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Will Edison Mesh With New Development, Arts Groups?

Portage Street in the Washington Square area of the Kalamazoo Edison Neighborhood
Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

Since December of last year, the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo has extended Art Hop into the Washington Square area of the Edison neighborhood.

Now, three business have moved into the once empty storefronts on Portage Street—Jersey Subs, Tremolo Instruments, and Bellydance Kalamazoo. But community leaders in Edison have mixed feelings about these changes. 

“Edison has so many artists here living in the neighborhood, so it’s a great fit for us,” says Tammy Taylor, the director of the Edison Neighborhood Association.

Taylor says the association has been trying to bring business to Washington Square for almost 20 years, but the fact that two arts organizations moved in is a happy accident.

In 2005, the Edison Neighborhood Association and the Kalamazoo Poverty Reduction Initiative hired a third party to survey Edison residents on a number of issues—including what businesses they would like to see in Edison.

“Mostly people were just saying family friendly retail shopping areas, but we did have some folks who came out and say they wanted a coffee shop. They wanted a family friendly dining area. They wanted a bank. Those kinds of things,” says Taylor.

FIRE Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative recently celebrated its nine year anniversary. Executive director Michelle Johnson says she’s excited to have new partners and more Art Hops in the Edison neighborhood. But organizations moving in will have to work hard to serve a diverse community like Edison.

“It’s important that the Latino folks and the black folks and the white people who are not necessarily economically advantaged are part of this change. Part of changing, shifting the ideas about this community and leading that," says Johnson. "So we fundamentally believe that arts and culture is a centerpiece way to do that.”

Johnson says FIRE came to Edison because they saw the area’s potential, but they were committed to serving the neighborhood exactly as it was. Johnson says future businesses and organizations in Washington Square will have to keep those ideals in mind.

“The degree to which people say ‘Ok, here we are and this is how it is. And these are the folks that are in our community and these are the people that we’re serving. And how are we going to figure out how to attract people to the area that were from someplace else? But how are we going to serve the people who are here?’ And I fundamentally would believe that the sustainability of any business is the degree to which they are able to balance two components.”  

Lori Mercedes is the director of the Hispanic American Councilin Kalamazoo. She says it’s important to change Kalamazoo’s perception of the Edison neighborhood because it has a lot to offer.

Mercedes says developers need to involve the residents in these conversations from the get-go, not after they’ve already laid out plans: 

“'Well, if you’re already going to do it, why are you asking me?' But if you want to know what’s important to me then ask me that, ‘What’s important to you?’ Safety is one of the number one issues that the residents in this neighborhood are going to tell you. They want to be able to have daycare centers within the neighborhood. Daycare centers that they’re going to be able to trust and leave their children there. Those are the conversations that the residents in this neighborhood are wanting to have, not what new businesses are going to move in to the neighborhood.”

But Mercedes says there are ways that a strong arts presence could serve residents’ effectively.

“We’re bringing these businesses that have to do with the arts, we should be aligning services," she says. "So after-school activities for children so they can engage in these activities, so they will be able to appreciate that. So actually this will have an impact on their lives.”

Washington Square will host events for Friday's Art Hop as well as a ribbon cutting ceremony for the three new businesses in the Edison neighborhood.

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