Kalamazoo is a vortex, a whirlpool of weird ju-ju. It sucks people, ideas, times and place in and never lets them go. Winds from the big, rolling hills to the west – where they built most of the churches, cemeteries, sanatoriums, and universities – leave something strange, something (dare I say it) mystical hanging in the air. They brew beer here, test antidepressants, and roast coffee. Or, in other words, the locals and university kids get plastered, Pfizer scientists test cocktails of drugs on animals, and everyone drinks coffee to keep the carnivalesque freak show rolling. It’s all in how you want to look at it.
There are two sides to Kalamazoo: one is industrial and gritty, while the other is historic, quaint, and even charming. On South Westnedge you can get a cup of fresh coffee at the hip, thoroughly punk rock Fourth Roast Coffee (enjoy your chai tea in a glass with a dose of ska) and take in the view. Depending on the hour day, however, that view may or may not include one of the following: Victorian homes, cars, bikes, drug dealers, hipsters, the homeless, dogs, and well-dressed old people. It might look like a quiet neighborhood at first glance, but there’s more to the story here.
Then there’s the city’s downtown, which seems to be a real up-and-coming place. It’s your classic urban downtown, with several story brick buildings, one-way streets, gothic churches, and – mercifully – not much in the way of blight or abandonment. The main hotel – The Radisson – was recently renovated and updated, sporting a new glass and steel facade, and there are also plans for a large, new mixed development across the street. Thanks to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the city has a nice, shiny library, too.
Sounds good, right? Just don’t go to Bronson Park at night (named after Titus Bronson, Kalamazoo’s founder). All the Kalamazooans at the bars told me that there’s probably a 50/50 chance you’d get shot in the head by a mugger. OK, so maybe not 50/50, but according to Neighborhood Scout, you so have a 1 in 102 chance of becoming a victim of violent crime in Kalamazoo, compared to the 1 in 203 odds for most the rest of Michigan. That’s a lot better than Gary, Indiana (1 in 62 odds), and way, WAY better than East St. Louis (with 1 in 16 odds of being a victim, why bother opening your front door?). But still, it’s obvious that something’s amiss in this quiet town. Something… weird. Crime is definitely a problem.
Of course, like almost any industrial American town, Kalamazoo’s economy ain’t what it used to be. Sure, it helps that the city’s home to both Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo College, bringing a constant influx of youth and talent into the city. That’s why there’s such a happening farmer’s market, an institute of art, and all the cool coffee shops, brewpubs, and college theatres. But for the average person, it has to feel like your standard of living is slowly slipping, as manufacturers continue to move out of the state.
But since this is a blog about stuff made in Michigan, maybe it’s best to focus on what Kalamazoo still makes. That’s where the future, the potential is. And there’s a lot of potential here.
Once upon time, the city made really, really good stoves, iconic Checker cabs, and Gibson guitars. ‘Made for you in Kalamazoo’ was the city’s slogan. Times, of course, changed.
However, though the Kalamazoo Stove Company and Checker Motors Corporation have long since gone out of business and Gibson has skipped town for Nashville, Heritage Guitars keeps some of the old tradition alive by handcrafting electric guitars in the old Gibson plant on Parsons.
The small, local Kalamazoo Brewing Company, on the other hand, somehow actually survived the challenges of the ’80s and ’90s, and now sells its beers in 14 different states under the name Bell’s. Known for strong authentic flavors that overflow with hoppiness, maltiness, and chocolateness, Bell’s is a true regional favorite. Oh, and there are the major remnants of The Upjohn Company that keep hanging on under the umbrella of either Monsanto or Pfizer, including a major Pfizer research and development center next to downtown (as alluded to earlier).
You can’t kill an industrial like Kalamazoo overnight, you know.
Then there’s the newer companies that shouldn’t be forgotten, either, like S2 Games – which made the moderately successful MMORPG Heroes of Newerth – and the Kalamazoo Popcorn Company, a local business that sells its popcorn in stores throughout the town. These are companies full of young people trying to put their stamp on the world. I wish them the best.
No matter how you want to look at it, Kalamazoo is far from dead. I find that very inspiring. When you look at the struggles of Michigan’s big industrial cities – like Detroit, Pontiac, Flint, Saginaw, and Battle Creek – it’s exciting to see Kalamazoo putting up such a damn good fight. The ju-ju might be weird here, but I’m not convinced it’s a bad ju-ju. It convinces you stay and do what you want, to find a way.
Believe it or not, Kalamzoo’s promotional tourist materials are in on the joke. The city’s new slogan reads: “You’ll be back. We promise.” It’s a vortex, man. The people, the industry… they tried to leave, but they’re coming back. I promise.