Yes, there really is.

A row of brown brick buildings, one of which is painted with a huge sign that says "The Kalamazoo Building"

The Kalamazoo Building (Photo: Jill M. Barry)

If you tell people you are from, or live near, Kalamazoo, Michigan, the response is usually, “I didn’t know that place existed for real.” That’s probably because “Kalamazoo” is a weird word, and I believe Bugs Bunny once took a wrong turn on his way to a carrot convention there. Glenn Miller made the town famous with the song “(I Got a Gal In) Kalamazoo)”.

If you’ve ever lived, worked, or even just visited Kalamazoo, you know the town slogan: “Yes, there really is a Kalamazoo!” Located exactly halfway between Detroit and Chicago, the city got its name from the Potawatomi people, whose name for the area was “boiling water”. I know this because it’s engraved on a lovely fountain on the downtown mall (the first pedestrian mall in the country). The fountain features a lovely bowl of gently burbling water at about chest height; I once got my friend Warnement to lean down to read the inscription, then used both hands to force the water out and over his head. He retaliated by later pushing me into the much larger fountain in Bronson Park.

Bronson Park all dressed up for Christmas. Lots of trees and more Christmas lights than reasonable.

Bronson Park (Photo: Jill M. Barry)

Every year, the park is turned into a Christmas wonderland (and the fountains are drained of water, making it a much safer time of year to go there with pushing-inclined friends), with each tree draped in lights. When I was a child, my grandparents would bundle me up and take me out to see the decorations, including the now retired Frosty the Snowman and giant candy canes. My friend Jill Barry got engaged under those same candy canes (we posed for her wedding pictures in front of the Kalamazoo sign downtown). Once, she and I saw a man wearing what appeared to be a suit of Christmas lights riding a bicycle (also covered with Christmas lights) through downtown. He turned off the street and headed into the park, and, being the holiday season, we knew we had no chance of finding him.

I met Jill and Lisa and Anna, my twenty-plus years BFFs, when I started as a freshman at Hackett Catholic Central High School. Living in my rural town twenty miles outside of the city, Kalamazoo was the place for me, where I spent much time roaming around with my friends and visiting the local coffee shops, Fourth Coast and Boogie’s. Boogies had a wall you could write and draw on in their loft; Fourth Coast stank of cigarettes and you could always find a game of hearts. My first date was at the now-torn down movie theatre at the West Main mall; my first backseat adventure with a boy was in the driveway of the Soccer Complex.

Me and my friend Jill on some bleachers, an inflatable skeleton between us. I'm wearing a vintage Gunne Sax dress, Jill is wearing a mechanic's shirt with patches. It was the '90s.

Me and Jill Barry in the gym at Hackett, with Jill’s inflatable skeleton, Beauregard. I’m on the left. (Photo: Anna Walls)

My first apartment in Kalamazoo was in a basement on Rose street, where people would routinely knock on our ground-level kitchen window and inquire as to whether Ray-Ray was home. I don’t know who Ray-Ray was, but he was popular. The location was great for me, as it wasn’t a very long walk to the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre, where I played Annelle in a production of Steel Magnolias, and a milkmaid in Oliver!. Over the years, my involvement in Kalamazoo theatre included stage roles and tech jobs at both the Civic and The Whole Art, the former a grand 1920s building with a resident ghost, the latter a black box with leaky basement dressing rooms cordoned off with sheets and laundry lines.

An upward angled-shot of First Presbyterian, a gothic cathedral with a rose window.

First Presbyterian Church (Photo: Jill M. Barry)

Kalamazoo was a great place to live as a young adult. Being irresponsible and flaky as I am, I had jobs all over the city. Mostly retail and food service, briefly at Borgess hospital (where my first novel, Blood Ties Book One: The Turning was inspired) and a nursing home. My move from Rose street to Nichols and West Main necessitated a lot of bike riding to get to the two jobs I needed to keep my $500 a month second apartment at The Landings. I’ll never forget the morning I finally managed to ride my bike all the way up the unbelievably steep Westnedge hill without stopping; a guy slowed his car, opened his window, and shouted encouragement at me all the way.

World of Shoe (Photo: Jill M. Barry)

World Of Shoe, the now closed store with the best name ever (Photo: Jill M. Barry)

Now that I am a boring adult, Kalamazoo is the place where I go to concerts at venues like The State Theatre, or where Mr. Jen and I go on dates. Our son attended preschool and kindergarten at St. Augustine, which, despite its spelling, is always pronounced “August-IN” instead of “AugustTINE,” and to which we add the ubiquitous Michigan possessive ‘s. Mr. Jen works in Kalamazoo. Many of our friends still live there.

