Like so many neighborhoods, Kalamazoo’s Eastside has seen its economic ups and downs. To raise community pride and foster a resurgence of the neighborhood, the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, Vibrant Kalamazoo, and the Eastside Neighborhood Association came together to create "Eastside Voices." It’s an intergenerational oral history and book project with stories from current and former Eastside residents.
“It all started in 2018, when the Land Bank convened a group of us to do a peer-learning session in Macon, Georgia,” says Pat Taylor, the executive director of the Kalamazoo Eastside Neighborhood Association. “A person from the Center for Community Progress had a program where communities can learn about community development from other communities.”
Taylor says eight people from Kalamazoo went to Georgia. They included representatives of several other local organizations. They returned with new ideas on how to help the Eastside neighborhood thrive. Belinda Tate, the executive director of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, shared an example of an oral history she was involved in before coming to Kalamazoo that profiled a housing development in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
The Eastside oral history project was led by local artists Sid Ellis and Buddy Hannah and includes the stories of 17 former and current neighborhood residents. Local youth were also involved in collecting the stories.
“Everybody kept saying, "The poor Eastside! Too bad something can’t be done with it,'” Taylor says. “But there was such a pride when you talk with the residents that still live there. Some of them inherited the homes that they live in. Some of them moved in just because they were impressed by the neighbors. There was a totally different feel coming from the residents than from the general public.”
Another part of the Eastside project included two art installations. Local artist Gerald King created a mural featuring stories from the oral history that's on display on the wall of a vacant building owned by the Land Bank at 1616 East Main. It's slated for demolition for redevelopment into the Eastside Square project. A permanent outdoor art installation was completed by artist Conrad Kaufman. He worked with Mike Holmes of DeVisser Landscaping to depict elements of the oral history as part of the final phase of the "pocket park" in the Eastside Gateway Project at Phelps and East Main. It will include the redevelopment of 11 abandoned or vacant properties.
“We’ve got all of the folks from the neighborhood to develop the vision for the redevelopment that’s happening,” says Kelly Clarke, who's the executive director of the Kalamazoo Land Bank. “My thought was, wouldn’t it be wonderful to not only have the residents develop the vision for what’s happening but actually have the neighborhood story told in the developments. So, when people are experiencing the new development, and maybe they’re from a different community, they can see those stories and this rich history.”
Support for Eastside Voices was provided by the Making Arts Grow in Kalamazoo (MAGIK), a program of the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo. Support for the pocket park and permanent art installation was provided by MSHDA’s Neighborhood Enhancement program. The Public Media Network provided young people an opportunity to build video production skills and capture stories in a multi-media format.
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