Eastside Neighborhood

Take a walk on the Eastside with one of its own, Kalamazoo Mayor Bobby J. Hopewell

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Eastside series. During June, On the Ground will be featuring articles by trained community contributors from the Eastside, two adults and three youth. In July, On the Ground will be moving to the Vine Neighborhood. 

ON MY WAY to meet with Mayor Bobby J. Hopewell at City Hall for an On the Ground Eastside interview, my cell phone rang. It was the mayor’s assistant. “The mayor wants to meet you on Edwin at his mother’s house,” she said. “He likes to walk and talk,” she said, “so wear your walking shoes.”

Lucky for me, I had a pair of flats in the car and a spare notebook. The day was in the mid-70s, sunny with a slight breeze and the tall trees were leafed out and lush. I couldn’t imagine a better way to wrap up On the Ground’s five months of Eastside coverage than walking and talking with the mayor on his home turf.

Joe, Bobby or BJ: Depends on how you know him

On the Eastside, Hopewell is known as Joe and sometimes Bobby Joe. Or to many of the youth he knows, Uncle Joe, and sometimes even Uncle Bob. 

When asked about all his names, he explains his family and the neighborhood know him as Joe, people he meets at school, like his best friend, or at work, know him as Bobby, and to people he knows from Pretty Lake Camp, a cause for which Hopewell is passionate (“his baby,” his mother calls it), he’s known as BJ, a name he chose at the suggestion of a counselor on his first day of camp as a youth.

The names don’t confuse Hopewell. “They ground me from where I come from,” he says.

Hopewell walks the neighborhood like an uncle at a reunion, greeting folks in cars and driveways, on foot or in a wheelchair or on a riding lawn mower. A woman in an Escalade drives past and slows down. He heads to the window to give her a hug. “Mrs. Buchanan!” he says, then turns to me and says “the Buchanans are neighborhood royalty.”

Bobby Joe Hopewell was five years old and the fourth of five siblings when he moved to the house on Edwin Avenue with his single mother, Magnolia Bodley, an Eastside matriarch and one of the neighborhood’s mothers-to-all known affectionately as Miss Maggie. She still lives in the home she purchased in 1969.

As we began our walk, Hopewell, in his blue City of Kalamazoo polo, mused about the Eastside. “It’s kind of interesting because it’s such a diverse neighborhood, but also one of our smallest,” he says. “It can feel forgotten in some ways. There’s no thoroughfare, like in Vine or Edison. It’s an alternate route.”

Hopewell says when he talks to Western Michigan University students, they know West Main, but they’ve never heard of East Main. 

“There’s a little more to us than that,” says Hopewell. “We’re diverse, a lot of families, whole generations of families. And the neighborhood is quaint.”

He points out the large, two-storied houses with porches, some with wide and deep lots, next to other one-story box houses, likely built around the 1950s. Several houses have extra lots, including his mother’s, but Hopewell says he would have preferred to see those lots become buildable. “We’re short 3,500 housing units in the city,” he says. “We need every spare lot we have for new housing.” 

His first preference, however, would be to see condemned houses rehabilitated because it’s more cost-effective than a new build.

“You’ve got to have diverse housing. You can’t just build low-income housing. You have to have it mixed with other incomes. This allows the community to broaden your horizons as opposed to living in your own comfort spot. “

Edwin Avenue happens to be the home of a couple of Kalamazoo’s dignitaries besides Hopewell’s mother: CJ Drenth, Garden Educator of Kalamazoo in Bloom, and the Powells, childhood home of Dwayne Powell, Neighborhood Business and Projects Coordinator for the city. 

“Ah, here’s CJ’s yard,” he says, and we briefly admire the flowers that cover every square inch. No grass.

As we turn on to Phelps, Hopewell says, “I haven’t walked in the neighborhood like this since I was campaigning.” 

We passed Peace House where I’ve been meeting with youth community contributors as they write stories about the neighborhood, and the Open Door Church, which recently was destroyed in a fire. While the church was being constructed when Hopewell was a youth, he remembers the parking lot was home to many dirt bomb and wrist rocket wars. “If it was dry and warm, the clumps of dirt would explode into dust clouds,” he says, smiling.

“I spent a lot of time on Phelps,” he says fondly, and points to a house across the street from the church that was home to the Carossos, a family of five kids who had an immense garden well-fertilized by a large rabbit population. “They grew strawberries as big as apples,” he says, “and sunflowers that were bigger than I’d ever seen.”

To the Carosso family, Bobby was known as Joe, and continues to be Uncle Joe to children the many Carosso siblings who live around town and elsewhere. Recently he ran into one member of the extended family at a sausage shop in Reykjavik, Iceland, when while he was ordering, he heard, “Uncle Joe!” from behind him and turned to see a Carroso nephew. 

The Carosso lived next door to Mrs. Eva Ozier, a longtime Kalamazoo County Commissioner, former director of the Kalamazoo Eastside Neighborhood Association, and one of the many “mothers of the neighborhood” while Hopewell was growing up.

“You couldn’t be a knucklehead because one of them was going to find you.”

As we turn onto Wallace, we pass a burned and boarded-up house. Debris from the home, like charred pots and children’s toys, litters the front yard. Hopewell calls his assistant and asks her to make a note of it. He takes a photo.

“It’s been boarded up like this for over a year,” he says, shaking his head. 

We pass Ben Brown’s tiny house and move around the corner to the edge of Sherwood Park, “one of those secret parks” in the city. A hilly, narrow park with towering oaks, Sherwood has a relatively new playground structure. Grills and picnic tables were added last year.  As a child, Hopewell remembers sledding and biking the hilly paths.

“This would make a good skateboard park,” he says of the hills, “but only if it complies with the neighborhood plan.”

