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 please let us know here.
It’s not unusual for Don Solesbee to trim the lawn of the lady next door during the summer and snow-blow her walkways during the winter.
“She’s not necessarily unable, but not as able-bodied as she’d like to be,” another neighbor explains.
Solesbee says he has an absurdly large snowblower. So it makes sense to do it.
But then, he does the same for almost everyone on his side of Reycraft Drive, between Havard and Cameron streets, a quarter-mile east of Portage Street.
Don Solesbee says he and his wife could probably find a bigger and better house than the one they own in the 1400 block of Reycraft Drive in Kalamazoo’s Milwood Neighborhood. But they’d never find the great neighbors they have now.
In the fall, he barbecues — for the entire neighborhood. It’s an annual potluck he hosts around the time of his birthday, explains a woman who lives two doors down. Solesbee and his family provide the pulled pork or brisket. Others bring side dishes to pass and drinks. It’s not too much different when they come to his backyard on summer nights.
“Whenever his firepit is going, neighbors know they can stop by,” one woman says. “If you smell the smoke – you are welcome to come over and bring a drink. Sometimes it’s families with kids who bring them.”
When one of the kids called him Mr. Milwood a while back, no one disagreed.
“Don is just the guy who does,” says across-the-street neighbor Matthew Semelbauer. “He snowblows. He keeps an eye on everyone’s houses. If I ever want to know, ‘Hey do you know this person a couple of blocks away because I have a question about this or that?’ I go to Don first.”
“Don? He’s the social butterfly of the neighborhood,” says Lauren Pott Hernandez.
Don Solesbee prepares to race his son Luca, left, and neighbor Rowin Hernandez a couple of years ago on a sidewalk adjacent to their homes on Reycraft Street.
Solesbee, 43, was one of the first neighbors to introduce himself when she and her husband Gerardo moved onto Reycraft Drive eight years ago, she says.
“They came over across the street and I found out his wife was pregnant at the same time I was,” Hernandez says. “I moved in three months pregnant and our kids are six days apart.”
Since then, she says, “He has literally connected us all. Anyone that I’ve met after him, I met through Don. He is always there to help if you need anything. You can count on him.”
Along with the annual barbecue, she says, people in the 1400 block of Reycraft “have parties and get-togethers. When it’s warmer, we sit out in the driveway every night with each other.”
Those with school-age children are part of a small online instructional cohort.
Each morning during this COVID-challenged school year, Solesbee watches children from other families before shepherding them to a neighbor’s house where they are schooled by a nanny who was hired by them all.
“They all come to my house when their parents leave for work in the morning,” says Solesbee, referring to three neighborhood youngsters ages 4 to 7 who he watches until about 9 a.m., along with his 7-year-old son Luca. He then takes them across the street to officially start their school day.
“So we have all the kids learning over there because I’m working from home at my house,” says Solesbee, who has worked in banking for 22 years and presently does financial education training for Fifth Third Bank, working from home. “I have my quiet time. That’s our sense of neighborhood. We all came together to figure out how to make this work.”
Solesbee and his wife Jennifer Deboer have lived in the Milwood Neighborhood for about 12 years. He was born in Germany on a U.S. military base but relocated to downriver Detroit (the Wyandotte area) at age 2 with his family, after his parents divorced. He says he lived there with his two sisters and extended family. And the feeling he got from being close to his family may account for the way he treats his neighbors.
“I got married later in life, had a kid later in life, so I never really went after the family lifestyle,” Solesbee says. “I was always young and dumb and single. But in Wyandotte, when we grew up, we lived with my grandma and my two aunts in the house that my grandfather built shortly after he immigrated from Italy. So it was a huge Italian family on my mom’s side. We had cousins that lived across the street. So what we have here (referring to his neighbors on Reycraft), we had in Wyandotte, only mostly with the family.”
It was a neighborhood where kids went outside to play after breakfast in the summertime and did not return until lunch, unless they ate “at whoever’s house you stopped at,” Solesbee says. “You always knew where everyone was by the conglomeration of bikes.”
Solesbee, whose family relocated to Garden City and then, when he was in 10th grade, to the Kalamazoo area, wants that extended-family feeling for his son and the other children on the block. And he wants his house to be one where kids want to hang out.
“One of my first impressions when I first moved in was from the two gentlemen across the street, who have now moved out,” Solesbee says. “The first time I was trying to clean up my yard, I was a new, first-time homeowner. And one of them said, ‘Hey, man, borrow my hedger. Make your house look nice. Take care of it. I’m OK with it.’”
