March 25, 2006

Gee, I Guess You Really Can't Go Home Again

"You’re lucky, Max – where I used to live is now a pornographic equipment store."

-- Rob, "Annie Hall"

RECENTLY, WHILE planning my upcoming vacation, I decided that I wanted to travel back to my old hometown of Kalamazoo, Mich. It’s been a little more than ten years since I was last back there, so I thought it would be neat to pay it a visit. For those of you unfamilar with the town, you should know that no less than The Wall Street Journal recently declared it a “downtrodden industrial city.” You should further know that crime figures have shown it to be more dangerous than New York.

All that said, though, Kalamazoo was a good place for me to grow up, and I have many fond memories from that time in my life. That, however, is what troubles me. You see, as part of my vacation preparations, I did some Internet research to see how the place has changed since I last visited back in 1995. As a result, I’m worried I’ll visit my hometown and I won’t recognize it a bit. For what I discovered horrified me, and will undoubtedly shock (or at least bemuse) other expats from the Celery City.

For instance, one of the things I wanted to do while back home was have lunch at Peking Palace, which back in the day was a locally famous Chinese restaurant. Well, as it turns out I can’t, because the place closed up a few years ago. Call it a slight disappointment. Unfortunately, though, it turns out that Peking Palace wasn’t the only business to have closed its doors since I had left. Apparently, half the bloody town threw in the towel.

The other Chinese restaurant I liked? Gone. The old bowling alley where I used to bowl? Gone. Another bowling alley I liked? History. The Kalamazoo Public Library? Moved. The pedestrian mall downtown? Paved over.

I mean, even Bill Knapp’s – Bill Knapp’s, for God’s sake – shut down. Oh, sure, everyone expected that someday, but not for the reasons listed. Someone even tore down Maple Hill Mall, which – I mean, that surprised even me.

I learned all this thanks to Vanished Kalamazoo, a disturbing yet often hilarious look at the way things once were in Kalamazoo. In all seriousness, the site itself is a masterpiece for anyone who is interested in Americana or local history or what not. It has things like old restaurant menus and photos and what not, which I find really interesting; and as someone who grew up in Kalamazoo, they are especially so. At the same time, though, there are also things which are laugh-out-loud funny.

Here are some links to choice exhibits at Vanished Kalamazoo, with selected excerpts taken from the editors' tag lines accompanying the photos. I’ve saved the best for last:


* "IMAGINE, from this 1972 advertisement, the 'psychodelic' 'happenings' that must have happened there, and what 'The Sunshine' must have sounded like."


* "IN THE '80s, they actually stocked 'First Date' brand soap in their rooms."


* "JANUARY 1979 saw the opening of one of the most unusual bar/restaurants ever seen in Kalamazoo."


* "... UPBEAT canned music served as a weird soundtrack for the deserted sidewalks and sleeping drifters."


* "THOUGH A DISASTER, the event did spark the urban renewal that continues today."

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at March 25, 2006 08:19 PM | TrackBack

Hi Ben -

I lived in Kzoo from 1995 to 1999, and I know many of the places you talk about (the paving over of the downtown pedestrian mall was being discussed whil I lived there).

You can blame the downturn on one huge factor: the decision to uproot the old Upjohn/Pharmacia to New Jersey, and the subsequent acquisition of Pharmacia by Pfizer. Even now, Pfizer is contemplating further reductions.

I recently talked to a few chums still living there; to a man they say they are no job prospects and no hope of any. Sad.

Posted by: Bruce CLeaver at March 26, 2006 08:40 AM

Hi Bruce,

I can certainly believe that Upjohn-related events would be a root cause of the trouble: when I lived in Kalamazoo, it employed something like one out of eight workers in the city. When those types of good jobs disappear (or move away), it takes a very long time to get similar jobs back.

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at March 26, 2006 07:03 PM

Man, this is truly sad. What the hell. It was all downhill once they added the 269 area code.....Rax, sweet Rax!!!!

Posted by: simon from jesey at March 31, 2006 04:23 PM

Yeah, I know -- I mean, not ONLY do they strip away everything that made Kalamazoo great, they even took away the 616 area code. What's up with that?!

I'll make sure to see if the Arby's over by Loy Norrix is still there.

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at March 31, 2006 05:18 PM

Wow, you guys having me looking out the window to make sure they didn't demolish the whole town since I came to work this morning. A lot has changed here in Kalamazoo since the days of high school past, but it is not nearly as bad as all that. I look forward to seeing you when you swing through town.

Posted by: Joshua Grant at April 5, 2006 08:27 AM

When I grew up in Kalamazoo it was in the 60's and 70's. I graduated from Loy Norrix in 1978.
I remember when Gilmores sponsered the Christmas Parade in downtown. We went every year and then went to Gilmores Toy store for free hot chocolate. Santa was there and there were lots of toys to look at. That was when we loved it when the toy catalog came. We used to poor over it for hours. Of course then we did not expect to get everything we wanted. Yes, alot has changed in Kalamazoo. P.S. I have lived in Florida for 28 years and I love it. Maureen

Posted by: Maureen at November 3, 2007 03:32 PM

Grew up on Westnedge Hill in Kalamazoo in the Sixties. Of course, Vanishied Kalamazoo, because it can only chronicle what's, by definition, "vanished," misses the positives. A friend who visited a few months back went to Martini's and sent me this glowing report.
I've lived in Northern Calif for twenty years, looking forward to visiting the home town for Thanksgiving.
Brian Elsasser

A lesson in pizza Owners of Martini's teach young workers and build a business
Thursday, October 05, 2006
By William R. Wood 388-8549
At the corner of South Westnedge Avenue and Village Street, in the Vine neighborhood, a vibrant outdoor mural on Martini's restaurant catches the eye and invites one in.

Inside, such items as the colorful antipasto platter and the yellow bourbon pound cake with poached pears and plums whet the appetite.

The restaurant has grown to 100 seats and added several new dinners and desserts to the popular pizza and subs already on its menu.

But that's only part of the story: Martini's is also the tale of how two men embraced a building that nobody wanted and a neighborhood that didn't fully want them. ...

(Editor's note: Brian, thanks for the comment; unfortunately, I had to truncate the story due to fair-use considerations. But hope you have a good Thanksgiving back in K'zoo. -- BJK)

Posted by: Brian Elsasser at November 5, 2007 01:58 PM
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