Growing up no one thinks they'll end up in Kalamazoo, do they?
October 31, 2008 6:39 AM   Subscribe

I have the option of moving to Kalamazoo, Michigan. What does Kalamazoo and Michigan have going for them?

As a Liberal East Coaster I am totally prejudiced. I tend to think of the Midwest (Chicago excepted) as a vast cultural wasteland full of middle American ignorance and self-satisfaction only worth flying over en route to the West Coast.

The thing is there's a solid and provocative job opportunity there, so what does Southwestern Michigan have going for it in terms of Culture? Local Color? Public Schools? Diversity? Cost of Living? Etc?
posted by Any Moose In a Storm to Grab Bag (29 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The city-data forums helped me a lot with those kinds of questions when I was considering relocating this past summer. We did end up moving and it's been great, mostly because we had a good idea of what to expect. Also we visited several times before settling on a neighborhood & schools & etc. Nothing compares to being there.
posted by headnsouth at 6:50 AM on October 31, 2008

Best answer: Kalamzoo is the home of Western Michigan University, which has outstanding music and theater programs. Probably one of the best jazz programs in the country, IMHO. Miller Auditorium on WMU's campus and the State Theatre bring in big name acts. The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts is a fine place to fritter away an afternoon, then walk down Westnedge to get a cup of coffee at 4th Coast.

Bells Beer produces several highly-respected beers, most notably Oberon. They also have a great beer garden and bring in great bands to play there over the winter.

The downtown walking mall is hit-or-miss. Lauded as the first walking mall in the US, business haven't exactly flocked to downtown. However, it's a great place for a stroll and a cup of coffee. The downtown park hosts craft fairs and is a great place for people watching, but it also is a comfortable place for homeless people. Living there for 5 years, I was asked for a handout maybe twice.

If you're of the breeding persuasion, you can't do any better than Kalamazoo Public Schools. They are participating in a program where children who complete K-12 in the KPS system, they get free tuition to any state school. Very progressive. The cost of living seems typical for the size of the city.

Kalamazoo isn't terribly diverse outside of the colleges. The neighboring town of Portage is even less so. Public transportation exists, but is highly underutilized.

K-zoo is only a 2.5 hour drive (or a 4 hour train ride) to Chicago or Detroit. You are a 40 mile drive from South Haven and the lake.
posted by bryanzera at 6:57 AM on October 31, 2008

My brother grew up in the Chicago burbs, went to school in Madison, WI - and he's now working in K-zoo and hates it with the passion of a thousand burning suns. I'm a midwest (really Chicago) defender, and I really couldn't see living there, myself.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 7:07 AM on October 31, 2008

Well, in terms of public schools going into college, there's the Kalamazoo Promise. Every high school graduate gets a scholarship. Sounds pretty progressive to me.
posted by cimbrog at 7:09 AM on October 31, 2008

FWIW, I was friends with someone from Ka-zoo in college. He seemed to think it was a nice enough place to grow up, but he wasn't in any hurry to go back and live there.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:09 AM on October 31, 2008

Best answer: In general, Michigan votes solidly Blue, but that's just because Detroit and its black/union demographic is so much larger than the rest of the state. Western and Northern Michigan tend to vote Republican and be quite conservative, especially in the Grand Rapids region, which is a bit more than an hour north of Kalamazoo.

But even if you think that's a negative, there are still things going for the city. There's a decent microbrewery, Kraftbrau, that has good beer and gets indie-type bands fairly regularly.

I don't know about Kalamazoo in particular, but semi-rural/suburban high schools tend to be far superior to their urban counterparts. There's probably a nice public high school where the rich kids go and one or two lesser ones, but I'd bet that the only one that's really awful would be located more or less downtown, and that probably doesn't hold a candle to NYC or DC schools in terms of being dangerous.

Cost of living is gonna be rock bottom. I'm currently located near Notre Dame, just 45 minutes away, and you can get a 4000 sq. ft. house for less than $50k if you're willing to deal with a fixer-upper. Even the big houses in the subdivisions north of town are going for less than $200k. You'll be hard-pressed to spend more than $1000/month on rent, and that'll get you a 3 bedroom place, easy. A one-bedroom in a really nice apartment complex will go for no more than $750. Seriously, housing is cheap. So is food.

