Kala­ma­zoo, Mich.: Mid­west­ern hip­ness down on the cor­ner

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY MAYA KROTH

Ev­ery spring, se­ri­ous scholars and am­a­teur his­to­ri­ans flock from all over the coun­try to at­tend the an­nual In­ter­na­tional Congress on Me­dieval Stud­ies, the largest event of its kind, held at Western Michigan Univer­sity in Kala­ma­zoo. Some of these peo­ple ar­rive in full cos­tume and car­ry­ing lutes. I know this be­cause my long-dis­tance boyfriend, David, who’s get­ting his Ph Dat Western, dragged me to the con­fer­ence last year, andmy up­com­ing visit once again co­in­cides with it. This time, how­ever, I’ve learned my les­son. While he’s busy at­tend­ing round­table dis­cus­sions of Mid­dle Low Ger­man med­i­cal literature, I’ll be ex­plor­ing the city’s cooler side.

When David told me he lived in Kala­ma­zoo, I didn’t be­lieve it was a real place. I thought maybe Cree­dence Clear­wa­ter Re­vival just made it up so they’d have a rhyme with “ka­zoo.” And I’mnot the only one, ap­par­ently: Once upon a time, the town’s of­fi­cial mar­ket­ing slo­gan was “Yes, there re­ally is a Kala­ma­zoo.” Nowthat I’ve had time to get to know the place, I can con­firm that not only does Kala­ma­zoo

ex­ist, it’s ac­tu­ally much more in­ter­est­ing than it gets credit for, with vi­brant art, food and beer scenes fu­eled by a young, col­legee­d­u­cated pop­u­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to City-Data.com, and rea­son­able cost of liv­ing.

The first time I drove through down­town, it in­stantly felt fa­mil­iar, in that his­toric Rust Belt way, all 100-year-old low-rise brick build­ings and gor­geous English Gothic-style churches. But it was a new struc­ture — the tow­er­ing Mon­drian-inspired glass fa­cade of the Alamo Draft­house Cin­ema — that gave me my first inkling that the town had some hip­ness hid­den up its sleeve.

“Kala­ma­zoo re­minds me a lot of our home town of Austin, with its strong econ­omy, large univer­sity, great beer scene and solid arts com­mu­nity,” says Tim League, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Texas-based chain of in­die movie the­aters that also serve re­ally good beer. ( You re­mem­ber the Alamo: It was the tar­get of an an­gry, ex­ple­tive-filled voice mail that went vi­ral a few years ago from a woman who’d been ejected for vi­o­lat­ing the theater’s strict no-tex­ting pol­icy.)

Along with first-run and art­house films, the Alamo dusts off cult clas­sics for one-off events such as a “Footloose” dance-along and a glow­stick-en­hanced-show­ing-of the 1980 Olivia New­ton-John rollerdisco pic­ture “Xanadu.” Its menu of gourmet snacks in­cludes cin­ema inspired cock­tails like The Dude’s White Rus­sian, plus a large se­lec­tion of craft beers from na­tion­ally rec­og­nized lo­cal brew­eries.

Fore­most among those brew­eries is Bell’s, which has been rated one of the best in the coun­try by RateBeer and Beer Ad­vo­cate de­spite be­ing dis­trib­uted in only 20 states. A reg­u­lar stop on Mid­west beer-tourist itin­er­ar­ies, the Bell’s tap­room, called the Ec­cen­tric Cafe, is just a few blocks from the Draft­house. The place is decked out in an eclec­tic mix of ex­otic masks, quirky stained-glass art­works and vintage beer ads. Its chalk­board menu lists dozens of ex­per­i­men­tal brews, in­clud­ing wild-fer­mented brown ales and an en­tire se­ries inspired by an or­ches­tral suite by com­poser Gus­tav Holst.

