Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Edison series.
On a recent Saturday morning, a group of Edison neighbors clad in bright blue Building Blocks T-shirts gathered with shovels and wheelbarrows at a house on the corner of Portage and Collins and contemplated an eight-cubic-yard hill of gravel.
"I have to admit, when I woke to that pile, I was thinking, this is going to be a heck of a lot of work," says Scott Wilson, a renter at the residence. "But we went and shoveled some pea gravel over at Paul’s, and by the time we got here, we had momentum. A lot of people together make the work go fast."
Building Blocks, a 23-year-old local program founded by Dr. Kim Cummings, professor emeritus of sociology and anthropology at Kalamazoo College, originated through Cummings’ intention to recreate the communal work he remembered fondly from his New Hampshire upbringing. The program’s goal was to reconnect people in neighborhoods while working together to improve their surroundings.
Since its inception in 1995, the program has involved over 1,600 households at over 134 target sites in the city’s lower-income neighborhoods, launching on the East Side, then expanding to Vine, Stuart, and into Edison in 1997, bringing neighbors together to work on projects in each other’s yards.
"Building Blocks is really simple, but it’s also really powerful," says Carrie Drake, Building Blocks Executive Director. "We’re engaging in recruiting residents to build relationships with each other through home improvement projects. Our mission statement is to organize residents one block at a time to improve the quality of neighborhood life."
This year in Edison, Building Blocks has sites on Buena Vista and near the newer Marketplace homes on Collins, which is the street leading to the Farmer’s Market off of Portage Street. The Edison Neighborhood Association Board voted on three sites, and two were approved for Building Blocks grants, which are funded in part by a long list of community organizations, including the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, the Fetzer Foundation, the Gilmore Foundation, Stryker, the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region, and the City of Kalamazoo.
Gerry Hoffmann, current Edison Neighborhood Association Board President, is also the Building Blocks Site Organizer with Holly Galik, Site Facilitator. Hoffmann says that the Edison Neighborhood Association (ENA) and Building Blocks have complementary missions. "Our mission at ENA is to involve people in the neighborhood and help them help themselves, and that’s exactly what building blocks is," says Hoffmann. The ENA chose Collins and Marketplace because "we wanted to help unify that area of the neighborhood.
"The longer-term residents say that people in the Marketplace homes drive into their garages and we never see them whereas the longer-term residents sit out on their porches," says Hoffmann.
"The thought was that you have these newer-looking houses and this older housing stock," adds Drake. "And that creates what feels like some exclusivity and disconnection. We want to connect them."
How Building Blocks works
Building Blocks is based on a fairly simple, democratic process. Once areas are approved, a site supervisor canvasses households, often knocking on the doors of over 50 homes, to encourage participation.
Hoffmann, who has been working with Building Blocks for several years, says he’s still surprised by the number of people who decline to participate. "It’s free money. Maybe they don’t want to connect with their neighbors," he says. "Some actually act insulted by the suggestion that their homes might need some work."
Once at least eight households agree to participate, meetings are held, often pizza parties and potlucks, where potential projects are discussed. The budget, $4,000, is split among the neighbors. If there are eight households, that means $500 a piece. But oftentimes, says Hoffmann, neighbors will divvy up the money differently. If one neighbor has a larger project, other neighbors might have smaller projects. A vote is taken on how funds are used.
"When you do a home project, the biggest expense is the labor, but when you pitch in and help each other, it’s amazing how much you can do," says Hoffmann. Projects range from removing or planting shrubbery, mulching, re-grading, concrete walks and pathways.
Then comes shopping day, usually at Menard’s, followed by a weekly workday chosen by the group. Crews typically meet weekly until the end of June.
On this particular Saturday morning, as farmers market patrons drive past, the Building Block crew fills and hauls red wheelbarrows, taking short breaks to drink water in the shade of the house, and cracking a few Bob Villa jokes, while others prepare hot dogs on a grill for lunch.
"I could say this isn’t for my benefit," says Wilson of the current driveway improvement project because not only does he rent rather than own, but also rides a bike rather than drives a car. "But any improvement is for my benefit," he says. "I get the pleasure of looking out at a nicely-groomed yard."
Also, Wilson appreciates that you can participate in Building Blocks no matter what your ability. That morning, the crew had worked on landscaping at the Marketplace home of Pam Burpee, who has a disability and uses a wheelchair.
