In its heyday in the 1940s and ‘50s, Washington Square was a vibrant streetscape with a wide variety of local stores — a bank, pharmacy, ice cream parlour, theater, and grocery, among others, made the block a hive of activity. The Kalamazoo Public Library established a branch in Washington Square in 1919 which remains to the present day, and streetcars crisscrossed Portage Street as early as the 1880s. Located in the heart of the Edison neighborhood, Kalamazoo’s largest neighborhood, Washington Square underwent several decades of economic decline as local businesses couldn’t compete with national chains in the 1980s and ‘90s. The adult entertainment businesses that sprang up in the area contributed to the overall deterioration, and left behind a mostly deserted commercial corridor when they left in the 2000s.
The Kalamazoo County Land Bank took ownership of two buildings that line Portage Street in late 2013. The Land Bank’s revitalization efforts went to work starting something new in Washington Square, through a combination of renovation and community engagement. Partnering with the Edison Neighborhood Association, the Land Bank heard from area residents that Washington Square felt unsafe, lifeless, and a drain on the vitality of the area. They hoped to see a block of vibrant activity that reflected the diverse and unique character seen in the rest of the neighborhood. In 2014, the Land Bank kicked off their renewal efforts with community events that generated participation and awareness of Washington Square’s new look and feel. Renovations in the 1350 Portage building brought in new tenants, Tremolo Guitar Shop and Bellydance Kalamazoo, as well as families and individuals to live in the second floor apartments.
Across the street, the historic but blighted and vacant building at 1301 Portage Street received a makeover, completely transforming it inside and out to make way for a new restaurant – Pho on the Block. New tenants Jersey Giant SUBS! and Kzoo Nutrition moved in next door to the Community Promise Credit Union, and all the vacant spaces owned by the Land Bank were finally occupied in spring of 2017.
The Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo’s Art Hop events are a beloved tradition in Kalamazoo, held on the first Friday of the month. The Land Bank partnered with the Arts Council to bring this community event into Washington Square, and over the past 4 years hundreds of people got to know this block in a different way, as artists, performers and food vendors featured their work. Holidays in the Square was another community event, aimed at featuring locally-made artisan goods, to help the community “shop local” during the holiday season. Lights and window displays brightened the snowy streets, and people came to Washington Square to shop, eat, and support local entrepreneurs.
Washington Square’s renewal is just one part of several exciting developments in the Edison neighborhood. The recently opened WMU Homer Stryker School of Medicine and KVCC’s Bronson Healthy Living campus was built in 2015, just a couple blocks away from Washington Square. The Local Initiatives Support Corporation works extensively in the Edison neighborhood and joined in the efforts to bring vibrancy back to the area. The Land Bank has also renovated several homes on neighboring streets to create more opportunities for affordable housing and quality rentals for area residents. The Kalamazoo Farmers Market, located just around the corner from Washington Square, is a popular destination for people from all over Kalamazoo to shop the bountiful produce of Southwest Michigan and is working to expand and make way for more vendors and shoppers. The combined efforts of many passionate and dedicated individuals, businesses, and organizations are making a difference in the area. Washington Square is starting to once again resemble a bustling streetscape where Edison residents gather to shop, work and play in a community space.