Over the weekend, a mass shooting took place in Kalamazoo. A man drove around the city, indiscriminately killing people in their cars between picking up Uber fairs. Seven people were killed, ten were injured.  Most were women and children. I guess, considering the climate of the United States with regards to gun violence, it was only a matter of time before it happened close to home. But I’ve made this post not to talk about the tragedy, but to share just a handful of my memories of the city, and show a side of Kalamazoo that is both weird and wonderful. A city where the local library once had a real mummy in a sarcophagus just kind of sitting out in the children’s reading room (the mummy was later moved to the old Kalamazoo Valley museum upstairs, and later to the new museum; they made an episode of Reading Rainbow about her). A place brutally hit by an F3 tornado in 1980, and which later adopted the tragedy as a point of pride, going so far as to host a semi-pro football team called the Kalamazoo Tornadoes. The birthplace of Gibson Guitars and the Checker Taxi. One of the most important craft beer scenes in the U.S., where many restaurants offer their own microbrews, and home of Bell’s brewery, known world wide for its Oberon, Two Hearted Ale, and Hopslam beers. A college town that can claim alumni Tim Allen, Terry Crews, Bruce Campell, Marin Mazzie and Luther Vandross (Western Michigan University), as well as Steven Yeun, Selma Blair, and Ty Warner (Kalamazoo College), among others.

It will continue to thrive and survive, and be the place that nobody thinks is real. But yes, there really is a Kalamazoo, and it is so much more than one horrific Saturday reported in the media.

28 thoughts on “Yes, there really is.

  1. There is also a prominent Medieval conference in K-Zoo. I gave my first paper there, and one year I inadvertently started a mosh pit at the Saturday night dance after requesting the DJ play some Ramones. (I didn’t start the shoving, but Joey had died less than three weeks before, and people were feeling sentimental.)

  2. A beautiful tribute to a city that I never once expressed an interest in visiting but, thanks to you, I just might want to now. My condolences to the entire city, particularly to the family and friends of those killed or injured.

    1. This very sad. I still don’t entirely understand Uber. Apparently, it’s cheaper than taxis and more reliable, but given this and many other news items, it sounds like they don’t regulate it at all.

      1. They do regulate it. You have to pass driving and criminal background checks before getting approve to drive with Uber. Your car also has to be inspected and signed off on by a licensed mechanic. (I’m in the process of signing up with them right now, the background check is taking FOREVER.)

        1. Then why do I keep seeing news items about people getting molested on Uber, etc.? Never seen so many stories about crazy cabbies (and when I lived in NYC, I met more than a few).

          1. No idea, just letting you know the process is indeed regulated in much the same way the cab industry is. My guess would be that news reporters love the sensational stuff, so instead of hearing about the hundreds of thousands of awesome Uber drivers, we only hear about the very small handful that are terrible people.

          2. In all honesty, I’d guess it’s because Uber’s new and people aren’t used to the service yet. This newness, combined with the fact that people don’t really understand it, makes any story involving it newsworthy, because hey, people haven’t seen them before. The “people don’t really understand it” aspect also helps people to accept that, yes, this is how things are about Uber, no matter what the truth actually is?

            Stories about crazy and/or harmful cab drivers are less newsworthy because everyone expects them to be shady and/or crazy and they think that’s just how things are, you know? The sky is blue, taking a cab alone might harm you, what else is new, etc. It doesn’t mean they don’t exist (or don’t exist in the same amount as with Uber drivers), just that they don’t make the news anymore (like here https://www.reddit.com/comments/i3jd5/tell_us_your_crazy_cab_driver_stories_ill_start/ – er, CW for abductions, rape mentions and a lot of other things).

          3. Courtney, that site is both hilarious and terrifying! I don’t have anything to match those–thank God–just things like the Haitian guy who ignored which bridge I wanted him to take and pretended he couldn’t understand me, so I start giving directions in French, and he promptly drops the no-speaka-da-Yinglish routine and starts trying to hit on me.

          4. Just to give you another perspective, I live in Edmonton, Alberta Canada. The taxi drivers fought HARD for Uber not to come here and Uber has been operating semi illegally while challenging the by laws. The thing is, the Taxi cabs are horrible here. Their cars aren’t maintained properly, you have a bad chance of catching one and then they refuse to take you to where you want to go, and even worse. There have been stories surfacing of taxi cab drivers sexually harassing both men and women. One cab driver is currently up on two counts of rape, spanning years a part.

            We think taxi’s are safer, but in reality, they just aren’t.

  3. I have a friend who is from Kalamazoo but now lives in Ankara, Turkey, so it was like both of her homes were attacked within a few days of each other. Kalamazoo was only a name to me so it’s interesting to hear about it.

  4. I had never been to Kalamazoo until Saturday, when I took my eight year old to the Michigan Music Association competition, where she competed in two piano categories. It was held at the Radisson on Rose and Michigan Ave, and while waiting for her event times, we walked all over and had lunch at Central City Tap House and watched skaters on the mall and had chai tea at Caffe Casa just before getting into our car and driving back to the east side of Michigan. We got home about an hour before the shooting started. It was such a beautiful day, and such a neat place to visit.

