Eastside Neighborhood

Reviving the Tribe: Kalamazoo Eastside couple cultivates community through home, gardens, and music

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Eastside series.

Tomme Maile’s first decision on the Eastside was to rescue a condemned East Michigan Avenue house. As a committed re-purposer, Maile could see the potential in the 1,400-square-foot, two-story house on a corner lot.

Shortly after the purchase, he and his wife, Dale Abbott, held their commitment ceremony. Then they set to work, investing around $80,000 in small increments over five years and many hours painstakingly rehabbing and retrofitting to maintain the historical integrity of the 119-year old house.

“Becoming connected to the Eastside started from buying that old house,” says Abbott, a communications specialist at Disability Network. “Just to take a blighted property and show its potential, while it’s not making a huge impact, is modeling some best practices and trying to be part of the community.”

“It’s a lovely home now,” says Maile, a handyman for Disability Network and retired youth psychiatric worker. Fully energy efficient, the house costs only $100 a month in utilities. “The house is not worth a whole lot more than we put into it, but we don’t care because we’re going to live here for a long time.”

What started 14 years ago as an investment in their home has grown into an investment in their Eastside neighborhood and Kalamazoo community. 

And that investment has taken many forms, from serving as custodians of a community garden and permaculture lot to collaborations with Peace House as curators of their weekly free vegetable stand and to Maile sharing a woodworking shop with one of the Peace House founders, Jerry Berrigan, who has become a good friend.

Maile has also volunteered with Building Blocks as a Construction Supervisor and together the couple has helped organize a “highly successful” block party with ISAAC that closed East Main and featured the Spring Valley Elementary School Choir.

And five years ago, as a way to celebrate their mutual love of music, the pair founded Trybal Revival which sponsors house concerts and gatherings for circle singing, a unique, wordless, improvisational vocal form.

“We chose (the name) Trybal Revival because of the concept of the whole village coming together, reviving the tribe, working for the community to pool your talents,” says Abbott, “not necessarily acting just for yourself.”

Maile, who calls himself a “spiritual naturalist,” says the couple’s undertakings reflect a desire to promote the creation of community around common interests for the common good. 

Many people have a distorted impression of the Eastside, says Maile. East Main is dominated by several liquor stores that also, Maile adds, do a service to the neighborhood by providing some groceries. “And the impression is that it’s scary,” he says. “But it’s a cool neighborhood. It has a fair level of poverty. But the togetherness is remarkable.

Tomme Maile and Dale Abbott have been sowing seeds of community on the Eastside for the past 12 years.“The beautiful part of this neighborhood is kind of invisible because it’s neighborliness,” says Maile. “People sit on their porches and they speak to each other. There’s racial harmony.”

Abbott agrees.  “When I moved to Kalamazoo, this is where I moved,” says Abbott. “The Eastside has a racial and economic mix. It’s a cross-section of the city, a little bit of everybody. The Eastside has character. It’s not hoity-toity. People care. And they are here because they want to be here as opposed to living in another neighborhood.”

Eastside Gardens: Growing food and relationships

Every garden is an experiment, and Maile and Abbott have learned a lot from their Eastside gardens, which include both a longstanding community garden and a permaculture site. As avid gardeners, Maile and Abbott seized the chance when a sunny, flat lot next to Church of Christ across the street went up for sale.

“We put a lot into beautifying our corner here,” says Abbott, “We both really enjoy gardening and being outside so it didn’t take long for us to turn our efforts to outside of our yard.”

They decided to create a community garden during the “boom” of community gardens in the city. Soon they became lead volunteers of Common Ground Garden Network, an informational and tool-lending storehouse for community gardens around the city.

On the lot, they installed raised beds and trellises. As they built and prepared the ground, the neighbors came, mostly young kids at first, and then other neighbors, many of whom were gardening for the first time.

“We made some connections and word got around that we were looking for people to garden with us,” says Abbott. For eight years, the garden drew neighbors together.

But due to trees that were starting to shade out the lot, encroaching quack grass and dwindling interest, Maile and Abbot eventually retired the community garden just as they had also been turning their attention to a lot near East Michigan and Foresmen, which the Kalamazoo County Land Bank offered them in their Adopt a Lot program.

With the new greenspace, the couple designed a permaculture site, intended to be mostly self-sufficient as it was based on design principles that include plantings which mimic a forest ecosystem. Typically in permaculture, larger fruit and nut trees help shade the understory of berry bushes and other edible perennials, and often legumes provide nitrogen to help fertilize and nourish the trees and plants.

The permaculture garden, called the Trybal Revival Eastside Eco-Garden (TREE), included fruit and nut trees, blackberries, raspberries, currants, American Chestnut, and chokecherries, a native edible plant. It also included a vegetable production garden, with assistance from Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo College students, from which the harvest was offered on Free Farm Day once a week at Peace House. It even included a small apiary.