“We al­ways wanted to be that other place that you can go that’s not home or work or church, where you can hang out and be com­fort­able and so­cial­ize,” says owner Larry Bell, who adds that his first wife named the Ec­cen­tric Cafe af­ter his per­son­al­ity. I’ve heard sto­ries about Bell’s idio­syn­cratic “hol­i­days,” like Adult Prom and Ec­cen­tric Day, when reg­u­lars com­pete to see who can dress in the most bizarre cos­tume. In March, David and I lined up out­side the brew­ery at 9 a.m., join­ing dozens of Bell’s die-hards who took the day off work to celebrate the long-awaited re­lease of the sum­mer beer Oberon.

Ev­ery time I visit, the num­ber of brew­eries here seems to mul­ti­ply, each one hop­ing to cap­i­tal­ize on what Larry Bell started. Craft beer is now such big busi­ness that both Western Michigan Univer­sity and the lo­cal com­mu­nity col­lege re­cently an­nounced de­gree pro­grams in sus­tain­able brew­ing, be­gin­ning this fall. A vi­brant foodie move­ment blooms along­side the beer scene — not sur­pris­ing, given Kala­ma­zoo’s lo­ca­tion in the heart of Michigan’s agri­cul­tural belt, which is one of the most di­verse grow­ing re­gions in the coun­try. At the Satur­day farm­ers mar­ket, which dates to the 1940s, lo­cal pro­duce runs the gamut from kale to heir­loom toma­toes to Hon­ey­crisp ap­ples.

This bounty makes its way from the farm to the kitchens of lo­ca­vore eater­ies such as Food Dance, where nearly ev­ery­thing comes from small-scale Michigan sup­pli­ers, be it the pas­tured chicken or the maple syrup that’s poured over the house-baked brioche French toast. It’ll get some com­pe­ti­tion this sum­mer with the open­ing of Prin­ci­ple, a new lo­cally sourced, sea­sonal-menu res­tau­rant whose chef trained un­der Michael Sy­mon of “Iron Chef.”

About a block from Bell’s, the Black Owl Cafe brews its own fiercely good li­ba­tions made not from bar­ley and hops but from cof­fee beans that are roasted in small batches on-site. Yes, third­wave cof­fee has reached Kala­ma­zoo, in the form of this cozy lit­tle spot tucked into a for­mer 1920sera car­riage fac­tory next to the rail­road tracks. It’s re­claimed wood wall cladding, bearded baris­tas and Ma­son jar light fix­tures give the cafe a nos­tal­gic rail­road-car/log-cabin vibe.

When owner Gar­rett Krugh ar­rived in Kala­ma­zoo to study busi­ness at Western seven years ago, the cof­fee scene left some­thing to be de­sired. “You’d get your cof­fee from an air-pot that came out of a ma­chine two hours ago,” he says with a laugh. But the lo­cals have em­braced new busi­nesses like his, where you can get your java French-pressed, si­phoned or served pour-over style. “They’re re­ally ex­cited for all the new changes in the city,” Krugh says.

Af­ter sa­vor­ing a cup of Che­mex brewed Su­ma­tran dark roast at the Black Owl one re­cent morn­ing, I set my com­pass west, headed for a neigh­bor­hood called Park­wyn Vil­lage. In 1947, Frank Lloyd Wright de­signed a small num­ber of homes there in a style he dubbed “Uso­nian,” short for “United States of North Amer­ica,” on­the shores of Lit­tle Asy­lum Lake. In clas­sic Wright style, the low-slung homes nes­tle seam­lessly into the land­scape, with open floor plans, can­tilevered roof over­hangs and clerestory win­dows. The Wright homes add to the city’s di­verse mix of ar­chi­tec­tural styles, from the 19th-cen­tury Ital­ianate and Queen Anne houses of the Vine and South Street his­toric dis­tricts to down­town’s art deco city hall.

