This month’s profile features Joan Huyser-Honig.
Interviewer: Your name has been in the newspaper lately, hasn’t it, Joan?
Joan: Yes, it has.
Interviewer: Can you tell us about that?
Joan: I’m part of a neighborhood advisory council for Amplify GR. That group is trying to lead community-led development in the Boston Square neighborhood. I got on that council because I was on the board of Oakdale Neighbors for about ten years. And, despite all the controversy about the development, I feel they are trying hard to listen to the neighborhood. The big fear is that diversity, equity and inclusion won’t be honored, as has happened in other areas, like Wealthy Street.
Interviewer: Are you concerned about gentrification?
Joan: Gentrification in other neighborhoods has resulted in new businesses run mainly by white people and patronized by richer white people, places that don’t feel affordable to the neighborhood. We’re trying to avoid that. Another thing is that our neighborhood has a lot of renters who are worried about getting priced out. So, the new development includes affordable housing at a lot of levels, and it also includes three-bedroom apartments. Most new developments only have studios and one- or two-bedroom apartments. But that doesn’t really help many of the families who rent in our neighborhood.
Joan: The proposed nine-acre development also includes opportunities for locally owned businesses. For example, there will be a food hall where people will be incubating new businesses. We hope we will have enough population density to bring back a grocery store and a bank. The first thing that will be developed is an early childhood learning center. There is a huge need for affordable daycare and early childhood education. This learning center will be mixed income, and the building will also have a community space. In our neighborhood, we don’t have many gathering spaces. We don’t have any city parks. Neighbors have worked together to create some parklets, but the city doesn’t officially support them. For instance, this past summer, a bunch of neighbors got together on an empty lot. We built picnic tables, made an oversized chess set area, put in planters. All we wanted was to get a dead tree from the city, so that it would be a natural climbing area. The city said we couldn’t do that because we were not an official city park. If you don’t have any official city parks, you don’t get any access to their resources. It’s a case of not having power to start with, so it’s hard to get anything. But Amplify gladly paid for the picnic tables. Amplify is associated with DeVos money. I think there is quite a bit of variation within the DeVos family on the types of things they support. But there is no pressure for us as neighbors to support any particular political views.
Interviewer: At this point, the project is going ahead, correct?
Joan: The Planning Commission has approved it. The City Commission still has to approve it, and there needs to be more investment for some things to happen. When the funds are all raised, the DeVos money will be a minority portion of the total.
Interviewer: Go back to the beginning. How did this project get started?
Joan: Ahh. It may have started way before the foreclosure crisis; our area had, I think, the highest foreclosure rate in the city. Property values were never high, but they tanked. There was a lot of property abandoned and decaying. To two of the DeVos foundations, this was an opportunity to do development in a different way, so they bought a lot of property. In many cases, they paid double or more than what it was worth.
Interviewer: It sounds like the initiative came from the DeVos Foundation rather than from the neighborhood. That’s different.
Joan: There’s a lot of renters, a lot of foreclosures, so people have not felt much of a sense of neighborhood. It’s never been a place that’s organized like Eastown or Alger Heights, and one reason is that we don’t have a lot of businesses. The only neighborhood school was abandoned for many years. So, the kinds of places where people naturally gather—parks, community centers, libraries, restaurants, schools—haven’t been part of our neighborhood.
Interviewer: Let me get a clear understanding of the neighborhood.
Joan: The Amplify boundaries are Division on the west, Hall on the north, Fuller on the east, and Burton on the south.
Interviewer: Oh, that’s a pretty big area.
Joan: Right. That includes Madison Square, the Cottage Grove industrial area, and parts of the Garfield Park neighborhood. As part of the nine-acre development, One business in our Boston Square/Oakdale neighborhood, Modern Hardware, will move across Kalamazoo to a parklet we made last summer.
Interviewer: What’s your time frame for this?
Joan: The early childhood center will open in August 2021. The project will proceed in steps. It could take five years or as long as ten years. It depends on whether the developers can get the low-income tax credits, and they’ll also need other investors. I know neighbors are interested in having at least one project that we could buy shares in. Another exciting thing is that the development will include green space. I don’t know if it will become a city park with city support. It’s exciting because I think kids can tell when they grow up in a place where there is no playground or just a broken-down playground. Meanwhile, you go a mile-and-a-half, and other neighborhoods have these beautiful playgrounds. Those playgrounds are often in areas where most people have cars and are already able to take their kids to parks, museums, or indoor spaces where you pay to play, like Catch Air or Jester’s Court.