Sadly, even gardens designed to be mostly self-sustaining require a lot of upkeep.

“Once again, it became too much,” says Maile. “The permaculture experiment basically failed. We had established something that was really wonderful, very productive and very fertile, but we just couldn’t find enough help.”

The couple sought out people and organizations to take the permaculture site over, but no one could commit.

“And little by little, the Land Bank was acquiring more contiguous lots,” says Abbott. “We were ready to step away and they were ready to develop” what is to become a small housing development and pocket park known as the Eastside Gateway. The entire garden was demolished last year.

“I won’t say it didn’t break my heart to see all our greenspace efforts bulldozed,” Abbott says, “but everything runs its course.” 
Maile agrees. “On the positive side,” he adds, “they are putting in seven small homes.”

While they’ve down-sized their gardening over the years, the two will still manage their own kitchen garden, apiary and rain garden, and they will continue to support community gardening, including at Peace House, on the Eastside, and in their many volunteer activities.

The couple believes in the “spirit of reviving local community.”

“Joining together to make music, grow food, beautify and enrich the natural environment we live in, all seems so needed in these times,” says Maile.  

Trybal Revival: House concerts and circle singing

When Maile and Abbott perceive a need, they tend to do something about it, so when they were watching a performance of Kaitlin Rose at a Northside bar and couldn’t hear her well, they conceived of the idea of a house concert.

“It was noisy and I was listening, and wow, she’s got a great guitar, and it’s all over the place and she sings with it beautifully,” Maile says, “but people were talking and there’s background music, dishes are clattering. You can’t hear anything. This is fantastic music, but no one can hear it.”

The couple approached Rose after the show. “We said, ‘We loved what you’re doing, but couldn’t hear it. How would you like to come play in our house and we’ll guarantee a certain minimum?’” says Maile. “That’s how it started.”

At that first concert five years ago, 35 people attended. “The house was packed. Everyone went away saying that it was fantastic. They appreciated the quiet and the intimacy.”

The couple, who provide complimentary wine and hor d'oeuvres at intermission, put out a can with a $10 suggested donation, but it always costs them at least a couple of hundred dollars extra, Maile says.

“We don’t do it to make money,” says Maile. “We do it to support fine art.

Tomme Maile and Dale Abbott have spent a lot of time beautifying their “little corner,” and then spreading their gardening expertise out into the Eastside.“Some of the seasoned musicians who have come to play find themselves becoming nervous because they’ve never had an audience that attentive,” says Maile. “And then they kick it out. They know they’re really under the spotlight so they perform so well.”

Over the past five years, Trybal Revival has hosted 18 house concerts, two to three each fall and winter, at the couple’s home. Past performers have included Dede and the Dreamers, the Elden Kelly Trio, Red Tail Ring, and many others. After a couple of concerts were not well-attended, however, including an outdoor concert last year coordinated with Peace House, they’ve scaled back a bit, says Maile, but they don’t intend to give them up.

No stranger to music himself, Maile sings with the Bach Festival Chorus and also led the Full Moon Drumming Circle, which met for eight years at People’s Church. It was drumming that led him to circle singing as he and another drummer used to improvise with vocals.

“We thought we had discovered something, but not at all. It’s done all over the place,” says Maile. 

Singing circles are comprised of anyone who wants to participate and are held in locations both inside and outside, including living rooms, gardens, tunnels, and even an old silo.

“What we do is create a little circle, then put in a harmony and a counterpoint,” says Maile. “Pretty soon it becomes really rich. And then as soon as it starts cycling, you can start to make changes. It’s really exciting stuff.”

Maile likens it to jazz, particularly scat as there are no words, and also tribal singing. 

Dogs make themselves at home with Tomme Maile and Dale Abbott.According to the Trybal Revival website, “One of the most enjoyable aspects of this singing is the creativity that emerges. No two sessions are alike and the compositions seem to flow from the spirits of those present.”

“Sometimes you see people and their eyes get big and the smile comes on their face, and they say, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never been a part of anything like this!’” says Maile.

As Maile explains it, singing in a circle is a little like being a contributing member of any community.

“The philosophy is you don’t have to be a great singer to be a part of great singing,” says Maile. “You just hold your little part. Everyone holds their little part. And the composite can be just fantastic.”

Trybal Revival’s next Circle Singing is scheduled 6 to 9 p.m., Sun., March 31 at the Jazz and Creative Institute, 310 North Rose Street. Tickets are $10 and are for participants only, no spectators. No singing experience is required.

To register for Trybal Revival’s Circle Singing, please visit here.

Photos by Eric Hennig, VAGUE photography (unless otherwise indicated).

Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is a freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher with over two decades of covering people, places, and events in the Kalamazoo community. She is the Project Editor of On the Ground Kalamazoo.