Could a small park, created after a tragedy 20 years ago, be a building block toward reinvigorating one of Kalamazoo’s most-challenged neighborhoods? A group of faith-based volunteers in the Edison neighborhood hope so.
On the plot they’re working to transform, once sat a condemned home. It caught fire, killing 10-year-old Ashley Joyce, whose family had rented the house. Instead of building on the property, the Edison Neighborhood Association dedicated a park, memorializing the young girl on Hays Park Avenue. That was in 2002.
Neighborhood kids and families enjoyed the park for years, until two decades later it was once again a space in disrepair.
“That playset had become condemned,” says Rod Tucker. “People were using the park for drugs. It was full of litter. People are dropping their trash off in there, and so it was just something that had become unkempt and kind of an eyesore in the neighborhood.”
Tucker, the lead pastor of Edison Chapel, gathered a group of volunteers from his congregation to address the issue. In February 2021, the neighborhood association transferred the land to the church for one dollar, acknowledging it didn’t have the resources to maintain the park. Tucker says the initial clean-up, including removing the dilapidated playground, had an immediate and positive effect. “The day we cleaned all the trash up, people stopped littering. Beautification does work in neighborhoods to make them family-friendly, and that’s the goal.”
The “Hays Parklet” project, as it is sometimes called, is a companion to the church’s Edison Initiatives housing program. Edison Chapel created the separate nonprofit to buy and renovate homes in the neighborhood that are then turned over to residents, with the goal of increasing the rate of homeownership in an area where more than 80% of homes are rentals.
Edison Initiatives’ Keith Platte says the park project, which is not part of the housing program, will have a positive effect on the broader community. “Hays Park is a rough street and the fact that the park was so neglected, and the fact that we’ve had an opportunity to change it, has been significant,” Platte says, adding that it is an important part of the overall effort to develop and restore the Edison neighborhood. “It fits into that as a spoke in the hub of the wheel of the many things that we want.”
After cleaning the park, Edison Chapel volunteers and others set about improving it so kids and families could enjoy it again. A local landscaping company donated equipment, supplies, and labor to add boulders and tires for kids to climb on, and to plant new grass and bushes. Tucker says they also added a new split-rail fence, thanks to a $10,000 donation by a church in Ann Arbor. “We’ve taken $2,000 of that to create a boundary so that a dad or a mom can have their kids playing in the park and there’s a boundary keeping them from the street,” Tucker says, “but we didn’t want the fence to seem like a wall or anything like that.” Tucker says he’s confident that Edison Chapel will be able to continue maintaining and improving the park using donations.
The newest addition to the park is a Little Free Library, which is overseen by volunteer Heidi Wolfe. “Kids in every neighborhood deserve to have access to books, and quality books, and books that represent them, and also books that broaden their world,” she says. Wolfe says books initially came from the “Art of Planting Little Free Libraries” initiative started by two educators in the Kalamazoo Public Schools district. Books and other supplies are now donated by members of the Edison Chapel congregation. Volunteer Frank Lamar, who helped install the split-rail fence and helps with the chapel’s youth chess club, reiterates the importance of broadening young minds. “We want them to be able to take one of those books, sit in that park, and enjoy reading,” says Lamar, “and if they’re not reading, we want them to come here to the chess club so we can teach them a life game, a game that when they’re trying to decide decisions, they’ll calculate like they do on the chessboard and realize that there are repercussions for these moves that they might make. You want them to make the right moves on and off the board.”
The exact shape of the new Ashley Joyce Memorial Park is still a work in progress. Shari Davis volunteers on the committee working on those efforts, which will include canvassing the neighborhood in 2023 to get community input on the park’s future. “We’ve even talked to some of the kids and asked them what they’d like to see,” Davis says. Some early suggestions have already been implemented, including the addition of the Little Free Library according to Tucker.
Engaging with the community is critical in Rod Tucker’s view. “It’s one thing to transform a space and it’s another to empower neighbors’ voices. I think when we operate with the mindset of empowerment as opposed to the mindset of transformation, we can get a lot more simple, sustainable, and long-lasting things done in the neighborhood that will stick.”
Tucker says the overall goal of fixing the park is to help make the neighborhood a place where families can stay and “live and thrive.” Tucker says doing that requires flexibility. “We need a community of people to come around it and say we’re here with this park, and with this neighborhood, as it grows and changes, we will too.”
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