Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Edison
If you buy three old factory buildings, tenants will come.
If you demolish walls, even more will come.
At least those are the principles that have worked so far for Krystal and Jeb Gast, owners of Edison’s Jericho Town, a trio of century-old factory buildings that are quickly filling with artists, tradespeople, and entrepreneurs, including an auto repair shop and even a cafe.
Edison, once home to a variety of small factories, such as Starr Brass Foundry, Kalamazoo Buggy, and a munitions factory, among many others, was a neighborhood where people could both live and work. Local manufacturing, however, has moved out over the years, leaving behind a smattering of abandoned buildings and vacant warehouses.
The Gasts, who relocated to Kalamazoo from Seattle four years ago, invited by friends and drawn by the Kalamazoo Promise, arrived in town with the intention to set up an electric scooter shop, Fido Motors
“We just packed up the moving truck and moved out here,” says Krystal. “But out of all the places I’ve lived, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as welcomed or felt like I had such a great community of friends and neighbors as I did when I moved here.”
The couple learned about the properties on Stockbridge and Fulford from Kama Mitchell, Executive Director of Rootead
, a nonprofit that focuses on birthing justice and body awareness, primarily to help empower women of color. Mitchell happened to be the doula for the Gast’s second child.
“They were looking for space and we were looking for space to grow our nonprofit,” says Mitchell, whose business became the first tenant in the second building. “It just kind of all organically unfolded.”
Rootead has a variety of activities including a dance group for young people.
“It’s been really cool having Rootead here because they do a lot of kids’ activities, like a Saturday morning African Drum and Dance,” says Krystal. She says her kids love to hear the drumming. “This is home. We’re here almost more than we’re at home.”
Though the Gasts were looking for one building, they ended up buying 35,000 square feet of three buildings, which was much more than they needed.
Envisioning potential, the couple rented lifts, took up chisel, paintbrush, and hammer, and transformed the previous boarded up records repository, which had only been accessible from the rear, into a whitewashed, welcoming artist and entrepreneur enclave complete with a rustic cafe.
So welcoming, in fact, that a train engineer regularly stops his train on the nearby tracks and pops into the Fido Motors Cafe
for a cup of joe. The first time it happened, Krystal says she thought, “Is this for real?”
One of Jerichos’s first tenants was a ceramicist, who has since moved to Atlanta. In addition to Rootead, current tenants include Kal-Tone
, a custom guitar, and restoration shop, Damn Handsome Grooming Co.
, producer of soaps, candles and beard oils made from beer brewer waste, Metric Motor Works, an automobile repair shop, Yes Electric, and the workshop of the Kalamazoo Piano Company.
Fido Motors Cafe, which opened in 2016, is gaining in popularity and frequently draws customers from outside of Edison, particularly from neighboring Milwood.
“The original idea for the cafe was to show the scooter and be a place to have to check out what is going on over here, as well as have something in the neighborhood that is active,” says Krystal. Frequently the cafe promotes Waffle Weekends, and on Sunday, April 29, a Waffle Weekend is combined with the Jericho Community Yard Sale starting at 9 a.m.
“We’re trying to do more events here. We really just want to be a community place where people can come and hang out even if you don’t drink coffee.”
Kal Tone, one of the core businesses, moved from its former downtown location on Burdick two years ago after the Gasts renovated the second building. “They were having a little trouble renting out space at the time because it just looked scary,” says Ry Charters, Kal Tone co-owner with Jay Gavan. “But when they fixed it up, it looked great. Right from the beginning, we’ve had the same vision,” says Charters about working with the Gasts. “Slowly over time the buildings have evolved. They’re going to be a work in progress forever.”
A customer at Kal Tone, a core business for Jericho Town. Photo by Fran Dwight.
Charters says the location suits him in many ways. For one, he feels like he’s working in a museum, a first place he visits whenever he’s in a new town. “We have a safe vault, for crying out loud,” he says. “They used to make Gibson banjo parts here in the 30s—they talk about how there was a safe where they would keep this billets of brass, which looked like gold.”
Also, he says, abundant opportunities exist for collaboration.
On a visit this fall to another tenant, Damn Handsome, he was admiring the old-fashioned dropper bottles. He started thinking of his own homemade fretboard oil, and pretty soon, Jarett Blackman, co-owner of Damn Handsome with his wife, Bridget, was designing labels. All 80 bottles of the first batch have sold.
Charters also appreciates the neighbors and the safety of their location. Originally Kal Tone was located downtown on Burdick, where Charters frequently would spend the first hour of his week picking up trash and occasionally finding someone sleeping in the foyer.
“We haven’t had a lick of crime over here,” he says of the Edison location.
Unlike most of the business owners and artists in Jericho Town, Charters used to live in Edison before he moved to Seattle. “I’ve seen how just in that short 10 years the neighborhood has shifted around. It’s definitely becoming a nicer place for people to be and for businesses to exist.”
