Editor's Note: This story is part of the On the Ground Edison series.
Known by local children as “The Castle,” the Washington Square branch of the Kalamazoo Public Library graces Portage Street in the middle of the Edison neighborhood and has for a little over 90 years.
“Last year at our 90th-anniversary celebration, I was struck, just looking at all the changes the neighborhood has been through, the booms and busts and all sorts of things, how the library has been a constant,” said Steve Siebers, Washington Square Lead Librarian. “We’ve been here as a library, doing the same things, providing books and services, throughout all the changes, as a stable sanctuary in the middle of the neighborhood.”
Built in 1927 near the old trolley bend in Portage Street in what was a former thriving business district of car-lined streets, the library’s Old English Design with tapestry brick and limestone trim is both a striking and inviting sight.
“This is a really beautiful building, possibly the most beautiful building in the city,” says Siebers. “It’s a real gem and something for which the neighborhood can be really proud. “
Over the years, the library has grown with the neighborhood in terms of needs and resources. Computer access and movies are very popular, especially for people who might not have Netflix or cable, Siebers says.
Recently, the Washington Square branch opened up a children’s playroom with toys and games. “There’s a big push right now with literacy and brain development to encourage play. Studies are demonstrating that play is how kids prepare themselves to eventually read,” Siebers says. “This is a place where you can get out with your kids, especially in the winter, and you don’t have to drive or spend money to have some place to play.”
While the library might seem cool and quiet on a warm spring day, Siebers says it’s sometimes a noisy hub in the after school hours. “There’s actually a lot of activity in it, and since this building is very small, practically one large reading room, the noise can carry,” he says.
But that noise demonstrates the library is being used. “We want this to be a place where everyone can come, whether you are a high schooler or preschooler,” he says. In addition, the library, located in a neighborhood which has the highest Latino population in the city, boasts many resources in Spanish and three Spanish-speaking staff, including Siebers himself.
To celebrate with Edison patrons the long-standing relationship between the library and the neighborhood, Washington Square will be holding its second annual Spring Celebration on Wednesday, May 23 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. The party, which will take place in the parking lot, includes a local Hip Hop group, DJ, carnival games, bounce house, and special visits by the Black Panther and Kalamazoo’s own Ghost Busters. Free food, in the form of one hot dog or tamale per visitor, plus water, will also be available.
Siebers says he sees this event as a chance to connect with neighbors and thank patrons for their continued support.
“I worked for the library for 13 years downtown. One nice thing about working here is getting to know the patrons better and having that sort of family feel because of building relationships,” he says. “Another thing is that we want people to feel like this is an extension of their home, a place to come and hang out.”
Theresa Coty O'Neil is a Kalamazoo area freelance writer and English instructor at the Academically Talented Youth Program. 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.
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Edison Voices: Geno Hinton in his own words
On the Ground Kalamazoo launches in the Edison Neighborhood