Oakwood Neighborhood

Three residents who are working with neighbors to create a better Oakwood Neighborhood in Kalamazoo

 Editor’s note: This is the fourth story in Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s “On the Ground Oakwood” series.
Briggs MacGregor expects to spend about three months renovating his future home in Kalamazoo's Oakwood Neighborhood.

He’s planning to put new wall siding on the exterior of the two-bedroom, one-bathroom house in the 2200 block of Amherst Avenue. He’s pretty sure the house -- built in the mid-1930s – will need a new roof. And as he spent a recent afternoon installing new kitchen cabinetry, he says he’s thinking about concrete countertops.

“That’s popular now,” he says.

Settling on a home for himself is a significant thing for MacGregor because he has owned many houses. He has purchased, renovated and sold about 20 houses in the Oakwood Neighborhood over the last 14 years. And he already lives in a 1,600-square-foot house that he built about four years ago on an undeveloped parcel on Madison Avenue in Oakwood.

That house has gotten a bit too big for him, he says. He is no longer married and his daughter is out of the house. She is a 23-year-old medical school student in Chicago and he says, “My daughter comes to visit for one month or a month and a half a year.”

So, at age 60, he will settle into the more practical, 750-square-foot house on Amherst Avenue. But why Oakwood? And why has he done so much home-buying in Oakwood?

“I like the value. I like the neighborhood. Everybody’s really nice here. I know pretty much everybody on Madison Street from the end of the block up to the first corner,” says MacGregor, who owns four houses on Madison Avenue.

He lives in one and has three rental properties on the avenue. But he has also bought and sold two other houses on Madison.

“Flipping” houses (buying at a relatively low price and selling higher) is not a selfless endeavor. It has been a good way to make a living. By making improvements to so many houses in the neighborhood, MacGregor and other home buyers are, however, helping to fix up a neighborhood with housing that dates back to the 1930s.

MacGregor says he embraces the responsibility that comes with renovating homes. He knows he has to do quality work to elevate the neighborhood. 

Andrew Richmond points out some of some of the exterior fix-it work that helped him get to know some of his neighbors in the 3800 block of Madison Avenue.

Meeting neighbors through Building Blocks

Fixing up homes helped Andrew Richmond get to know many of the people on the nearly quarter-mile stretch of Madison Avenue that runs north and south of the 3800 block where he lives. As a supervisor of Oakwood’s Building Blocks program three years ago, he shepherded the efforts of nine neighbors who each needed the help of others to complete a project that would improve the exterior of their homes.

The projects ranged from things as simple as adding better numbers to street-side mailboxes to a more complex rebuilding of a landscape retaining wall that lined a driveway.

The elbow grease of 18 teens from the Lakeside Academy for Children was used to help re-do one neighbor’s walkway, remove stones from a rainwater ditch on the west side of the avenue, and lay a gravel-based parking space in front of another house. Along the way, neighbors got to know one another.

“We were familiar strangers,” Richmond says of neighbors' relationships prior to getting involved with the renovations. Neighbors would come and go but really didn’t know much about one another.

Richmond is a 43-year-old former machinist who has been disabled since a chronic back problem sidelined him from work at age 31. He is a Three Rivers' area native who relocated into the Oakwood Neighborhood in 2011. He says he has knowledge of many things, including home improvement work, but had to limit his involvement in the program to being a supervisor.

“The main thing was getting to know people I wouldn’t have met otherwise,” Richmond says. “And getting to know other people’s life stories and how they got here. You feel like you’re improving the neighborhood that you look at and drive by every day.”

Oakwood resident Ron Lawson II says, “You’ve got those neighborhoods with people who think they live in a gated community. And then you’ve got those (people) that are very sociable.”

Oakwood has a lot more of the latter, he and others say, although many have just enough space to tune out the rest of the world.

“You see people who are withdrawn and they don’t want to be around people,” Lawson says. “They’ve got too much going on or too little going on. And you’ve got people that really want to be active.”

Oakwood prides itself on being a community where both fit.

Lawson makes it a point to get involved with his neighbors and help them where he can. After seeing a lot of the world during eight years in the U.S. Air Force, the 54-year-old says he didn’t really care which kind of neighborhood his wife Karrie picked when they relocated here in 1993. But he is a decidedly sociable guy. And he has become known for being pretty helpful.

“If someone needs help in the neighborhood, they know me,” says Lawson.

He has worked in several industries and, presently, is volunteering his time to help the Oakwood Neighborhood Association update its computers. He also answers computer questions for Oakwood residents, fixes their computer glitches, and tries to help the elderly make the leap into the more technology-driven world.

He wonders what kind of person would be in a position to help but do nothing. The neighborhood association has social programs and tries to connect people with helpful resources.

Further ways to help the neighborhood

For Cheryl Lord, executive director of the Oakwood Neighborhood Association, “fixing” things for neighborhood residents means trying to provide information and encouragement, and calling on local officials and social service organizations to provide the area’s many low- and middle-income residents with resources they need to improve their lives.

Her fix-up list includes:

• Seeing more youngsters from the neighborhood go to the same elementary school. Since Kalamazoo Public Schools closed Oakwood Elementary about 10 years ago (its building now houses an alternative learning program that serves students from all over the city), Oakwood kids have been bused to different schools away from the neighborhood. Lord says a neighborhood school is a dynamic and automatic meeting place for families. Without one, children have less chance to get to know youngsters who live down the block and develop a community bond.

• Having bus stops throughout the neighborhood. Oakwood has a lot of people who walk, ride bicycles or use public transportation to get from place to place, Lord says. Travel has been more difficult since Kalamazoo Metro Transit buses no longer make stops inside the neighborhood. Since last year, the public transit system has bus stops only along Parkview Avenue and Oakland Drive. That is a hardship to many area residents, Lord says.

Lord also says a food pantry inside Oakwood’s 3320 Laird community center strives to prevent people from going hungry when they are between jobs, between paychecks or struggling with bills. While the neighborhood association’s computer help program enlists Lawson to help people fix their computers and learn to work them better, lots of people struggle to fill out paperwork and meet deadlines required to get benefits for which they qualify and they can get help with that from the association, too.

“Everything is online,” Lord says, although many elderly people don’t know how to use computers. She also says, “A lot of people have never used a smartphone.” And many low-income families still don’t have computers or Internet service at home.

MacGregor says a lot of Oakwood residents fail to take advantage of the services and resources available at the Oakwood Neighborhood Association. Like many other people, he found his way to Oakwood after living in some bigger, badder, and more popular places. 

He is a Parchment native, who attended Western Michigan University before relocating to New York City to ultimately work as a chef for a large hotel chain. He opened his own restaurant when he returned to the Kalamazoo area in 1995. But he says he closed that business, The Scone Zone, after about three years. The financial reward was not worth the effort necessary to keep it going, he says. Flipping houses has been worth the effort, he says. But he’s not doing as many houses as he has in previous years.

“I’ve slowed down (from three or four houses per year to about one house per year) because there’s not the deals that there were back in the Great Recession,” MacGregor says, referring to bargain prices he found during the downturn in the U.S. economy that started in 2008 and officially ended in 2010. But why Oakwood, versus other Kalamazoo neighborhoods?

“It’s a nice neighborhood,” says MacGregor. Years. “It’s very quiet. It’s very safe too. It’s one of the safer neighborhoods in Kalamazoo from what I understand.”

And on the street he has lived and worked for many years, Madison Avenue, he says, “I know all my neighbors. If I see something weird, I’m going to call somebody. I think people take care of their neighbors around here.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.