Yes, There Really Is A Kalamazoo, Michigan

Part 1 of a 19,351-Part Series

In 1942, Glenn Miller and His Orchestra (“the most popular and commercially successful dance orchestra of the Swing era”) recorded the number one song “(I’ve Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo”—the best selling single in the US that year.

This post isn’t about Glenn Miller and His Orchestra.

Kalamazoo is a small city in southwest Michigan. The city’s unusual name a Potawatomi word that purportedly refers to boiling water, a mirage, or a footrace run by the native Americans that once called the area home. The name sounds so unusual that the city released an ad campaign to reassure (and entice) people that “Yes, There Really Is A Kalamazoo.”

Kalamazoo is one of 19,354 Census-recognized places in the United States. More significantly, it is one of the 19,351 places in the United States that isn’t New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco, the three cities that claim the lion’s share of urban attention on the internet.

I’d like to tell the story of those 19,351 places. I believe strongly that a stronger, safer, better future for our country—and our world—is tied deeply to the success of those “other” cities out there.

What better place to start than Kalamazoo?

Here be Kalamazoo, Michigan

What does Kalamazoo, this Midwestern town of 75,000 souls, two hours away from both Detroit and Chicago, have to offer?

Colleges

Generally speaking, college towns are great towns. College towns usually have more people with better education: for related reasons, college towns also have higher per-capita incomes, on average. College towns also attract the kind of cultural businesses that people enjoy: restaurants, cafes, bookstores, art galleries and the like. Also, sports, if that’s your thing.

Kalamazoo has two colleges: Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo College. WMU has over 25,000 students — it ranks in the top five schools in the nation for Aviation while its law school claims the dubious distinction of being the worst in the nation. Kalamazoo College fares much better. It is a small and selective liberal arts college, ranked 146th overall in the nation and 1st for private schools in Michigan.

Fun fact: I almost went to Kalamazoo College.

Beers

The explosion in numbers of small, local breweries is one of my favorite business stories of the last few decades. Across the nation, many cities have at least one microbrewery — sort of a hoppy home team that a community can rally around and celebrate.

Kalamazoo is no exception. In fact, Kalamazoo is home to one of the greatest small breweries in the country, Bell’s. For seven years (2010–2016), the American Homebrewers Association rated Bell’s Two Hearted Ale as the second-best beer in the country; in 2017 and 2018, Two Hearted took the #1 spot. And it’s not only the AHA that loves Bell’s: Beer Advocate users rank Two Hearted as the #4 beer in America.

Bell’s operates two breweries in the Kalamazoo area as well as a cafe and tasting room downtown called the Eccentric Cafe. They brew over a dozen varieties of beer and I can personally attest that many are fantastic.

Affordable Real Estate

Another point in Kalamazoo’s favor: affordable housing.

Trulia pegs median sales price for homes in Kalamazoo at $142,000, well below the national median. Rents center around $1,200. Although there are signs that the market is starting to heat up — and Redfin does rank the city as a competitive market — these prices are practically unbelievable for someone used to New York City prices, like me.

Let’s take a look at some recently-sold properties in Kalamazoo, starting with this lovely red house near downtown. It has loads of original wood trim, hardwood floors, a lovely porch, four bedrooms, two baths, a one-car garage and, the ultimate luxury, a washer and a dryer. 1,500 sq. ft. for $83,000.

I’ve spent that much money on rent over the past three years and I consider myself fortunate.

Looking for something a little nicer? Here’s more space (2,100 sq. ft.), more porch, more original wood trim, more bedrooms, only a little further from downtown and only a little more money: $125,000.

For just a little more scratch — $261,000, to be exact — this beautiful Arts & Crafts bungalow, built in 1908, could have been yours. I’ll let the pictures do the talking for this one.

You can’t buy a closet anywhere in New York for anything less than a half million dollars, or a cool million in the Bay Area. In some places, your money just goes a whole lot further.

A Walkable Downtown

If you find a home near the center of town — or if you take a short drive — you’ll be able to enjoy another of Kalamazoo’s amenities: a walkable downtown.

Trivia: the Kalamazoo Mall, opened in 1959, was the first outdoor pedestrian mall in the United States. Deeper trivia: according to local lore and Wikipedia, Kalamazoo was one of the first cities in the nation to install curb cuts at intersections to make walking easier for its citizens. Although Kalamazoo as a whole has a middling Walkscore of 46, the downtown area scores a solid 86 out of 100 in walkability.

Where might you, prospective Kalamazoodler (Kalamazooian is the actual demonym, but I like mine more), walk to? Sweetwater’s Donut Mill is a local favorite. Alongside Bell’s are several other breweries and over 40 other bars in the area. Residents also like the Black Owl Cafe for coffee, the Farmer’s Market for food and entertainment, the Kalamazoo Institute of the Arts for, you guessed it, art, and the Kalamazoo State Theatre for performances.

Beach Proximity

Finally, I have to mention what could be Kalamazoo’s greatest asset: Lake Michigan.

The west coast of Michigan features clean water, golden beaches, and sand dunes covered in dune grass and trees. Better yet, these beaches are relatively unknown and infrequently visited. Sure, it’s cold in the winter, though still beautiful in its own way. In the summer, it’s a surprising oasis of beauty in the middle of the country. Oval Beach in Saugatuck and South Beach in South Haven are both only about an hour’s drive from Kalamazoo.

Of course, nothing’s perfect. Kalamazoo’s crime rate is a little above average the national average: for example, the aggravated assault rate is 3.3 times the national average (793 per 100,000 residents). This likely has something to do with the swings in economic activity in the city. The 2008 Fiscal Crisis hit Kalamazoo hard, like all of Michigan. Unemployment rates topped 15% in 2009. Today, Kalamazoo enjoys a low unemployment rate.

Finally and incredibly, in spite of the city’s name, there is no Zoo in Kalamazoo. There is, however, an Air Zoo, as sort of aviation-meets-children’s-science-museum. So there’s that. Kalamazoo could also use a great bookstore.

In short: if Kalamazoo is good enough for Kevin VanDam, the world’s #1 prize-money winning Pro Bass Fisherman, heck, it’s good enough for you.

I’m interested in exploring cities and telling their stories through quantitative and qualitative frames. Subscribe here if you want to follow along and reach out to me if you want to chat.

Thanks for reading!

Cities, mobility, and product leadership in New York City