“Kala­ma­zoo has re­ally changed from a de­cay­ing down­town to a pretty vi­brant down­town with in­ter­est­ing busi­nesses and restau­rants,” notes Bell, who opened his brew­ery here in the early ’80s, around the same time that many of its largest em­ploy­ers, such as GM and the Checker cab com­pany, were be­gin­ning to shut down. In 1984, the Gib­son Guitar fac­tory moved to Nashville af­ter more than a cen­tury of mak­ing man­dolins, ban­jos, ukule­les and one of the world’s first elec­tric gui­tars in Kala­ma­zoo. (That afore­men­tioned Cree­dence lyric is ac­tu­ally a ref­er­ence to a Gib­son guitar model called the Kala­ma­zoo.) You can still make out the Gib­son name on the fac­tory’s rick­ety old brick smoke­stack.

For years, Kala­ma­zoo was known as the Pa­per City, for the dozens of mills that set up shop on the banks of the Kala­ma­zoo River. Although al­most none re­main to­day, the tra­di­tion lives on in ar­ti­san fash­ion at Kala­ma­zoo Book Arts Cen­ter (KBAC), which has all the equip­ment needed to turn pulp into pa­per, as well as a let­ter- press, print mak­ing and book bind­ing stu­dio. It’s on the ground floor of the Park Trades Cen­ter, a cen­tury-old for­mer man­u­fac­tur­ing plant that’s been reimagined as a haven for artists. Dur­ing Art Hop, a free monthly city­wide gallery crawl, you can see pa­per-based ex­hi­bi­tions at the KBAC, then watch a glass­blow­ing demon­stra­tion at the ad­ja­cent foundry be­fore head­ing up­stairs to ex­plore more than 50 stu­dios where pain­ters, sculp­tors, met­al­lur­gists, weavers, pot­ters and per­for­mance artists dis­play their work and ply the public with free wine and snacks.

“Kala­ma­zoo re­ally over-in­dexes on the arts for a city its size,” adds Bell, who points out that the com­mu­nity of just 75,000 man­ages to sup­port an 85-year-old theater com­pany, a 94-year-old sym­phony or­ches­tra and a 35-year-old mod­ern dance troupe. Since 1924, it has also been home to the Kala­ma­zoo In­sti­tute of the Arts, a mu­seum spe­cial­iz­ing in 20th-cen­tury Amer­i­can artists. Though the col­lec­tion in­cludes works by Alexan­der Calder, Richard Diebenkorn and Andy Warhol, the stun­ning 400-piece chan­de­lier by glass artist Dale Chi­huly that hangs in the foyer is worth a visit all by it­self.

Onmy last swing through town, I stopped in at the Michigan News Agency, down­town’s only re­main­ing in­de­pen­dent book­store, where I dis­cov­ered that Kala­ma­zoo also has a sur­pris­ingly ro­bust literary scene that in­cludes a num­ber of Na­tional Book Award fi­nal­ists — writ­ers like Bon­nie Jo Camp­bell, whose short sto­ries have been rec­og­nized with the Pushcart Prize.

“Long win­ters mean many of us are great read­ers,” says Dean Hauck, whose fam­ily-run bookshop has been in busi­ness since 1947. It has one of the largest mag­a­zine news­stands in the coun­try, with 7,000 ti­tles rang­ing from the Bour­bon Re­view to the Paris Re­view.

Af­ter brows­ing the stacks — “cruis­ing the News,” as Hauck en­cour­ages passersby to do — I walked a few blocks far­ther down Michigan Av­enue and stum­bled upon Syd­ney, a bou­tique in the lobby of the Radis­son Ho­tel. That’s where I found my per­fect sou­venir: a su­per-soft, made-in-Michigan T-shirt with green let­ter­ing that reads, “Yes, there re­ally is a Kala­ma­zoo.”


Bar­tender Alyssa John­ston draws a pair of ales dur­ing Oberon Day at the Ec­cen­tric Cafe, the Bell’s tap­room, in Kala­ma­zoo, Mich.

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