Edison Neighborhood

From boom to bust to boom: Washington Square makes an upturn

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Edison series.

Back in its heydey of the 1940s and '50s, Washington Square in the Edison neighborhood was the place many Kalamazoo residents went for most of their needs. On the corner of Washington and Portage, you could find a drugstore with a doctor above, a bakery, jewelry store, ice cream parlors, shoe repair shop, departments stores and J.B. Mouse’s, a small appliance and record store. An A & P Grocery Store stood where the present Family Dollar now exists. 

“Whatever you needed, you could find,” says Rosemary Candelario, who grew up in the Edison neighborhood and returned in the 1980s when she was an adult. “It was a very welcoming place, even to kids. Some of my friends from Edison had their first jobs in the Washington Square area. It was a place for families to go. Kids rode their bikes to the library and went wherever.” 

Candelario remembers Edison in her youth as colorful and diverse. After World War II, Edison saw a rise in immigrants, particularly from Latvia, but also from Italy, Germany, Poland, and Holland, Candelario says. “It was not uncommon when I rode the bus downtown to hear different languages spoken. It was a very worldly neighborhood.”

Between Candelario’s high school years in the 1950s and her return to Edison in the 1980s, however, much had changed. Due, in part, to the widespread use of cars and the advent of suburban shopping malls, most of the former shops had closed or were abandoned, and in their stead, Deja Vu, an adult entertainment club, and an adult book and video store arose, which aroused the ire of the neighborhood and increased crime.

“Of course, the library was still there and a few of the shops and the schools were there, but it seemed like the character was gone,” says Candelario.

For close to 40 years, the impression of many who passed by was blight, decay, and crime. “When Upjohn was Upjohn, and they would take people from Portage to downtown or downtown to Portage, there was always talk about how unattractive that area was,” says Lynn Houghton, Regional History Collections Curator at Western Michigan University, who often leads walking history tours of the neighborhood. “But you’re starting to see that area change and upgrade.”

Dancing at the Herbalife store in Washington Square is another sign of the community coming together. Photo by Fran DwightThose changes, particularly over the past five years, have been slow and steady, but the tide has shifted towards revitalization and renewal with new businesses opening, such as Kzoo Nutrition, a Hispanic nutritional supplement and exercise center; Pho on The Block, a Vietnamese restaurant; Bellydance Kalamazoo, an instructional studio; Tremolo, a guitar and used musical instrument shop; Jersey Giants Subs, and Community Promise Credit Union, a needed local banking option. There have also been many physical improvements, including lighting, landscaping, and the recent Washington Square welcoming mural.

With its period architecture, highlighted by the pillars of the Washington Square Branch Public Library, (one of the most attractive historical buildings in Kalamazoo according to its own librarian Steve Siebers), and the old Fire Station, now Fire Cultural and Arts Collaborative, the corner of Washington and Portage has both character and vitality that is drawing neighbors and outside visitors.

“It’s been a long haul and there have been so many people over the years at the table partnering with us to make our Washington Square a family-friendly retail shopping area,” says longtime Edison Neighborhood Association Executive Director Tammy Taylor. She gives credit to the City of Kalamazoo, Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), and most especially, the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, which, with LISC’s support and encouragement, has played a significant role in most of the renewal by purchasing property, rehabbing, and repurposing it.

Creating the change

Taylor, through visioning sessions, grant writing, and partnering with organizations and residents, has led the charge in creating the change. With her office less than 50 steps away from the Square, Taylor often slips out in the middle of the day to consider improvements along the Portage Street corridor. Currently, she’s working on a beautification project in the alley behind the old Kalamazoo Color Lab on Portage and in the parking lot of Howard’s Liquor Store. In accordance with Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) standards, which recommend improvements such as enhanced lighting, open windows to alleyways, and appropriate landscaping, and through support from the Kalamazoo Public Safety Department, Taylor is guiding the Square towards some of its former glory.

“Every little piece you add to it makes it that much better,” says Taylor. “But we still have a ways to go.” 

Many of the hard-won changes have occurred after prolonged periods of hope, optimism, and too often crushing disappointment. After the success of a long-fought battle to relocate Deja Vu in 2005, one which had galvanized residents, community leaders, a recession followed, making it challenging to move forward with new development. 

“Out biggest hurdle that we had originally was to get someone to take a chance on the place,” says Taylor, who experienced many funding setbacks over the years. “And the Kalamazoo County Land Bank was totally instrumental in finding businesses that really fit well in our goal to make it the friendly-family retail shopping district that it once was where people can go to get their needs met and it’s within walking distance.”

From the beginning of the Land Bank’s involvement in the Washington Square revival, says Kelly Clarke, Kalamazoo County Land Bank Executive Director, the organization, along with the Edison Neighborhood Association, sought residential input. Having just prior to working on Washington Square, the Kalamazoo County Land Bank was invited by LISC to attend a conference in Cincinnati where Clarke says she was inspired by the way that city incorporated arts and culture into re-occupancy and revitalization.

“So we came back, and we thought, well, gosh, Kalamazoo has this wonderful Art Hop that has been around for such a long time, and has been instrumental to reviving downtown. That would be a great asset to build on and would be a wonderful way to bring the community out and hear what they think.”

The Kalamazoo County Land Bank has been hosting Art Hops in the neighborhood where it has found out what residents want to see there. Photo by Fran DwightThus the Kalamazoo County Land Bank began hosting Washington Square Art Hops as a way to gather and connect with residents and visitors, as well as gain information on what residents wanted for the Square. In 2019, the Land Bank will transfer the Art Hop sponsorship to the Edison Neighborhood Association, who has partnered with the Land Bank on these events for the last five years.

