have also been people going door-to-door promoting a questionable switch to an alternative, supposedly less expensive, electric utility company.
“Some of them are pretty aggressive,” he says. “They want to see your Consumers (Energy) bill.”
In the past some have been very pushy when they don’t get the responses they want, and public safety has been called.
A different kind of retirement
Hilliard, who has been the driving force of the association for the past year, was born in Kalamazoo and raised in the Parkwood and Winchell areas. He says his parents were involved in volunteer work and served on committees in city government and their church when he was growing up. He saw great value in that and continues to see it.
He served in the U.S. Army, then worked for various companies, including The Upjohn Co. During more than 35 years of work as a salesman, business manager, management consultant and nonprofit corporation manager for various companies, he lived in New York City, St. Louis, Chicago, Phoenix, and Columbus, Ohio. He returned to Kalamazoo in 2003 and in 2005 became executive director of a Portage-based nonprofit health supplies company, Lending Hands of Michigan
In 2018, he says he retired “for a couple of months. But I got tired of watching the Ellen (DeGeneres) show and Oprah.” With a laugh, he says, “How much of that can you take?”
A divorced father with one adult son, he has never been one to truly sit still.
He joined the Neighborhood Watch Association in 2003 and became its president in 2019 when its founder, Ken Horton, stepped down. Hilliard turned 79 last month.
Glasser explains that the Neighborhood Watch started about 26 years ago as a means to help keep the neighborhood safe. That was the focus after the robbery of a video store that was located on Cork Street at Lovers Lane, where the O’Reilly Auto Parts store now sits. Two store clerks were senselessly and tragically killed during the incident.
The organization was focused on crime prevention because that was Horton’s focus, Glasser says, and “That’s kind of how the Neighborhood Watch started.”
Why is Hilliard dedicated to it?
“He (Ken Horton) put it together. Did it great for 25 years. Decided to retire. And nobody wanted to do it,” Hilliard says with a smile. “I didn’t want to see it fall by the wayside because too much time and effort had been put into it. … So I kind of got the president’s job by default.”
The Neighborhood Watch has become successful at helping Milwood become a nicer and safer place to live and by helping to coordinate events, and drive social and cultural changes in the neighborhood, Praedel says.
“I think the way he’s doing it, it’s kind of a hybrid model,” Praedel says of Hilliard. Of crime prevention and the Neighborhood Watch Association, he says, “It’s not the full thrust of what they do.”
And it makes sense for the organization’s role, after 26 years of existence, to evolve a little bit.
“The fact that it has become as much, if not more, of a neighborhood association,” he says, “it really has made it a lot more than just that neighborhood watch element.”