Building Blocks welcomes people of varying abilities. Some cannot lift heavy loads and so they provide the food or sort the tools. "But it helps people because of the diversity," says Wilson. "We aren’t all the same. But we do have needs and we can help each other."
As the hill of gravel shrinks and the smell of charcoal and roasting hot dogs wafts by, Wilson takes a break from shoveling gravel to lead an informal tour of his gardens.
One garden is an ambitious arbor woven from saplings (likely Slippery Elm, he says) obtained from an abandoned neighborhood lot. Under the arbor, Wilson has replanted trees he rescued from sidewalk cracks and repotted—"my little bonsai," he calls them.
Wilson says he is particularly fond of a black locust that he had pulled out of a crack with hardly a root ball. "I figured if it was growing in cement, I could probably nurse it back to health," he says, stroking one of its downy leaves. "I like small trees."
A dug-in garden, which he calls the House of Usher because he discovered the cement of an old foundation while planting, isn't visible from the road. It features a fish pond constructed out of a leaky air mattress—a work-in-progress.
Wilson says his participation in Building Blocks helps him pay off "karmic debt." "People have been very good to me, so I have to put some credit on my debt. It’s not all for your benefit. There’s time you need to contribute when some else needs something," he says.
Rewards of working with neighbors
Past participants of the program are eager to sing its praises. Patrick Herschberger, an Edison muralist and former Building Block member, says, "The changes might be little things that the larger population might not notice, but the changes matter. You have people who are involved in community building and improving the face of their neighborhood."
While neighborhood beautification is a key component of Building Blocks, most participants cite relationships that develop as the most rewarding part of the work.
"One of our Edison sites facilitators met her best friend through Building Blocks and that was four or five years ago," says Drake. "When people say 'this was really hard, and I didn’t always enjoy the experience, but I love Building Blocks, and I’m so glad I know my neighbors now'—we’ve made an impact.
"That makes a huge difference for parents and families, especially in neighborhoods that are primarily good, but the reputation doesn’t always sound that way," says Drake. "Residents can feel wary of each other. In that kind of context, when you see people connecting, it’s very powerful."
Hoffmann agrees. "It’s cool to see people get to know each other and joke around and help each other and realize what they have in common," says Hoffmann. "Our hope is that they will have gotten to know each other well enough that, after the program, they will have someone they can turn to."
"We’re ensuring," Drake says, "that residents want to take pride in their street and look at their neighbor in a way that is compassionate."
The relationships don’t stop when the program ends, as Edison resident Pamela Jenkins attests. "Building Blocks has been very instrumental in a lot of upkeep in my house," says Jenkins. "I had some veterans who came in and helped build a whole new walkway around my house and redid my landscape. I’ve continued a lot of my relationships with the folks I met. They’re part of my neighborhood."
While Building Blocks works its magic in Edison and elsewhere around Kalamazoo, Drake says the program "could be on every street, everywhere.
"It’s not a normal thing, especially in the American context, for us to think communally," says Drake. "We think individualistically first, which can be a good thing. But we are born for community, first and foremost."
What do neighbors discover when working with other neighbors? That from the street, what might have looked like a quirky place to store pots is actually a lovingly-tended urban tree rescue; that a Vietnamese neighbor might teach them something new about the world; that a needed egg or cup of sugar is only two houses away.
And one day, when residents return home and see a car pull out of that driveway that only a few weeks ago they helped to gravel, they might feel like the neighborhood is just a little bit more their own—and their neighbors’, too.
Theresa Coty O'Neil is a Kalamazoo area freelance writer. Her articles have appeared in many local publications and her short stories have been published in Alaska Quarterly Review and West Branch, among others. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Edison.
Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s “On the Ground Edison” series amplifies the voices of Edison Neighborhood residents. Over three months, Second Wave journalists will be embedded in the Edison Neighborhood to explore topics of importance to residents, business owners, and other members of the community. To reach the editor of this series, Theresa Coty-O’Neil, please email her here or contact Second Wave managing editor Kathy Jennings here.
For more Edison coverage, please follow these links.
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The On the Ground program is made possible by funding from the City of Kalamazoo, LISC, the Fetzer Institute, the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region, Michigan WORKS!, the Kalamazoo Community Foundation and the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo.