Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Ringing in the New Year in Kalamazoo

In the past, both while living in Kalamazoo and not, I often celebrated the arrival of the new year on the steps of Western Michigan University's East Hall, enjoying the fireworks set off by the city of Kalamazoo, then back to a friend's house for drinks, games, and sleep. The close of 2014 found me in Kalamazoo once again, but this time, my boyfriend Greg and I joined my mother and her boyfriend downtown for New Year's Fest, which I had never before heard of. It was cool!

For starters, downtown Kalamazoo has changed so much as to be almost unrecognizable to me. Suddenly (to me), there are restaurants, shops, places to go and hangout for hours on end. It isn't the shady, crumbling, largely abandoned, you might see your car on TV in the middle of a shoot-out (true story) same couple of blocks of my youth. Which is a good thing! But it was like stepping into a parallel universe where people wanted to go downtown and hang out with their friends and families rather than avoid it like some kind of drug-infested mine field. 

I remember going to downtown Kalamazoo with my mom or grandparents as a kid and not finding it to be that big of a deal, but the reaction of my friends and their parents in the cozy (and somewhat posh) suburb of Portage was like I had flown to Iran or North Korea (or Detroit) and returned unscathed. When I was 13, I was even dropped off with a friend by her mother and allowed to roam freely for a couple of hours before being picked up by my mother. (No supervision and no cell phones. Completely scandalous by today's standards.) And really, there wasn't a lot to do. We hung out at the library on their public computers more than anywhere else. 

Sign at Something's Brewing.

But like I said, that has changed. A lot. Which makes a lot of sense when you consider people of my generation and after have been gravitating towards city centers as quickly and readily as our parents and grandparents fled them. People don't want to drive anymore. They want to be able to meander to the neighborhood bar, get drunk, stumble over to the all night diner or coffee shop, then head home safely without worrying about DDs or DUIs. It's great! And you can finally do that in Kalamazoo. Or at least park for a few hours in the ramp (which, I realized on this trip, is not what people on this side of the state call a parking garage) and flit from place to place - the theater, art galleries, dinner, drinks, dessert, etc.

All that having been said, we didn't get to see much at New Year's Fest. There was just so much going on all at one time! We tried to make our first stop the aerialist Laura Ernst, but her first two shows were "sold out" (no actual selling involved), and we had to get bracelets to assure us seats for her final show of the night at 10pm, which turned out to be funny and very entertaining. Ms. Ernst is very talented, and it does not surprise me she has won awards and been on TV. 

Out front, we hopped a horse-drawn trolley to the center of the action, Bronson Park to form a new plan.  (One of the horses had an icicle hanging from its nose, poor creature.) Our actual first event ended up being over at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. While Yolonda Lavender and Bedrock put out some swinging tunes, Greg and I wandered the galleries where I was extremely excited to see an Edmonia Lewis sculpture. (If you don't know who she is, click the link. She was an amazing, amazing sculptor of so many beautiful pieces and a very interesting person.) I was also quite impressed by the wire-wrapped sculptures and hangings by Seungmo Park. It's hard to describe some of those pieces and really must be experienced in person. 

Greg and I were lucky to find seats up front for the next act at the KIA, the MI Hiryu Daiko (or MI Flying Dragon Drummers), one of only three taiko drumming groups in Michigan. Most of the members are not Japanese, which was sort of funny to me since I have only ever seen Japanese performances. The woman who leads the group, Esther Vandecar, studied taiko in Japan for 7 years and has played for 25 total. She still has close ties to Japan and an obvious respect for the drums and the tradition. The ages in the group ranged from senior to middle school. The two youngest members were quite skilled and did not shy away from the drums or the audience. It was wonderful to see this group perform! I love taiko.

Fustini's front window display.

Back outside, it was even colder, so Greg and I stopped in at Something's Brewing for a couple of delicious Snickers lattes, warmed up, then walked up and down Burdick so I could see what all had changed on the once-familiar street before waiting for Laura Ernst show to begin. 

We finished the night back at the house with the four of us on the couch, drinking wine, warm and cozy, watching the NYC ball drop on TV. Kalamazoo does its own ball drop with fireworks, but it was just too damn cold to stand around outside and wait for it. 

Happy 2015, everybody. (It's still too cold for me.)

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