Speaking of food, the Michiana area is a real agricultural center, so there are a bunch of awesome farmers markets around, many of which run year round. Kalamazoo seems to have two located right downtown. There are also gonna be numerous roadside stands just all over the place. Many of them just have a cash jar where you put your money after you take your produce. Apples are particularly good out here.

Diversity? Yeah, not so much. At least not of the kind you're probably thinking about. There's probably a decently large immigrant community (some legal, some not), mostly Hispanic but including one or two completely random ethnic groups (e.g. the Rwandans have set up a relatively sizable community in South Bend, IN, for no readily identifiable reason). But they're pretty insular and definitely minorities. They aren't even close to exerting any kind of mainstream cultural influence. Ethnic restaurants are relatively uncommon and tend to be sub-par. You'll probably stumble upon one or two hidden gems, but that's it.

If you're looking for alternative lifestyles, do your self a favor and look elsewhere. There probably is a LGBT community in the area, but you won't find the same reception that you would in a bigger urban area, much less the Upper West Side.

Still, if you've got a job you like and are willing to deal with some cultural drawbacks, it can be a really nice place to live. Cost of living is really low; fresh, local, organic produce is plentiful; the air is clean; living is at a slower pace; and Chicago isn't that far away. Williamsburg it ain't, but neither is it as bad as all that.
posted by valkyryn at 7:18 AM on October 31, 2008

Best answer: Actually there valkyryn, I live in West Michigan and my county--Muskegon- is solid blue. So it isn't all Republican over here. We have a small Hispanic population here, but Ottawa County has a large percentage.

Grand Rapids has a LGBT community, I know that they are affiliated with Fountain Street Church.

Both my parents went to Kalamazoo College. I moved to Michigan from Monterey/Santa Cruz California after I graduated from UC. I love it in the Midwest., and I love Michigan too.

There is nothing so wonderful for me as the Great Lakes, the beaches, the change of seasons, the great outdoor activities, and yes, the farmer's markets are very good. I don't know a lot about Kzoo, but here in Muskegon, we have a well-supported arts community that includes the West Shore Symphony and a pretty fab art museum. Saugatuck is heavily liberal and very arty, and is a great place close to Kalamazoo, with excellent restaurants and great shopping. It also has Oxbow, the summer program for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The down side is that it is behind times in a lot of ways. Michigan has been hard, hard hit by NAFTA, and has serious auto industry issues. Unemployment is high. Although we have currently a Democratic Governor, she hasn't really done much to change things from the Republican Engler-era.

It is much better than the reputation it has.
posted by chocolatetiara at 8:01 AM on October 31, 2008

I've lived in Michigan for several years, now. Yes, it is small-minded, prejudiced, gun-loving and just outright weird. The economy sucks. The winters are cold. The roads are terrible. They don't plow the snow. Spring doesn't come until April.

But...I have to admit loving it here. It is progressive in odd ways in spite of itself (lets wait & see how the election goes. I can say this with more certainty if Prop 1 & Prop 2 win). Once you get away from the people (i.e. go Up North), the scenery is spectacular.

The main reason to be here, though, is water. If you live anywhere south of the Mason Dixon line, life is going to get more and more and more difficult as the droughts move northward. We have water. You are within 6 miles of a lake pretty much anywhere in Michigan. And we have the big ones. Having spent more than a decade along the Great Lakes, I wouldn't live anywhere else.
posted by clarkstonian at 8:16 AM on October 31, 2008

Nearby, Battle Creek has a very accomplished brass band. Kalamazoo has, in addition to the above artistic venues, the State Theater which brings some pretty big acts to the city. The Intersection in Grand Rapids books a steady stream of musical acts if you're into that kind of thing.

