Top Ten: A quick look back at readers’ favorite stories of 2021

It’s become Southwest Michigan’s Second Wave’s tradition to take a quick look back at the stories that were reader favorites in the year just past before we move fully into the year ahead. We ask our writers to tell us a snippet of what they recall about the assignment, a bit of behind the scenes. If you simply want to forget 2021, we get it. At the same time, there were lots of stories of people making their communities better places to live. Here are a few of them.

1. As Native American women go missing and are murdered, who is keeping track?

No one knows exactly how many Native American women go missing and are murdered. That was what I learned as I interviewed tribal members for this story.  The reason:  organizations including the United States Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation haven’t kept an accurate count and also have not investigated numerous cases involving Native American women who have been reported Moptimistic that this lack of reporting and accountability will change with Deb Haaland, the first Native American to lead the U.S. Department of the Interior, who has committed to ensuring that these cases get the same attention as those involving White women.  This story gained additional traction after the murder of Gabby Petito and the major national and international coverage that ensued which really highlighted the disparities in coverage based on race.

2. Kalamazoo family reclaims a blighted corner to open a business that makes your mouth water

It’s not always easy to see, but there are always people trying to improve the neighborhoods around them and thrive. In our On The Ground series, I look for it more than I ever used to. That was the case with Ricky Thrash and his family, who have made improvements on their Northside Neighborhood that aren't hard to see. They have turned a trashy corner that was nothing into one that makes you stop and appreciate their vision. 

3. New Creamery apartments in Kalamazoo’s Edison Neighborhood shows the issues of affordable housing

I've heard it asked a few times: Why doesn't the city or rich people or big-time developers build nice housing that low- and middle-income people can afford? They build high-priced luxury apartments all the time, people say. So I asked the developers of a just-opened “affordable” $14.7 million residential/commercial project. They said the answer is kinda complicated. 

4. Kalamazoo doctor promotes treatments that reduce hospitalizations and deaths from COVID

Firefighters, cops and emergency personnel throughout Southwest Michigan have known for years that it’s good to hear what Dr. William Fales has to say on serious subjects. So after years of finding Kalamazoo County’s EMS medical director at accident scenes, training programs, emergency rooms and classrooms, it was great to see him share his expertise last March with a national TV audience. (This time to promote the use of monoclonal antibodies to treat COVID-19 patients.)

5. Seeking a new home: Kingman Museum searches for a new location for its collection

As hidden gems go, the Kingman Museum is a big one for many Battle Creek residents who remember going there as children and have gone on to bring their children and grandchildren there.  The closure of the museum at its present location was necessary because of the funds needed to make repairs to keep the building safe and viable.  Now, museum leadership and the Battle Creek Community Foundation are seeking a new location and life for the museum which is an institution for those who live here.

6. Young couple is putting energy into historic home renovations in the Stuart Neighborhood

While interviewing people for our On the Ground series, three residents of the Stuart Neighborhood told me that a couple in their 20s was restoring 100-year-old houses in the historic neighborhood. They said the newcomers were doing a beautiful job. An a local historian said, “You ought to meet them." I did. And I found that the newcomers loved doing the old neighborhood proud.

7. Neighbors worry about plans for Portage Road. City says changes will come slowly and are needed.

This is a little personal for me for a couple reasons: I lived near Austin Lake until I was five, and visited grandparents there many weekends and holidays. It use to be a small community, and  residents want to hang on to that, but the neighborhood has a wide road of heavy, fast traffic going through it now. It felt like many people at the park meeting wanted two incompatible situations: To keep their neighborhood's quiet lakeside charm, and to keep the assumed convenience of being able to drive through it with nothing slowing them down. I started biking ten years ago, and a route south from Kalamazoo through Portage and back became a favorite. Portage is a great community for biking -- except for this area. I've felt the cold wind of death a few times on Portage Road between Austin and West Lakes. I pedaled to the park to cover this story, and on the way shot the perfect photo to capture what the road is like for non-motorists: A man using a cane, trying very carefully to cross four lanes of speeders. Follow-up: The Portage City Council unanimously voted for the Lake Center District study, and the first steps in implementation include a traffic signal at Forest Drive and Portage Road, plus an expansion of Lakeview Park.

8. The COVID vaccines: Kalamazoo's medical community answers all your questions

As doctors were telling us that COVID-19 vaccines were becoming more readily available early in 2021, many of them were scratching their heads wondering why lots of people – particularly members of the Black and Brown communities -- were skeptical about taking them. So it was great to see a team of local medical leaders work with one of Kalamazoo’s largest predominantly Black churches to try to answer any question community members wanted to ask. 

9. Being small enough to pivot has helped this Kalamazoo bistro survive the COVID-19 slowdown

Comensoli’s is a small, family-owned Italian bistro. I knew that nearly all of its business was walk-in, sit-down customers. So I wondered how it survived the COVID-19 shutdown in 2020 and how it was still managing in 2021 with indoor customer limitations and social-distancing restrictions. I was struck by the idea that it could die from a lack of customers even though thousands of potential customers drive by it every day headed into downtown Kalamazoo. I learned that in troubled times, a small boat is easier to turn.

10 .KCC alum Lance Barber, the dad on 'Young Sheldon', will appear during upcoming performing arts gala

Kellogg Community College has a vibrant performing arts program that operates largely under the radar and is often overshadowed by programs at larger schools such as Western Michigan University.  Because I am not a “Young Sheldon” viewer, I had no idea who Lance Barber was, much less where he was from.  After learning that he is a Battle Creek native and a graduate of KCC’s Performing Arts program, I knew I had to shine a spotlight on the college and former students like Barber, some of whom have gone on to major stardom and others who have gone on to perform in local community theatre productions.

Still in the top 10 five years later:

The Japanese Knotweed: Don't try to kill this invader on your own


Read more articles by Kathy Jennings.

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.