  5. I’ve got friends in Kzoo, many of whom work at the breweries you mentioned. They love it up there. My thoughts have been with the city and its residents since the shootings. Stay safe!

  6. Thanks, from a Kalamazooan far from my hometown at a difficult time — you speak eloquently for a place near and dear to my heart….

  7. Kalamazoo is where I grew up and lived for 25 years, it is all I have ever known.
    I <3 Kalamazoo!
    Thanks for sharing the <3

  8. I’ve got a gal in Kalamazoo — actually, she’s just a really good friend. I checked on her after the shooting; she’s fine.

    I live in Grand Rapids, and have been to K’zoo on many occasions. Bilbo’s (pizza) used to be really good but the last time I was there it kind of sucked. I saw Tim Allen at the State Theater (HBO filmed his special there), as well as various musical groups over the years. I’ve photographed the cemetery across from the Castle (survived the big tornado only to become a BnB).

    I’m originally from Flint area, so I know how you feel about your town making national news in a negative light. Thanks to Michael Moore, everyone already knew about the long buildup to Flint’s current plight. His film “Roger & Me” — remember the scene where he visited the woman with the rabbits? My school bus rolled past that place every day. But my family of blue-collar workers were all closely tied to GM, they were members of the UAW, my dad worked at Fisher Body (site of the famous sit-down strike) until it closed and he was transferred to Buick. Both plants are gone. So is AC Spark Plug, where my granny worked for over 30 years. I get depressed every time I go back to Flint because there’s so little left to remind me of when it was a nice place. The world sees it now because of the water situation. Maybe having this attention will shed light on some of the dirty politics in our state, and bring about a change for the better. At least, that’s my hope.

  9. I’ve been to Kalamazoo once, but I was too little to remember most of it other than its cool name. I’m deeply sorry for the tragedy that came to your hometown (as it’s come to so many towns over the past several years), but I’m sure it will endure and thrive past that.

  10. Every mass shooting makes me sick and sad and angry, but there’s a special sort of sickness and sadness and rage when it happens in a place that you know and love.

    I’ve never been to Kalamazoo, but a few years ago, one of the mass shootings that made the national news (and how goddamn depressing is it that I have to say “one of” in that sentence, and that it doesn’t even really narrow down where I live?) took place in my hometown, half a mile from the hospital where I was born, a few blocks away from the store where I used to work, just down the street from my favorite coffee shop. I have probably driven past the site of said shooting a thousand times in my life, if not more. I did so the day before it happened. And there’s a part of you that just snaps when it’s so close to home, a part of you that just thinks, “How dare you? How dare you come into my town and do this? How dare a monster like you share this space with me? How dare you turn this place, my place, into a headline about the innocent lives you snuffed out because of your worthless, pathetic need to make yourself feel powerful in the stupidest, most hateful way possible?”

    There are other mass shootings that have hit me harder (I don’t think any news story before or since has left me as much of a wreck as Newtown did), but I’m not sure there’s ever been one that has made me angrier. Because my town belonged to me and to the other people who live in and love it, and some unutterable piece of shit decided to spill blood and hate all over it. I didn’t know the victims or their families, but I know people who did. I saw the memorials to them when I drove down that road again a few days later. And it made me cry, and it made me sick, and it made me so, so angry that I had to pull into a nearby parking lot and punch the passenger seat of my car because I couldn’t punch the murderer or punch the whole concept of mass shootings and a society that lets them keep happening.

    Kalamazoo sounds beautiful. It is more than what a monster did there. I hope his victims’ families and friends find some measure of peace, and that Kalamazoo continues to be beautiful to them, and to you, in spite of him.

  11. I have no idea where in Michigan you live, Jenny, but when I heard about the shooting there, I hoped it was far from where you were. Sorry there was such a tragedy in a place where you have a lot of fond memories.

    I also hope your water is okay! I heard that Flint wasn’t an isolated case in Michigan.

  12. I’m so sorry for all who were so deeply affected by this shooting. Like others have said, my heart breaks a little more and I get more upset whenever gun violence happens. And also as the race and religion of the perpetrator has become so prone to political fodder with anyone not white or Christian being labelled a thug, terrorist, or worse, which I know you’ve spoken out about on Twitter.

    I also understand somewhat that weird feeling of seeing a place you know all too well becoming known for something violent. In early 2012 on February 27th, a kid walked into my former high school and killed 3 kids and injured more. The utter surrealness of seeing the hallways I had walked down thousands of times is still something that sticks with me. And the thing that sickens me is that the shooting at my former school is almost completely forgotten because the casualty count was “only” 3 and Newtown happened at the end of the year.

    How we’re not all up in metaphorical arms over the ridiculous level of gun violence is ridiculous. To gun owners: Your gun should not supersede my right to live, my right to assume that I can to about my daily life without fear of death.

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