Interviewer: It sends a very unhappy message, doesn’t it?
Joan: Yes, it does. So, in spite of the skepticism that a lot of neighbors had, Amplify is listening to neighbors. The designs have changed significantly because of neighbor input. And every parent who is on Amplify’s full-time staff—has a black son. They are very aware of the injustices built into our system already.
Interviewer: Last week, the Wednesday night book group heard from a young black man about the ways he and his peers experience injustices. It’s dreadful.
Joan: It is. A lot of people don’t realize it or say, “You’re playing the race card.” I know many young black men who have been imprisoned for selling drugs, maybe just marijuana. And I know white moms who worry about their sons using marijuana. But nothing ever happens to them.
Interviewer: Let’s switch gears. You have also been involved for many years with the COS community garden.
Interviewer: Can you talk about the early days of that? You started it, right?
Joan: I started it with Elizabeth and Sam Schoofs, right before they left for Chad. But let me say one thing first. I have been going here to COS since the fall of 1976, when I started at Calvin. So, I am one of the longer members here. Anyway, with the garden, several years ago, I happened to read an article about a movement called Incredible Edible Todmorden in Great Britain. Todmorden was a town with high poverty and unemployment. A bunch of people got together and decided to start growing things in public that anyone can harvest. So, I explored ways I could do that in my neighborhood and at church. The church one took off because we had a stronger organization of people.
Interviewer: We also had space.
Joan: Yes, we had space. We had refugees, so we came up with this idea that half the plots would be for native English speakers and half the plots would be for people who are learning English. Initially we thought that there would be more mixing, more community. For the first several years, there was a garden night which people could come to if they wanted, and that went quite well at first. There was a gardener named Mustafa who just loved gardening. He was the one who told me that the Bosnian word for ‘tomato’ is ‘paradajz,’ pronounced like the English word ‘paradise.’
Joan: And for Mustafa, it was paradise to be able to garden again. But he got a brain tumor and, before the frost came, he was dead. People from the garden would go visit him and his wife and pray for them. We got him a Bosnian Bible. I used Google Translate to print the story of the Good Shepherd in Bosnian. I told him he reminded me of the Good Shepherd in that he watered other people’s gardens all the time. And now a Bosnian woman has taken on that role. The good part about the church garden is that it provides an outlet for people who formerly had land in their own country but now don’t. You probably have seen that there are lawn chairs always out there. Often, if you go in the early evening, there will be a bunch of people, mostly Bosnians and mostly related to each other. But, over the years, we have had maybe twelve nationalities. Some of those people moved to other states to be near family or friends. Or they got their own property. Others were seminarians. The longest-term members have been Bosnians. People have helped each other out in the garden and prayed for each other. These exchanges have happened among and between COS members and non-COS members.
Interviewer: How do you make the availability known among our new Americans?
Joan: First, I contact all the people who had plots. I also contact Andrew, Troy, Nita, Ellen—and others who are involved with new Americans. And we have an announcement in BES. But recent refugees have not been as interested. Perhaps different cultural groups have different levels of interest. Also, Bethany Christian Services has some garden programs for people from Africa.
Interviewer: If a COS member wanted to get a garden plot this year, what should they do?
Joan: They can contact me. There will also be an announcement in the bulletin.
Interviewer: Do you encourage people who are not new Americans—old Americans, should I say?
Joan: (Laughs) How about native English speakers?
Interviewer: Sure. Do you encourage them?
Joan: Every year I think, “Oh no, there’s not going to be enough space.” But there always is. I don’t think we have ever had to turn anyone away.
Interviewer: Do you see prospects of future expansion?
Joan: To do that, we would need more money for the deer fence. To build the garden, we acquired almost everything else for free. We have used up all the pieces we bought for the deer fence. The solar panels have taken some of the space in which we could have expanded to the west. Perhaps we can expand some to the north. One of the things I have dreamed about is that we could have more edible perennials growing on COS property that anyone could harvest. We would have to solve the water problem. We would have to have people buy plants and maintain them for the first couple of years. And there are edible perennials that deer are less likely to eat.
Interviewer: Anything else?
Joan: Just that I am really grateful to go a church where, every week I can count on hearing prayers or sermons or songs that name things that really matter to me, like creation care, injustice at the border, poverty, racism—things that all Christian should be thinking about every single day.
Interviewer: Thank you, Joan!
Interviewed by Jim Bradley 1/16/2020