Later we walk the new asphalt path through Rockwell Park, the neighborhood’s second city park that features new improvements, such as paths, playground structures and a basketball court, consistent with the Imagine Kalamazoo 2025 Neighborhood Plan. 

The park is divided in two by Trimble Avenue, with playground equipment and paths on one side, and a basketball court and aging tennis court on the other. Hopewell remembers learning tennis at the courts, which now have grass growing through cracks and no nets. Then he looks at the basketball court, which has three brand new hoops too close together for a reasonable game. He pulls out his phone to take a picture. “They did a great job with the park,” he says. “But that court is way too small.”

Hopewell says the neighborhood moms, the tight-knit community, the then neighborhood schools like Roosevelt (now closed) and Northeastern Junior High School, and his own mother who was tirelessly active in the neighborhood, church, and Boy Scouts, all contributed to a rich and secure childhood. 

“All those things that support a person growing up,” he says. “That’s what I want for others. That’s what I want every day for this community.”

The opportunity of now: Eastside business development

While he reminisces about the neighborhood he knew growing up, which still maintains the charm of its large trees and hilly streets, Hopewell also says the area has changed. 

“There are blight gaps in the neighborhood fabric,” he says. “It seems it’s gotten a little rougher in some ways.” Some of this is due to decreased homeownership, an issue that impacts most of Kalamazoo’s urban core. With the housing shortage, even rental prices are rising, making suitable housing an increasing challenge for all, but particularly for those who are lower income.

Hopewell also attributes the blight to the stagnancy of the Eastside’s business sector. When he was growing up, the East Main corridor was lively. As we turn on to East Main, the warm, residential vibe changes. The street is poised for development, but there are roadblocks.

“People say it’s always been like that,” says Hopewell, “But I’ve been around long enough to know, no, it’s not always been like that.

“This was Triemstra’s Drug Store,” he says. The block-long building is boarded up and has been for years. “The (former) owners were contributors in the neighborhood, impactful, involved in making good happen in the community,” he says. “This could easily house a couple of storefronts.”

Next door to Treimstra’s, Hopewell says, was the In Between Inn. “We called it Eat,” he says, “because they had a big sign that said ‘Eat.’ We’d say, let’s go get a burger at Eat. They had the best burgers in town.”

Gone are the former stores and restaurants, including the neighborhood’s well-loved Dairy Queen. Currently, a number of liquor stores are located along East Main, mostly owned by people who live outside the neighborhood. “If you’re making a living on the backs of the residents, then you should put something back into the neighborhood,” says Hopewell. He mentions an exception, the owners of 13½ Party Store, 806 Riverview Ave., who have contributed to the Eastside.

Hopewell would like to see other businesses and institutions on the Eastside become even more involved in the neighborhood. He’s a strong believer in investing in where you live and work. “We need all the energy we can get.”

As far as the Eastside corridor, Hopewell sees it as “the true opportunity of now.” 

“Don’t underestimate this neighborhood as it continues to rise,” he says, mentioning resident's input in the Eastside Neighborhood Plan, the growing connectivity of neighbors, and ENet, a group of active Eastside neighbors and business leaders who are working hard to create positive changes.

“There’s so much potential here for the community to prosper.”

Perfectly Imperfect: The motto of an optimistic realist

After 12 years as the longest-serving Kalamazoo mayor, Hopewell announced in March that he would be stepping down in November. In Kalamazoo, the mayor position is a half-time job, but Hopewell has always treated it as a full-time job, despite having a full-time job in Lansing as the president and CEO of Mobile Health Resources, a Lansing-based ambulance billing agency.

“That’s just the way I am,” he says. “I dive in. And I think our residents expect that.”

Trained as an Emergency Medical Technician, and later serving as director of Life EMS, Hopewell says he never planned to be mayor, but he had an affinity for local government that started when he was a member of the student council at Kalamazoo Central High School and grew from there. 

A self-proclaimed hyperactive child, Hopewell says he once ran away in kindergarten because he wanted more recess. The principal had to chase him down. “I wasn’t a Straight A student,” he says. In school, he was teased for the dark pigment of his skin. Some schoolmates called him “Little Black Sambo” or “Dark Chocolate.”

“And you know dark chocolate is the best,” he says, laughing. This bullying helped instill in him a strong sense of fairness and social justice.

“It raised my understanding that there are differences in people, but those differences shouldn’t matter, especially about the pigment of skin,” he says. “Stop thinking you are better, less than, or more than because of the hue of your skin or the sound of your voice or the type of food you eat or the clothes you wear.” 

During his tenure as mayor, Hopewell says he is most proud of working with the Foundation for Excellence and Shared Prosperity, a project whose ambitious goal is to “help every child and every adult prosper.”

A bold plan, the Foundation for Excellence incorporated under the city in 2017. In 2015, the city was at a low point in its funding and two investors provided financial momentum through a $70.3 million gift to balance the city budget and an additional $10 million per year for “aspirational projects” to help tackle issues related to poverty, such as a lack of housing and small business support. The funds also are being used to bring about changes residents have said they wanted as spelled out the drafting of the city’s 23 neighborhood plans.

Hopewell is also proud of the commitment of the Kalamazoo Department of Safety to work towards equitable delivery of police, fire, and emergency medical services and proud of city Chief Karianne Thomas for instituting best practices in the department.

“We are still perfectly imperfect, but we want to strive for that perfection,” says Hopewell. “We will continue to get better, not perfect, but better.”

Hopewell says he’s looking forward to being Citizen Bobby Hopewell when he steps down in November so he can start speaking out about issues he cares about most deeply.

“It’s been my mission to try to help create a city that has opportunities for all of us to prosper,” he says.  That vision includes the 3,600 residents of the Eastside, his neighborhood home.


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.