Kalamazoo's Unique Neighborhoods
Second Michigan Central Railroad depot, Willard Street, 1863-82 Kalamazoo Public Library Photograph P-171
There is a book waiting to be written about Kalamazoo’s Northside neighborhood, however no sketch of this length can do justice to its rich, complex and fascinating history. The current boundaries of the neighborhood run from Douglas Avenue on the west to the Kalamazoo River on the east, and from the railroad tracks and Willard Street on the south to the northern city limits.
A Slow Start
The Northside has been heavily influenced by two factors, its wet soil and the presence of the railroad. The original surveyor’s notes show that the neighborhood was dominated by floodplain forest on the east and by wet prairie and tamarack swamp on the western half. It is no surprise, then, that the area did not develop as quickly as other neighborhoods around downtown. An 1853 map of Kalamazoo shows a grain mill and a freight depot just north of the railroad tracks on Willard Street, a distillery several blocks further north on Burdick Street, and a few scattered houses. Although some of the remaining land had been subdivided into lots, most of it was apparently owned by people who lived in town and held the land as an investment against later development.
The names of the landowners clearly bespeak the New England and New York origins of most of Kalamazoo’s early settlers: the Balches, the Cobbs, Frederick Woodward, Austin Munsell, Albert Arms, were all New Englanders. The largest single piece was owned by Arnold & Co., a group of bankers. The Arnold in question was Hiram, a New York native, who was active in business here for many years and built the house that was better known later as the home of U. S. Senator Charles Stuart.
The Michigan Central Railroad came to town in 1846 and defined the present southern boundary of the neighborhood. Houses were gradually built north of the tracks, but it was not until after the Civil War that the Kalamazoo and South Haven line cut through the western part of the neighborhood, and the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern, and the Grand Rapids and Indiana lines through the eastern end. Thus firmly connected to the markets in the east, in Chicago, and in other parts of the state, the neighborhood began to change.
The celery industry took hold here in the 1880’s, developed by Dutch immigrants who knew how to work the mucky soil. Northside soil lent itself to the requirements of celery growing, so many Dutch farmers established themselves on small parcels on the north edge of the neighborhood and beyond. The early settlers encouraged their families and friends to follow them to the new world, so what in 1870 had been a Yankee neighborhood, became solidly Dutch and remained so until the middle of the next century. Packing and shipping businesses developed alongside the celery fields.
Manufacturing and Distribution
Celery, however, was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to industry on the Northside. The easy shipping that the railroads offered led to the development of dozens of distributors’ warehouses and factories that produced everything from buggies to vinegar. Among the better-known and long-lived businesses were the Michigan Buggy Company, Clarage Fan, Humphrey Manufacturing, Sutherland Paper Company, Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Company, Kalamazoo Label Company, Johnson-Howard Lumber Company, Kalamazoo Tank and Silo, Fuller & Sons Manufacturing Company, and Kalamazoo Stove Company. Just north of the city limits were Allen Electric, Atlas Press, and Checker Motors. Further to the west were Hammond Machinery Builders, Be-Mo Potato Chips and Master-Craft Corporation. Other companies produced or distributed ice cream, wheels, paper products, boilers, rugs, fuel oil, embalming fluid, skirts, wagons, beer, bedding, cigars, ice, engines, and windows and doors, among other things. The Henderson-Ames Company, whose main factory was downtown, also manufactured lodge furniture in a plant on the Northside.
A Neighborhood Grows
So much manufacturing required workers. Housing to accommodate them rapidly filled in most of the rest of the neighborhood. With the increased population came schools, churches, groceries, meat markets, and other small service businesses. The Northside has always had black residents, although at first the community was small. The first school on the Northside, built sometime before 1866 on North Street just east of Walbridge, served the area’s black children. It would later shelter the first Northside church for a time. It was followed in 1870 by Frank Street School. With two additions to its building, it served the area until it was replaced by Lincoln School in 1922. Frank Street School was joined in 1906 by North West Street School (later known as North Westnedge Avenue School), by Northglade Elementary School in 1965, and by a series of Christian schools, notably William Street Christian School, in use from 1905 until it was replaced in 1950 by North Christian School on Cobb Avenue.
North Presbyterian Church, R. M. Gallup, Architect Labadie’s Souvenir of Picturesque Kalamazoo, 1909, page 22.
Churches have always been a powerful force in the neighborhood. The oldest of them, North Presbyterian, began life as a mission of First Presbyterian. Originally it met in that first little schoolhouse, then in 1866 built its own building at the corner of Ransom and Burdick where, several structures later, it remains today. It also holds the distinction of owning the oldest church bell in the city. The bell originally hung in Kalamazoo’s first church, a small building on South Street between Burdick and Rose. It was cast in 1836 in Troy, New York, and brought to Kalamazoo by ox team in 1836. Eventually, the South Street church became a blacksmith shop, and the bell was moved to what was then still known as Mission Woods Sunday School in 1866.
North Presbyterian apparently served the Northside alone for at least a dozen years before it was joined in 1882 by Bethel Mission of the First Baptist Church. Later known as Bethel Baptist, it remained in its neat frame building at Parsons and Edwards until the congregation sold it to Mt. Zion Baptist in 1944. By 1910, these two churches had been joined by many others, and the history of the Northside churches became complex enough to merit a book of its own.
