We Are Edison: Portraits of the people of Edison Neighborhood show community pride

The faces of Kalamazoo's Edison Neighborhood are speaking to their community.

It’s a sunny summer noon on Portage Street. A man slowly drives by and shouts out to the people helping to paste up large prints of faces on the former Kalamazoo Color Lab building: "Souls that are testifying!" 

Project coordinator Anna Roeder and photographer Fran Dwight have gotten many reactions, all positive, to "Inside Out: We Are Edison."

Earlier, a man parked, walked over, and "started crying tears of joy," Roeder tells Dwight. "He doesn't even live in the neighborhood, but he said it just made him so proud to live in Kalamazoo."

Dwight replies, "when we start to touch people outside the neighborhood... I think we really hit the mark." 

It is a stunning sight: On the brick walls of a vacant building at 1324 Portage St. are large, expressive portraits of people from babies to seniors, all ethnicities, all residents of Kalamazoo's most populous and diverse neighborhood.

"One thing you notice in these photos, in black and white, 'color' has become insignificant in every one of those faces. What 'color' they are is almost invisible," Dwight points out.

Maria Garcia, of health and fitness club Kzoo Nutrition across the street, walks over to see her photo get applied to the wall.

Garcia says "they better not write on this!" -- "they" meaning all the building taggers of Kalamazoo. 

Could one say this art project is the opposite of graffiti? Some graffiti is simply outlaw urban art, but most examples in Edison are gang tags that show up on empty houses, street signs and buildings, more stamps of territorial ownership than art.

"This is graffiti in a way," Dwight says, in that it's urban art on an unoccupied building. 

But, "the message that it sends is different than the gang symbols. Gang symbols say, 'we are here, watch out for us.' This art says, 'we are here, aren't we beautiful.'"

The message is that Edison is everyone's home, "we are all neighbors." 

A neighborhood coming back

During her interview, Dwight gets distracted -- "Look at the faces in the windows!" she says, lifting her camera to shoot what she sees. Her photographer's eye noticed the reflection of the portraits in the windows across the street -- windows that, before 2005, used to be walls advertising the "Largest Selection of Adult Material..." 

She's been living in Edison for about 27 years, Dwight says. On her Lane Boulevard block, her experience has been "95 per cent good, five per cent unfortunate," she says.

She once had a nice camera stolen from her car. And she doesn't share the neighborhood's notorious love of fireworks, she says, laughing. "It's no fun on the Fourth of July, but it's not bad!"

Too often in the past couple decades, if Edison got into the news it's been due to crime. Dwight would like the rest of Kalamazoo know that it's getting better, in part thanks to businesses returning to Washington Square.

Dwight has another series of photographs that are frankly drab, of the Washington Square commercial district, from around 2000.

There are many vacant buildings in the shots, all seeming to point their blank faces at the adult bookstore, porn video parlor and strip club that lined the 1300 block of Portage.

"I took them with a mind to document the entire Washington Square corridor, because it was just beginning to turn around. There were whispers of getting rid of the strip joint and whispers of getting rid of the book store." 

The adult businesses, under community pressure, moved out around 2005. It was a very slow process in getting those spaces cleaned up, refurbished and inhabited, with a number of local entities struggling to find businesses that would serve the community. 

The Kalamazoo County Land Bank got involved with the Edison Neighborhood Association in 2013, and since then a variety of shops have popped up, from a music instrument store to a Vietnamese fusion restaurant.

The goal is to turn the Portage Street commercial corridor back into what it used to be in the mid-20th century, Land Bank executive director Kelly Clarke says. "It used to be a vibrant, commercial node. We've been working to bring that back to life, and wanting to do that in a way that's community-driven." 

Clarke knows that the community must be involved in the process. So it made sense to put the community -- in photos -- on the most-recent property the Land Bank has for lease or sale. The Color Lab building is the last they have to fill on the block, after filling six others. 

Street Scenes

The Land Bank's Americorps member, Roeder, had been given the task of developing six art events focused on Washington Square. After seeing French street artist JR's TED talk on plastering a community with the faces of its residents, and looking up the resulting international "Inside Out" art project, she knew what had to happen.

"This really confirmed for me just the power of art in uniting communities, and individuals to their community," Roeder says.

The faces overlooking busy Portage Street encourage drivers to slow down, "take in their surroundings a little bit more, to snap out of tunnel vision and notice what's around them." 

Roeder speaks about the positive experience she's had simply working on the wall and meeting residents -- but her interview is constantly interrupted by people walking and driving by, showing interest and support.

A husband and wife walking home from church stop to chat. She says, "this is beautiful;" he calls it, "a blessing.... Especially with the children, I love it."

Dwight, her camera constantly with her, sets up a little photo shoot of the couple.

Another Edison resident walks by, Travis Thomas. He also declares the wall "beautiful."

"Take his picture with me," Dwight asks me.

"Come to the party, Friday night!" she says to everyone who stops to chat.

That would be the Aug. 4 Art Hop event on the 1300 block of Portage, by Jersey Giant Subs. It will be the official unveiling of "We Are Edison."

Dwight took the portraits during an earlier Edison Art Hop. Anyone was welcome to sit in front of her lens. She made sure to get prints to all participants, and gave free group sessions for families.

"I learned that even though I'm an introvert, I could communicate for a moment with each of these people, and it didn't scare me, and they could communicate with me and it didn't scare them."

Even in the age of selfies, it's not easy for a photographer to get subjects comfortable enough to be themselves. 

It's intimidating enough to have a professional's camera take aim at one's face. Dwight's subjects also knew their faces would be blown up and plastered on a wall for all to see.

Some were worried about the outcome, Dwight says, but none of the participants have been unhappy with the result. She looks up at the wall. "This is a testament that you can see right through to the soul.... They weren't prepared for how big they are, and how wonderful and lovely they are."

Mark Wedel has been a Kalamazoo-based freelance journalist since 1992. He and his wife have also been residents and homeowners in the Edison neighborhood since 2004.
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