You won't exactly be in a cultural mecca, but if you keep your eyes and ears open you can still get quite a bit of culture, I think.
posted by Green With You at 8:22 AM on October 31, 2008

Best answer: i lived in michigan for the first 22 years of my life, and i would love to move back there now (i've been on the east coast for the last 6 years). kalamazoo is one of the better cities you could move to because it is a college town (ann arbor and east lansing would be other good choices). it's not a city like nyc or philadelphia, but it is a city.

michigan is a great state if you're at all outdoorsy. lakes, rivers, forests, parks, hiking/biking trails, skiing, almost every type of outdoor recreation.

michigan is in hard economic times and has been for a while. but, you already have a job offer, which puts you in a better position than many.

you will encounter ignorance and self-satisfaction everywhere, even on the east coast. kzoo will be more diverse racially, ethnically, and in other ways than many parts of michigan because it is a college town. but michigan as a whole isn't a racist kkk enclave, and all michiganders aren't members of the militia.

you'll find all of the big box stores, sometimes multiples of each, and few "mom and pop" stores because of a) the bad economy and b) the big box stores. there just isn't enough to support them because the population isn't as large as many other cities, and kzoo isn't really a tourist destination.

i'm rambling. my overall point is that you should move there. michigan is a good place, and kzoo is a decent starting point for a liberal east coaster.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 8:28 AM on October 31, 2008

Just so you know, if you choose to take this job offer, this:
"As a Liberal East Coaster I am totally prejudiced. I tend to think of the Midwest (Chicago excepted) as a vast cultural wasteland full of middle American ignorance and self-satisfaction only worth flying over en route to the West Coast."
is going to get under the skin of almost everybody, even the most left-leaning, liberal people you meet. In fact, a decent number of people will be suspicious that that is how you think of them, and you will want to actively avoid saying prickish things, like that.

That said, I've always enjoyed my time in K-zoo, it is a nice place, and SW MI is a great area; the best part of the state, in my opinion.
posted by paisley henosis at 9:12 AM on October 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Kalamazoo Promise is awesome and there are a lot of progressive folks in the area thanks to the University. There is also Bilbo's Pizza, which will certainly become a staple dining location for you. :)
posted by fusinski at 9:16 AM on October 31, 2008

We're pretty convinced in the Midwest that East Coasters are all self-important jackasses that don't have an understanding of anything more than 40 miles from a coast. You're not a bad person, just ignorant. The contempt that coastal people have for the rest of the country is not doing anyone any favors. You really owe it to yourself and to America to do a little ethnographic study of Michigan. It'll be fun writing back to your friends in New England.

"December 12, 2008: Most Kalamazooians appear to be literate and have all their teeth. Surprising"

"January 12th, 2009: Today I saw a man wearing a cowboy hat and Carharts non-ironically."

"March 3rd, 2009: Sun finally comes out after 29 consecutive cloudy days. Citizenry elated. People are wearing shorts in 49 degree weather."

"March 24, 2009: Oberon arrives. Have decided to stay in Kalamazoo. Please tell mom I love her"

Six of 30 years, I lived in Boston. The rest has been split between Ann Arbor and the little town where I grew up. Kalamazoo isn't exactly Manhattan, but it's down-to-earth place where real estate prices are so low that regular people can afford to start non-chain businesses. It's fairly progressive, a short drive to the lake, has a train that gets you to Chicago in a couple of hours and it's CHEAP. Kalamazooites also have hardcore hometown pride, common in most of Michigan's struggling cities. Decent local music scene with a couple sweet venues.

It's not some kind of hellhole. Not saying moving there wouldn't be a little jarring at first, but it's a good town. I know a number of east coast types that have moved here and decided it's worth staying.
posted by paanta at 9:18 AM on October 31, 2008 [4 favorites]

Yes, it is small-minded, prejudiced, gun-loving and just outright weird.

Depends on where you are and who you spend your time with. I lived in MI for my entire adult life, and never thought this.

I just moved from Michigan to North Carolina. Compared to NC, MI is sooooo liberal. I miss it there! *sniff sniff*

I had friends who lived in Kzoo and went to K-college. They LOVED it there. I've hung out in Kzoo a few times and always had a good time.

And Bells is excellent beer!!
posted by at 9:22 AM on October 31, 2008

Look at some houses. You'll probably actually be able to buy one that doesn't come with an hour long commute.
posted by 517 at 9:53 AM on October 31, 2008

To contradict valkyryn, a friend of mine I met at WMU says this about the schools in the area:

kalamazoo is home to two public high schools, on opposite sides of town. Portage has two itself. None of them are downtown!

