This story begins on an island: a patch of land that is surrounded by the City of Kalamazoo but is not part of it. This episode originally aired in Nov. 2019.
Instead, the land belongs to Kalamazoo Charter Township. If you live there, you vote for township supervisor, not mayor, though the city is all around you.
Kalamazoo Township is broken into four chunks: the small "island" along Riverview Drive, just big enough for a few houses and the township office; another section near Parchment; and two big pieces that bracket the city to the east and northwest.
Shawn Cencer, who lives in the township and works in the city, says that because of the irregular border a person travelling across town can hit the line several times.
“You cross into the city, then you’re back in the township, then you’re back in the city. It’s not very logical, at least in my mind, where the boundary is. Sometimes it doesn’t even follow the street line, it just goes through the middle of a block,” he told “Why’s That?”
Shawn wonders how things got this way, and why the city and the township haven’t merged.
It turns out their separateness is no accident.
We start at the township office, where Clerk Mark Miller explains that the origins of the distinction “go back to the early 1800s.”
“When Kalamazoo County was originally set up, basically the northern half of the county was Arcadia Township, and it got subdivided, then it got renamed as Kalamazoo Township,” he added.
That all happened in one decade, the 1830s. At that time, there was no city of Kalamazoo, just the village of Kalamazoo. As it got bigger and turned into a city and grew even more, the town annexed more and more land from the township, which began to change as well.
Miller said that after World War II, “the urban population started to spill out into beyond the boundaries of the city then, and the subject started to come up about a possible merger.”
The city proposed to annex the entire township. In April 1955, this went to a popular vote.
“The way that the vote was done at that time, it had to be approved by both the city of Kalamazoo and the township of Kalamazoo,” said Western Michigan University Zhang Legacy Collections Curator Lynn Houghton.
“And in that situation the city approved it but the township did not so that failed,” she said.
So much for a merger. But some township residents still favored annexation. They started filing petitions by neighborhood – and maybe, in some cases, by precinct, or some even smaller unit. Sometimes an area as small as a few blocks would be up for annexation.
“And so that’s when you begin to see over the next couple of years, bits and pieces of Kalamazoo Township begin to get annexed into the city,” Houghton said.
Milwood voted for annexation. So did Oakwood, South Westnedge, and Henderson Park Terrace to the west, to name a few.
Not every campaign succeeded. Westwood voted annexation down four times in 1950s, though once by just 58 votes.
The City of Kalamazoo’s archives include some literature from each side of the issue.
“Citizens of Westwood,” a pro-annexation flyer begins. “We can see that people living in the city have a number of things we don’t have. If we were a part of the city, WE COULD HAVE THESE THINGS TOO.”
The things listed range from sewers, to streetlights, to more police and stricter building codes. Sure, the flyer says, taxes will go up. But only a little.
An anti-annexation essay makes the opposite case. It predicts that taxes will skyrocket. And it’s skeptical of claims about better services.
In 1979, Kalamazoo became a charter township. That makes it harder for the city to annex pieces of its land. But township clerk Mark Miller says he believes a merger is still theoretically possible.
But Shawn Cencer, who wanted to know why Kalamazoo Township, where he lives, isn’t part of the city, said that given a chance to make them one unit, he might end up voting “no.”
When I’m talking to folks from out of town, or out of state, I just tell them, ‘I live in Kalamazoo.’ But when I’m talking to to folks locally, it just becomes much more of a label or a definer,” he explained.
“It’s like a source of pride, whether you’re township or city. And it’s not like they’re necessarily diametrically opposed, but people do make a point to explain that.”