While beautified, rehabbed, and populated businesses are preferable to abandoned and boarded-up buildings, issues can arise if the cost of rehabbing is displacing neighboring residents, squeezing out affordable housing, or not supplying neighbors with services they might use.
In Seattle, Charters’ rent rose $400 in just a few years, and watching his neighborhood there change left him sensitive to the effects of gentrification. “Everyone in Seattle was jaded about what was happening to the city. The artists were getting forced out.
“I don’t want to change the neighborhood too much,” says Charters. “I’m very aware of the fact that we’re white people coming into a predominantly African American and Latino neighborhood, which is why I like it (the neighborhood). It has character and flavor and I appreciate all of that, but I see what happens when gentrification comes in, and people with money pretty much squeeze out people who don’t have money, and that turns my stomach.
“We just want to take something that’s not being used and make it useful for the community. We don’t want to see the demographics change. We need to be mindful of not leaving too big of a footprint.”
Across the street, neighbor Luke Wimby, at 1420 Fulford, approves of Jericho’s efforts so far. Wimby bought his house before the Gasts purchased the buildings, which he says were former “eyesores.”
Wimby intended to fix up and flip the home. “But I ended up staying because the neighbors are so nice,” says Wimby, who lives with his elderly mother. “People like to help each other out. I haven’t had anyone vandalize my car. I haven’t had anyone vandalize my house. It seems like the people here care.”
An extra bonus: every morning he gets his coffee at Fido Motors Cafe, where he says he gets a “high-end coffee for a low-end price.”
When the Gasts first bought the buildings, Wimby says he had concerns they were going to turn into a factory with people coming and going. “But this is fantastic,” he says, gesturing at the building fronts, which are now open and cleaned. “They opened it up and want to paint the outside. I think it's helped the neighborhood a lot.”
Charters sees the big draw for business ventures like those in Jericho Town is the authenticity of the building in terms of its history and evolution, as well as the diversity and character of the neighborhood.
“The craftspeople are owning the business and learning how to run a business at the same time. It’s very easy to keep it authentic that way because you can’t break the art from the business” he says.
“It’s just a little bit more of a return to the cottage industry mom and pop, but relying on and being marketed towards a newer generation that’s coming up. But that being said, baby boomers are a big part of our business. They come in here and love it. They appreciate it just as much.”
Jeb and Krystal Gast are creating spaces for artists, tradespeople, and entrepreneurs in the Edison Neighborhood. Photo by Fran Dwight.
After five years of renting equipment for renovations, the Gasts have finally purchased their own scaffolding, not as easy to use as a lift, but definitely cheaper. And they're already making plans to break down another wall, one that separates the scooter workshop from the cafe so they can seat 49 instead of the current 14. They still have a couple of thousand square feet of building space they’d like to finish.
“Artists and cheap rent go together like mac and cheese. Where you find one you find another. If you are lucky, your landlord is like you and that’s why they’re here,” says Charters. “A lot of money is moving into downtown right now and a lot of the artists who had affordable rent can no longer afford it and are now moving out this way.”
Meanwhile, La Luna, a recording studio owned by Ian Gorman, a member of the popular local band Red Sea Pedestrians, is under construction, and other tenants are on the way. The Gasts are putting in sidewalks between the three buildings, and with the help of Wild Ones, planting a native landscape. Who knows what will come next.
So why is the burgeoning business enclave known as Jericho Town?
“The name, like Fido, was kind of random, but it sort of fit,” says Jeb, who recently sold two scooters to Bronson Methodist Hospital, purchased as part of the hospital’s sustainability focus. “We chose Jericho the same way, but it works. The walls keep coming down.”
Theresa Coty O'Neil is a Kalamazoo area freelance writer. Her articles have appeared in many local publications and her short stories have been published in Alaska Quarterly Review and West Branch, among others. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Edison.
Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s “On the Ground Edison” series amplifies the voices of Edison Neighborhood residents. Over three months, Second Wave journalists will be embedded in the Edison Neighborhood to explore topics of importance to residents, business owners, and other members of the community. To reach the editor of this series, Theresa Coty-O’Neil, please email her here or contact Second Wave managing editor Kathy Jennings here.
The On the Ground program is made possible by funding from the City of Kalamazoo, LISC, the Fetzer Institute, the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region, Michigan WORKS!, the Kalamazoo Community Foundation and the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo.
For more Edison coverage, please follow these links.
Fire: Where teens find a safe place to learn about themselves and others with poetry
Edison Voices: Jaylah N. Lewis offers an invitation to Fire
Edison: Where helping your neighbor is what people do and diversity is a matter of pride
Edison Voices: Geno Hinton in his own words
On the Ground Kalamazoo launches in the Edison Neighborhood