Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s On the Ground Edison series.
In his Reed Avenue workshop after-hours, Matthew Schmidt listens for small trucks out back.
Pickup trucks and cars drive brazenly into the vacant lot behind his 17,000-square-foot building in Kalamazoo’s Edison Neighborhood. They dump rubbish -- car parts, construction materials, household trash, broken appliances, used syringes, broken toys, food, “all sort of stuff you don’t want,” he says.
“Someone looked like they redid their bathroom and ripped out their bathtub,” he says of one incident. “So here’s the old one, thrown out there.”
He suspects tenant-evicting landlords, construction workers, and local businesses are responsible for some of the dumping “because it’s coming in truckloads. Like a pickup truck pulls up, drops a bunch of stuff, and drives off. It’s not like one person drives by and throws one thing.”
But he doesn’t want to start pointing fingers when it comes to the culprits.
Matthew Schmidt, a former U.S. Marine, says he uses his best authoritative voice to scare away would be dumpers behind his building at 1809 Reed Street.
About two minutes away on Stockbridge Avenue just east of Portage Street, trash and garbage spew from the house next door to Lanae Newton. That has continued to happen even though the 820 E. Stockbridge Ave. house was gutted by fire in January of 2021. The condemned residence was apparently used to cook methamphetamines and past residents and others continue to sneak in at night to do drugs, Newton says.
“The house burned last January. And then the garage burned this last summer,” the 39-year-old single mother says. She has struggled to find a way to stop the supposedly vacant property from being misused.
“I put in a bid in on it. I’m trying to buy the parcel,” she says now. In the meantime, the seven-year resident of Edison Neighborhood struggles to deal with the rubbish. It has included old carpets, scrapped car parts, car batteries, chairs, and tires. She says there are still about 20 discarded tires in the yard.
“The other day I had to pay out of my own pocket $60 to rent a U-Haul,” she says, “because I’m thinking that you can take a U-Haul to the dump and just set them (the trash bags) out.”
With a laugh, she says “Apparently, no, that’s not the thing.”
Newton was unaware that there’s a fee for that. In her case, more than $200. So she was forced to find other ways to get rid of the trash. She had hauled 30 bags of garbage that she collected this past winter from the front and side yards of the house next door. She says she bagged trash and stored it in her garage. Otherwise, it would have blown into her yard.
Matthew Schmidt’s Wax Factory building, at 1809 Reid St., is just south of Jerico, a burgeoning cluster of entrepreneurs, artisans and crafts people in the 1500 block of Fulford Street.
“There are a few spots like that that are happening in the neighborhood,” says Stephen Dupuie, executive director of the Edison Neighborhood Association. So the association is asking Edison residents to report areas where people are illegally dumping trash. It plans to schedule a meeting soon to discuss ways to stop it.
“I posted (on the neighborhood association’s website) to get a comprehensive list of where these properties are and try to form a neighborhood group to come up with solutions to the problem,” Dupuie says. In cases where the property is owned by a business, he says he hopes to put pressure on those who aren’t doing anything to rectify bad situations.
That pressure could come in the form of letters or phone calls from area residents. “Or hey, if the company won’t put up a fence, maybe they’ll let us put up a fence,” he says. “And we can figure out where to find some money to do that.”
Schmidt says he thinks the problem near his place on Reed near Fulford Avenue started with squatters occupying a dilapidated former asbestos tile factory on Fulford to the north of his building. Their trash began spilling out during the last couple of years “and I think it started steam-rolling from there,” he says, “with people going, ‘I think I can dump there.’”
No one was saying anything about it, he says. “I said stuff to the cops whenever they’d come by but they said, ‘You’d have to catch them in the act or you can’t really do much.’ So I just kind of felt like no one cared.”
The Wax Building is a 17,000 square-foot former paraffin wax factory that is being converted for use as an artistic workshop, gallery and performance space for every artists.
Jeff Chamberlain, Kalamazoo’s deputy city manager, says the city encourages people to report illegal dumping problems by calling 3-1-1, its city services contact center. He says city inspectors react to complaints and work with property owners to clean up problem sites.
When Schmidt sees anyone about to dump behind his building, he yells in his most authoritative former U.S. Marine Corps voice, developed when he served in the Marines from 2003-2007, just after graduating high school. That voice usually inspires them to stop and drive off. But he’s only caught about six would-be dumpers.
And he wants a more permanent solution.
The City of Kalamazoo has repeatedly been called to clear the 1819 Reed Ave. property next door -- at the expense of the property’s owner. But the owner of the former railroad right-of-way, Norfolk Southern Corp., has thus far been unwilling to erect fences or take other measures to prevent people from dumping there.
Chamberlain says the city has contracted clean-up crews to clear the site on at least eight occasions since 2018. And it has cited Atlanta-based Norfolk Southern for those violations.