When he and his wife were landscaping the front of their house, he says, “The other neighbor came by. I was trying to break the landscaping blocks with a hammer and chisel. And he said, ‘Oh, nah. Let me get my grinder for you, diamond grind. It will make it look a lot nicer. Take your time. Make it look nice.’ So that was my introduction to the neighborhood.”
After that, he met others in the neighborhood, and “It’s always been close. Everyone’s always out walking their dogs all the time,” he says. “The kids are always out playing. It feels like home.”
Now, people borrow tools -- and a neighborly attitude -- from him.
Moms and dads stood in the Hernandez’s driveway one afternoon several weeks ago to hash out their morning child care/online learning plan. That was after Kalamazoo area schools decided how they would conduct classes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The group solicited online for a nanny/teacher and found one. But complications arose and they ended up hiring a young neighbor down the block.
Solesbee thought she would be a good fit. He can name everyone on the block, including their children and some of their relatives. He is meticulous about his lawn. His Halloween decorations will be great. He laughs at his good fortune and the good fortune of the children in the neighborhood.
There are five teachers in the immediate neighborhood including: his wife Jennifer, who is a speech therapist in the Vicksburg Public Schools; Pott Hernandez, who is a special education teacher for the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency; and Danielle Buckmaster, who is a school principal in the Gull Lake Community Schools. All have been teaching in school five days a week since school started.
“We love Milwood,” says Buckmaster, an eight-year Reycraft Drive resident, speaking for herself, her husband Aaron, and their children, ages 14, 6, and 4. Her family has considered relocating to find a larger home. “And have decided against it multiple times because of our neighborhood and our neighbors,” she says. “We’ll stick with a smaller house because you can’t get this everywhere.”
Their home is a four-bedroom house, which is large for the Milwood Neighborhood, a community that makes up the southeast corner of the City of Kalamazoo. Houses in the neighborhood have a wide range of architectural styles, but many are three-bedroom abodes built before the 1960s, according to Jaqua Realtors. Spokesman Jim Hess says homes in the area are well built and the average price of the 104 homes the company sold last year in Milwood was $152,840, making Milwood an affordable area, well suited for first-time homebuyers.
“We have enough bedrooms for them right now,” Buckmaster says of her children and the family’s reasons for staying put. “We don’t plan on going any further with our family (in terms of size) and you can’t get neighbors like this everywhere.”
Solesbee agrees, saying he and his wife could find a better or bigger house if they wanted. They received an unsolicited offer on their 1,400-square-foot, three-bedroom house last year that would have been a nice return on their investment. But he says they don’t really need bigger. “We are a three-person family and we already have an extra bedroom,” he says. And they can always make improvements if they want.
In the meantime, their mortgage payments are very reasonable and their house should be paid off before Luca is out of high school, he says.
Asked what he tells outsiders about his homey, tree-lined area of Milwood, Solesbee mentions the affordability of houses and the good work the Milwood Neighborhood Watch does to prevent crime and keep people informed of issues. But he lingers on the spirit of the people.
“There are great neighbors all over the whole neighborhood,” he says. And he likes the diversity.
“Of the older residents, we have a White, single female and a married couple,” Solesbee says. “We have a gay family with an adopted son. One is African-American and one’s White. We have a couple of traditional Caucasian households with kids. We have Caucasian and Hispanic. We have Caucasian and mixed African-American/Caucasian. We have a huge diversity.”
He says he wants his son and other kids in the neighborhood to grow up knowing everyone’s the same.
“It doesn’t matter who you love, what color you are, what your nationality is,” he says. “Our kids are growing up. This is America. Our kids don’t look at that. It doesn’t matter who you are. As long as you’re a nice person, we’re going to hang out with you.”
He says many of the people on his block are also between 30 and 45 and most of the 11 children on the block (counting two who live just around the corner) are between ages 4 and 7. That has helped make for good relationships.
His son Luca and Hernandez’s son Rowin were, for instance, born on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, respectively. “They’ve played with each other their whole lives,” he says.
Asked if he can picture himself still cutting grass and blowing snow for his neighbors when he’s 60, Solesbee says, with a laugh, “I’m sure. As long as I can manage it physically, I will do it. If I play my cards right, I’ll be retired at 60.”
He says, “I believe that if I have the ability to help somebody and I have the time to do it, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t.”