Life was not all work and solemnity on the Northside. There was lots of fun too. In 1872 P. T. Barnum’s circus put on its shows in a vacant lot a little east of Frank Street School. Tradition has it that an elephant died while they were there and was buried somewhere between the railroad tracks. As the neighborhood built up, the circuses moved to an open area northeast of the intersection of North and Douglas. The same location was also home to a quarter-mile plank cycling track around the turn of the century. Major bicycle companies in the country sent top amateur riders to show off their best bikes. The racers kept the spectators breathless, waiting to see if someone would cut his turn too high and plunge off the upper edge of the banked track. The cycling craze wore off, however, and the track closed after only three years.
LaCrone Park, W. Paterson Street, Kalamazoo, 1940. Probably photographed by Mamie L. Austin. Kalamazoo Public Library Photograph P-834
A less thrilling but more practical form of entertainment arose with the creation of three large neighborhood parks. The easternmost of these, at Harrison and Gull Streets, opened in 1925 as a playground named for Cornelius Verburg, who had died in 1923 while he was mayor of Kalamazoo.
In the center of the neighborhood, east of Cobb Avenue, a sandlot where the children played ball was purchased in 1929 from the estate of H. H. Everard, a prominent local businessman. Until it was fully developed in 1935, it was informally called Everard Park, but then formally named for William L. LaCrone, former superintendent of city parks and forestry, who had died early that year. He loved children and took pride in developing play areas for them. Northwest of LaCrone Park, the city purchased 20 acres at the north end of Woodward Street in 1935.
Four years later it was developed as a WPA project with a complex of baseball and softball diamonds and named in memory of Lewis and Helen Ver Sluis, the previous owners. Ver Sluis had been a well-known celery shipper. It is still among the city’s most popular parks. The thwack of the bat and the cheers of the crowds fill the air on summer evenings, the park having hosted many thousands of ball games in the intervening years.
A little later, just west of Ver Sluis Park, sounds of a different sort emanated from the Douglas Auto Theatre. The drive-in movie craze after World War II allowed motorists and their pajama-clad children to view films from the comfort of their own cars. The Douglas drive-in operated from about 1955 through the summer of 1984. Its Chevy-shaped sign is now part of a permanent display called “The Automobile in American Life” at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.
The era after the war brought other changes as well. An industrial boom encouraged the movement of millions of people from southern rural areas into northern cities in search of jobs. Many of these migrants were black. Those that came to Kalamazoo settled in the Northside because older, cheaper homes were available there, and were not covered by the restrictive covenants banning non-white residents, as was the case in newer neighborhoods.
Segregation in housing was further encouraged by the Federal Housing Administration’s refusal to insure mortgages for blacks in white neighborhoods and vice versa. The neighborhood began to shrink as white residents moved to the suburbs faster than blacks moved in. Then as legislation made restrictive practices illegal, middle class blacks moved out as well. Between the 1950 and the 1990 censuses, population in the neighborhood dropped from 10,500 to only 4,200.
Van Avery Drug Store, 702 N. Burdick, Kalamazoo, 1951 Kalamazoo Valley Museum Photograph 77.318 Civil Rights and Awareness
Many of those left behind were those who were least able to help themselves, so for many years parts of the neighborhood were plagued by poverty and the problems often associated with it. Although problems persisted for many years, a turning point seemed to be reached in the 1963 picketing of the Van Avery Drugstore on North Burdick Street, ostensibly because the Van Averys refused to hire a black clerk even though nearly half of their customers were black. The Van Averys’ response was that they were in no position to hire any help at the time.
After three weeks of picketing and negotiations, a settlement was reached with the NAACP. The store was sold a year later, but reverted to the Van Averys after the death of the buyer. It closed permanently in 1967. The building was later occupied by the Powell Branch Library, which stayed there until it moved to the
Douglass Community Association’s new building in 1985. The site is now the home of the Northside Ecumenical Senior Center.
Old Douglass Community Center Building, northwest corner of N. Pitcher and E. Ransom Streets, Kalamazoo, 1941. Photographed by Mamie L. Austin. Kalamazoo Public Library Photograph P-807
Later opinions of the impact of the incident varied, but it did seem to mark the beginning of civil rights activities in Kalamazoo. It also helped to raise awareness that something needed to be done to solve the problems in the neighborhood. Progress was slow at first, but a tremendous effort by many organizations and individuals eventually began to pay off.
Neighborhood churches, led by the Northside Ministerial Alliance, were a major force. They were joined by such organizations as the Northside Association for Community Development, the Kalamazoo Northside Non-profit Housing Corporation,
Habitat for Humanity, and the Northside Economic Potential Group, among others. Together they run food and clothing centers, provide after-school programs for children, and offer counseling for substance abuse and assistance to the mentally ill. The groups have improved housing stock, developed political and job skills and offered assistance in starting small businesses. Their patient and persistent efforts have made a tremendous difference. Despite the loss of population in the city at large, the 2000 census showed a surge of 24 percent in the number of Northside residents.
A red-letter day was reached in November 2003 with the opening of Felpausch Food Center on North Park Street, the first full-service grocery store in the neighborhood for more than a decade. Its success helped encourage the development of several other major projects: the Northside Skill Center and a pizza parlor, both across the street from the grocery, the North Point Community Retail Park on the corner of Westnedge Avenue and North Street, now home to several small businesses, and a large new structure for Galilee Baptist Church to replace its aging and outgrown building.
While there are still problems to be solved on the Northside—what city has no problems to be solved?—the progress that has been made there over the last forty years is a fine tribute to the many men and women who made the effort to achieve it.
Written by Catherine Larson, Kalamazoo Public Library Local History Specialist, March 2005, with thanks to Alex Forist and Cathy Serra for research assistance. Last updated September 2012.