On a side-note, Portage is host to one of the state's largest high school cross-country invitationals. Now you know!
posted by Green With You at 10:16 AM on October 31, 2008

Portage is also home to a celery museum. Even more exciting: every year more than 3,000 medievalists come from around the world for the International Congress on Medieval Studies. "Kalamazoo" is shorthand among scholars for this major conference, always held in Western Michigan.
posted by woodway at 11:09 AM on October 31, 2008, most definitely true. I live in a small town - definitely a red community in a blue state. That said, I know a lot of people from a lot of different areas & a broad economic spectrum. They pretty much all hunt (the people I know) - so much so that killing a deer on the first day of deer-hunting season is more important to one woman than going to see her daughter's final college varsity volleyball game. And she's a nurse.

I have yet to meet a Michigan-born pro-choice liberal. I know they are here, but I have not met them. I hadn't heard the N-word spoken aloud by a non-black person in at least 3 decades - until I moved here. I have never seen the deep-seated racial tension I've seen here - even in the deep south. So I would not say Michigan is a bastion of liberality. I've spent time in N. Carolina, too. Again, it depends on where you are and who you are with.

I would hardly call the state a cultural wasteland, though. The DIA is a very good museum. There is incredible music here. Lots of diverse festivals. Kalamazoo isn't far from Detroit or Grand Rapids or Ann Arbor, so you have access to a lot of different places.

I wouldn't be afraid to take the plunge. Just be willing to keep an open mind. Plus, as an East Coast liberal, you can make a huge change in the electoral demographics!
posted by clarkstonian at 11:13 AM on October 31, 2008

i am a "a Michigan-born pro-choice liberal." i'm gay too! and i've never held a gun or been hunting!

for some reason i want to fight for the honor of michigan here. but i won't get into it.

you'll find racisit, ignorant, biggoted motherfuckers everywhere, even in manhattan or san fran (!!!!).

have you been to kalamazoo for a visit or for the interview? if you're thinking of moving there, you really need to visit first, and form your own opinion. but you can't judge a place until you've really lived there.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 12:01 PM on October 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Another Michigan-born pro-choice liberal checking in. Unfortunately, I don't live in Michigan anymore. :(

I'll nth the idea that your east-coast superiority complex is going to rankle Michiganders, so it would be best to keep that under your hat. Noisily miserable coasters tend to attract fellow miserable coasters and dwell in their midwestern misery, rather than really getting to know the area.
posted by srah at 4:32 PM on October 31, 2008

I am another Michigan-born pro-choice liberal. But, of course, I don't live in Michigan anymore and wouldn't want to.

OP, if the job is worth it, Kzoo won't be the worst place on earth. However, it you're looking for urban life - food, art, culture, etc. - you're going to be in a bit of pain. Chicago isn't too far though.
posted by k8t at 5:13 PM on October 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: OP: Growing up no one thinks they'll end up in Kalamazoo, do they?

I love that line. So true. I certainly never thought I'd end up in Kalamazoo.

I moved (somewhat nervously) to Kalamazoo 4 years ago for a job. I had spent most of my previous life on the east coast, in southern and middle Atlantic states, in much warmer climes and in mostly urban areas that are widely considered to be desirable. But I can't believe what a pleasant surprise Kalamazoo has turned out to be.

The quality of life here is off the charts. There's minimal traffic, affordable housing, great mountain biking trails, a lot of extremely cool people committed to social justice, a great arts environment, a very active LGBT community, some terrific restaurants, a wonderful theater community, and a thriving intellectual environment led by Kalamazoo College and Western Michigan University.

Yes, the winters are way colder and snowier than any I have experienced before, but I have learned that all you need is the right gear. The cold weather comes early and stays late, but spring, summer, and fall are spectacular. Winter can be amazing, too. The beauty and quiet of the snow stop me in my tracks sometimes.

After 4 years, Kalamazoo feels more like home to me than any of the other places I have lived. If you have a little imagination, open your eyes and open your mind, you can make a fantastic life in this very blue part of west Michigan.