What they discovered through Art Hop discussions and surveys, says Clarke, was there was “a real desire to encourage businesses that wanted to be meaningfully engaged with the community” and ones that reflected its diversity. Clarke says she feels that mission has been successful, with the opening of two minority-owned businesses, two Edison-resident owned businesses, and two businesses owned by women.

Overcoming perceptions

When it came to recruiting businesses, however, she says, “There was a big barrier because there were some real perception issues around crime and safety. So one of our goals was to address those issues and perceptions, but we also wanted to make sure our work was community-driven.”

Clarks says the question of re-occupancy posed to the neighborhood became: “How do we want to envision that physical place as a place we can interact with our neighbors, our community, have quality time, enjoy one another?”
The Land Bank has set about helping Edison achieve the space they desire, and by all accounts, the efforts have been successful.

Sabrina Merrill, the owner of Bellydance Kalamazoo, attended an early Art Hop, where she was approached about relocating her belly dance studio. “The Land Bank people have very generous to us. We came to it entirely by accident,” says Merrill. “I’ve been told that it’s not the best neighborhood in the world, although I can say, quite honestly, that I’ve never had a problem. We never even get panhandlers.

“I like the location. I like the people there. There tend to be more open-minded, artistic people in the neighborhood. They’ve always made us feel very welcome,” says Merrill, who likes to be a part of the events, like Art Hops, that first drew her to the neighborhood.

Ken Slocum, the owner of Jersey Giant Subs, was invited by Urban Alliance to open a family-type business in the neighborhood. As someone who has been getting his hair cut at Bob’s Barber Shop in Edison for 10 years, Slocum says he has always loved coming to the neighborhood. 

Jersey Giant, which partners with the Urban Alliance’s Momentum employment program, opened in 2014 and trains Momentum volunteers in the shop, and even interviews Momentum graduates for jobs following their graduation; a few of whom he now employs.

“That Momentum program has always been near and dear to my heart. The opportunity to do that is pretty cool and rewarding,” says Slocum. 

Slocum says he gets mixed reactions when he tells others where his business is located. “They often roll their eyes, and say, ‘Oh, and how’s that going?’ And the answer is, ‘It’s going great.’ We’ve never had a single break-in or any vandalism. This neighborhood gets such a bad rap.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people down here are just trying to do what other people are trying to do, raise a family and live the American dream. One percent of the people ruin the reputation for everyone,” says Slocum. “I really love the neighborhood and the neighborhood has embraced us.”

Even passersby notice a new sheen on Washington Square, and some are lured by the new businesses.
“Edison for so long has been fighting against people’s preconceived notions of it,” says Houghton, who admits to once feeling cautious about scheduling a night historical tour. “Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was the Edison neighborhood. The transformation you see in the neighborhood is coming.”

When Edison talks, the neighborhood's executive director, as well as the City, LISC and the Land Bank listen. This includes what landmarks, present, and past, should best be represented in the letters of the Welcome to Washington Square mural on the building adjacent to Howard’s Liquor Store.

“It’s really awesome where it is, but we still have work to do,” says Taylor. “We’re supposed to be getting planters for the alley between the old Rogers Building and the old Color Lab and just adding some really cool stuff. Every little piece you add to it makes it that much better.”

To add to the improvements, the City of Kalamazoo recently announced the re-engineering the Portage Street Corridor in 2020 to become a complete street, which will include bike lanes and greater access and safety for pedestrians. As a plan that has long been in the works, this is welcome news to residents.

“Washington Square is the first suburban development that evolved over a 100 years ago outside of downtown,” says Sonja Dean, Senior Officer at LISC who also lived in Edison for 10 years. “Edison is diverse, dynamic and it seems to be ever-changing in mostly positive ways.” 

Dean concedes Edison still has a ways to go, though she is buoyed by what she calls the “bookends,” the Kalamazoo Valley Community College Culinary Institute and the Family Health Center on Alcott Street, which makes a close, affordable healthcare option for residents.

Also, exciting projects are on the horizon for Washington Square, but Dean says she can’t say yet what they are, only that they are “new businesses and new investments that will serve the wider community.”
Stay tuned.

Fourteen years ago, a large group of residents and community members, including Taylor, the mayor and city manager, gathered in hot pink T-shirts to celebrate the long-sought removal of the adult entertainment businesses on Portage Street.

“We had a building removal enactment where we actually just took the sign off the wall with pink fuzzy pry bars,” says Taylor. “Then we let go balloons—it was back in the day when we didn’t think about the environment like that.”

Since the Deja Vu has been torn down there have been at least five architectural plans for work at Washington Square. Bits and pieces of each plan have now been applied to the Square. “One plan included a pedestrian bridge that went over Portage Street to the library,” recalls Taylor. “I’m not sure that will ever happen, but it was a cool idea.”

This June, at the Washington Square Art Hop, pop-up canopies representing businesses on the Square and sponsors, and a bandstand were erected. Hundreds of people attended, connecting and celebrating, as they watched Rootead Drum and Dance, and listened and danced to Zion Lion Reggae Band and frente a ti, a Latinx band—all this camaraderie and community-building in the parking lot where Deja Vu once stood.

That’s transformation. 

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

For more Edison coverage, please follow these links.

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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.
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Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is the Managing Editor of Southwest Michigan Second Wave. As a longtime freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher, she has a passion for sharing the positive stories in Southwest Michigan and for mentoring young writers. She also serves as the Project Editor of the Faith in Action series and Project Lead for Battle Creek Voices of Youth.