“They have paid the bills. But to date, it’s been close to $10,000,” he says. That does not include a clean-up that occurred there last week. The cost to reimburse the city for a clean-up can range from $500 to $5,000, Chamberlain says, depending on how much trash is involved.
“City staff have been in contact with Norfolk Southern staff (via text messaging), encouraging them to put up fencing or concrete barriers or things like that,” Chamberlain says. “And Norfolk Southern staff have been non-responsive. So we’ve reached out with them again because even before the recent round of notifications that we’ve gotten from the community, the city inspectors had already been out there, saw the trash, and already cited Norfolk Southern here recently.”
Discarded tires, old pieces of wood and other trash can be seen in the backyard of a house where illegal dumping has occurred in the 800 block of East Stockbridge Avenue. Courtesy of Lanae Newton
Norfolk Southern was also not responsive to inquiries by Second Wave.
Dupuie says, “Fencing would probably be a reasonable solution.” But neither he nor Chamberlain are aware of any plans to redevelop the half-acre site.
“There’s a lot of possibilities if they are willing to get rid of it if they can’t manage it,” Dupuie says, referring to Norfolk Southern.
He says the vacant property could be converted into a nice greenspace for the community or additional space to serve the nearby makers space community. Makers spaces are do-it-yourself spaces that allow people to create, build and sell products or services.
Schmidt’s building, at 1809 Reed St., is just south of Jerico (formerly called Jericho Town), a burgeoning cluster of entrepreneurs, artisans, and craftspeople in the 1500 block of Fulford Street. Schmidt’s building is called The Wax Factory, a name that is a throw-back to the 1920s when it was the Kalamazoo Paraffin Wax Co. At the location, paraffin was refined for cosmetics and other uses. But that company closed in the 1960s and the building was reused for many other things.
An artist, Schmidt bought it in October of 2020 and has been working to convert it into a studio for himself, as well as an art gallery and performance space for other artists.
“I’m aspiring to have a gallery in here eventually and a performance space,” he says. “But for now it’s just sort of like my workshop. I have friends who are also artists who need industrial space. They come and they work in my space as well. So it’s sort of like a collective of artists getting together.”
In the next two years, he hopes for it to become a low-cost place for artists to do their work.
Newton says she would like more help from the city to keep drug users out of the condemned house next door to her. And she would like to see the property completely cleaned up and people held responsible when they do illegal dumping.
“They pull up in pickup trucks and empty out the whole back of it,” she says. “I’m out there yelling at them, saying ‘This isn’t the dump,’ and they just don’t even stop.”
Mathew Schmidt's dog and cat inside the Wax Factory building, at 1809 Reid St., is just south of Jerico, a burgeoning cluster of entrepreneurs, artisans and crafts people in the 1500 block of Fulford Street.
She says the culprits appear to be people who live in the area. She has security camera footage of them. She hopes that efforts by the Edison Neighborhood Association to identify problem sites will help.
“I am a homeowner and I pay taxes,” Newton says. “I don’t think I should have to pay any of that stuff if I have to look at that (the trashed property next door). I didn’t buy the house looking at that.”
What does Schmidt want the adjacent property owners to do?
“Maybe drop a couple of cement blocks (barricades), or put a security light up,” he says.
He says he doesn’t mind looking after the property and is thinking about using discarded tires to build a ground barrier to stop trucks and cars from driving in. “But it’s not my property,” he says. And he would like to hear from Norfolk Southern.
Chamberlain says, “From the city’s standpoint, we would love it if Norfolk Southern would sell the property to somebody local. That way, a local owner has control over it, can keep their eyes on it, and also hopefully, eventually redevelop it.”
Until some change is announced, the city is encouraging the railroad company to erect barriers to stop the illegal dumping that’s happening on their property. But Chamberlain says that property owners are not the initial bad guys in this scenario.
“Illegal dumping is a challenge for the city (of Kalamazoo) and other cities regularly,” he says, and property owners are often the victims of illegal dumping.
“We also want to remind folks that the City of Kalamazoo has many opportunities to get rid of trash,” Chamberlain says. “We have our large trash pick-up throughout the year. We do regular recycling and just last year we started a pilot program that was for tire drop-off. Which was a huge success.”
Schmidt says he likes the idea of the neighborhood residents coming together to approach owners of properties that have become illegal dumping areas. He thinks it would put their feet to the fire. “I really have a feeling that a lot of these dumpsites are going to be absentee owners,” he says, “because anyone in town would clean up their mess.”
A native of New York, he says, “There’s no reason for us to have something so grotesque in this beautiful little town. If we all stand up for ourselves a little bit, maybe we can pressure some of these companies that are a little bit absent to help keep their stuff cleaned.”
Unless otherwise indicated, photos by Fran Dwight. See more of her work here.