I guess it just depends on what's important to you as to whether you would like it here. misanthropicsarah has it right; you ought to visit before you make up your mind.
posted by isogloss at 6:39 PM on October 31, 2008

Best answer: I was born there, and while I don't think I'd ever go back, I lived there for 17 years or so. It's a decent enough town to grow up in, though I wouldn't say the schools are all that great. The high schools, yes, are at the butt-ends of the city (literally, Norrix is on the town border) and the students are bussed from all over. There is a sizable chunk of the north side of town that is predominately poor, and not the safest area, either.
The parks are fantastic. If you like the outdoors, Milham Park, Crane Park, and many, many others are wonderful. The State Theater does indeed pull in pretty large named acts on a regular basis, and the IHL hockey team arena occaisionally gets larger tours. There's a university with about 30,000 students, and the kind of college town culture that comes with them.
There is some great food/restaurants to be had. Bilbo's is good stuff, though sadly, the Galley has closed, I heard. The supermarkets carry food, just like on the East Coast. You certainly won't go hungry, and if you like fruit (cherries, apples, peaches) you'll be living in the right state.
As a midwesterner, from Michigan, I would defintely say there are a good deal more liberal, open-minded folk there than you'd think. It's not a bad town, and it has quite a lot to recommend it. I've said before, I'm glad I grew up there, but I'm also pretty sure I'd never live there again. On the other hand, if I were to live anywhere in the States again, it would most likely be the midwest. Give it a try (at least visit).

And isogloss is right, it's a beautiful place.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:10 PM on October 31, 2008

Another "Michigan-born pro-choice liberal" here. There are plenty of people that fit that description in nearly all parts of Michigan.
posted by pitseleh at 9:30 PM on October 31, 2008

The people here on metafilter who are saying how liberal it is are in the minority. I spent 6 years in west michigan (Grand Rapids) and just recently moved. I could not be happier.
posted by silkygreenbelly at 9:35 PM on October 31, 2008

Grand Rapids is an anomaly - all of the other decent sized cities in Michigan are blue - Lansing/East Lansing, Ann Arbor, Detroit, Flint.
posted by rfs at 5:50 AM on November 1, 2008

The people here on metafilter who are saying how liberal it is are in the minority. I spent 6 years in west michigan (Grand Rapids) and just recently moved. I could not be happier.

Grand Rapids is 50 miles and a world away from Kalamazoo. GR is dominated by the DeVos/Amway empire, whose scion Dick DeVos failed, thankfully, to unseat Governor Jennifer Granholm in 2006. She beat him by 14 points.

With a Democratic governor who is one of only 8 female governors, and two Democratic senators, one of whom (Debbie Stabenow) is one of only 14 female senators, I think a pretty strong case can be made for the blueness of Michigan. Democratic Sen. Carl Levin looks to coast to re-election on Tuesday.

Additionally, Obama currently leads McCain by 10-22 points in Michigan, depending on which poll you check. He may not carry Grand Rapids, but he won't need to.
posted by isogloss at 8:10 AM on November 1, 2008

Grand Rapids is an anomaly - all of the other decent sized cities in Michigan are blue - Lansing/East Lansing, Ann Arbor, Detroit, Flint.

That doesn't mean that they are liberal. I grew up outside of East Lansing and I recently heard someone else describe it as "the most backwards media market" and I thought about it and totally agreed. Detroit/Flint - they vote democratic because of the unions. Do you really think that people in Birmingham or Grosse Pointe are liberal?
posted by k8t at 12:16 PM on November 1, 2008

If you really are a totally prejudiced liberal east coaster, I'm gonna say that you will not like it there. Sure, Kalamazoo has all sorts of nice things to offer and my friends who live there are total leftist eco activists etc, but if you are like my other provincial east coast friends who have attempted living elsewhere, you will find that you don't like being outside of your comfort zone. Maybe that sounds harsh, but if you sincerely believe those things you listed and aren't going into this with an open mind and an interest in finding things to appreciate about where you live, then it's gonna be miserable. But if you're open to what Kalamazoo has to offer, then you'll be fine. I've met all sorts of people from larger cities who are happy there.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 12:48 PM on November 1, 2008

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