In 1989, a half-acre park on North Rose Street that had been known as Kingston Park was renamed to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In the center of the park is an intricate cast-bronze statue of MLK created by Lisa Reinertson, whose father walked with King in the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery.
Little did those who sought to create an homage to the slain civil rights leader know, but in future years MLK Park would become a symbol of King’s legacy, bringing people from various walks of life together to work for the good of others.
The city of Kalamazoo has 36 parks with more than 400 acres that city workers maintain. As a result of budget cuts over the years, there have been fewer workers to maintain those parks, so, in the spirit of Dr. King, a number of local organizations and individuals have stepped in to maintain MLK Park.
In 1989, the Kalamazoo Junior Girls, an organization on the city’s north side that promotes the positive development of young girls, “adopted” the park as a community service project. Members of the organization work in the park several times a year, cleaning up trash, planting flowers and providing other maintenance.
“I started the KJG to teach girls from eight to 18 how to engage in the community, assume civic responsibility, take pride in their city and learn what giving back to the community means,” says Pamela Roland, executive director and founder of the Kalamazoo Junior Girls. “We adopted MLK Park as one of our projects.”
The park’s proximity to the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission, Ministry with Community, the Rickman House and the Kalamazoo Transportation Center means that it often draws the city’s homeless, transient and marginalized citizens. And with a lot of loitering and trash on the park’s grounds, the park’s beauty can sometimes be hard to see.
In the past year, KJG planted Kwanzan cherry trees, a Japanese variety with bright pink double blossoms, in the park. In September, members of KJG were among nearly 40 volunteers on hand to remove summer flowers and prepare the grounds for fall plantings.
Over the years KJG has partnered with various community groups in the upkeep of the park, including the Kalamazoo NAACP, Jeter’s Leaders, Galilee Baptist Youth and the Community Healing Center’s Streets Program.
In 2012, another group, this one composed of older volunteers, joined the efforts to maintain and beautify MLK Park. Members of Landscape Love have taken responsibility for a section of the park where they plant flowers and pick up trash. The group’s organizer, Karen Chadwick, began this task with Aedin Clements and Jane Kramer and now has a list of 70 workers and supporters of the project.
Chadwick became concerned about the condition of the park after attending a political rally there in 2012. “I’d never been there before,” she says. “I marveled at the gorgeous sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr., but the park looked like a shabby alley.
“I especially love MLK Park and King’s legacy. With a little sweat equity, I realized I could help bring a dignity to the park (in honor of the person) for whom it’s named.”
Chadwick says Landscape Love’s members work two or three days a month in the park. “We usually have three or four people come on any given workday, but I’d like to have 15 people,” she says.
Chadwick’s group came along at the right time. Kalamazoo Parks Manager Sean Fletcher says in 2010, budget cutbacks in his department meant that “four FTE (full-time equivalent) and a .75 FTE positions were eliminated.” The remaining workers had their hands full maintaining the city’s 36 parks.
Fletcher says he was thrilled that Chadwick and her Landscape Love volunteers joined with Kalamazoo Junior Girls and other groups in the upkeep of MLK Park. “We love it when there are more eyes taking care of things,” Fletcher says.
Chadwick, after being nominated by Fletcher, received a 2015 Community Service Award from the Michigan Recreation & Park Association for her and Landscape Love’s efforts in MLK Park.
Both Chadwick and Roland see their efforts as a small tribute to King. Roland notes that because MLK Park sometimes attracts “people of limited resources,” she prepares the girls before they work in the park to see beyond the negatives.
“Some of the girls even know a few of the homeless people there. But you can teach them the difference between the dream and reality and to focus on the dream,” says Roland. “Isn’t that the legacy of Dr. King?”