Why's That: Brick Mystery Solved! Plus, How a Book Changed Kalamazoo's Main Drag

Nov 10, 2016

The vault at the City of Kalamazoo's records center
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

Last month, “Why’s That?” found itself with a stumper about pavement on a certain block of Kalamazoo’s Michigan Avenue. For listeners who haven't slept well since then, today we have an answer. Then we find out what Michigan Avenue, which used to be called Main Street, has to do with a famous novel.

What in Southwest Michigan makes you curious? Why’s That wants to know!

Michigan Avenue has a surface of asphalt these days. But where that surface has crumbled between Church and Park Streets, you can see rows of brick. Dean Hauck owns the Michigan News Agency, a bookstore in that block. She’s known this stretch of Michigan Avenue since the end of the 1940s.

“At some point whole thing must have been brick and I have no memory of that,” Hauck says.

Last episode we figured out when the blacktop went down: 1903, earlier than we’d expected. The Kalamazoo Gazette wrote about the city commission’s big tussle over the decision. But we couldn’t find anything in the paper about the brickwork. 

Exposed brick on Michigan Avenue between Church and Park streets.
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

What we needed was some record from the time. That’s how I ended up at a big brown warehouse on Burdick Street – where the City of Kalamazoo keeps its old records.

The city’s Austin Slack looked through years’ worth of records to get an answer on the bricks. He searched an index of all the paving ever laid on Michigan Avenue, and that led him to a digital file on a city commission decision from 1900.

“It says on Main Street from the west line of Church Street to the west line of West Street [now Westnedge Avenue], said pavement to be constructed of brick laid on a crushed stone foundation, the particular specifications to be hereafter determined by the council.

“I thought great, that’s exactly what we’re looking for, right?”

Slack wanted to see the resolution on paper, so he went to the vault where the city keeps its oldest records.

“All city commission documents all the way back to when it was a village council,” he says as we walk in.

He searched the files from 1900 until he found the resolution. It orders brick pavement for two blocks on Michigan Avenue, including the one where you’ll find the Michigan News.

The date of the meeting? May 7, 1900, with the actual paving to be done that summer.

Slack points out that we don’t have irrefutable evidence that the brick was laid then. “I wish we could have found document that said we did this, on this date, at this time, for sure,” he says.

The city's Austin Slack searched a long index of paving work to trace the origins of the bricks.
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

But based on these records, it seems as though the summer of 1900 is the earliest the bricks would have been laid. When I went to see Dean Hauck at her store I said it looked pretty likely that her part of the street was paved with brick in 1900.

It’s still not clear why the city would put asphalt over the brick just three years later.

“Boy, there’s a story,” she says. “Why so soon?”

Having – hopefully – solved the mystery of when Dean’s block was paved with brick, we had to follow up on a side issue. Wikipedia  said that Kalamazoo’s Michigan Avenue owed its name to a book - Main Street, Sinclair Lewis’ first big novel.

I told Dean and the City of Kalamazoo’s Sharon Ferraro about this last month and we agreed it must be too good to be true.

“It’s wonderful to blame a lot of things on Sinclair Lewis but that’s not one of them,” Dean says.

Except maybe it is.

Main Street came out in 1920. It follows a young woman named Carol as she follows her new husband from her home in St. Paul-Minneapolis to his home, the fictional town of Gopher Prairie. As soon as she arrives, Carol’s hope that she can turn Gopher Prairie into a thoughtful center of culture begins to wilt.

“When Carol had walked for thirty-two minutes she had completely covered the town, east and west, north and south; and she stood at the corner of Main Street and Washington Avenue and despaired,” Lewis writes.

He adds that when Carol walks down Gopher Prairie's Main Street, she could be in any of 10,000 small American towns.

“Howland and Gould’s Grocery. In the display window, black, overripe bananas and lettuce on which a cat was sleeping.”

“That’s a wonderful image,” Dean says. “I think the fact that he is able to capture – Sinclair Lewis is able to capture her different feelings is the reason, one of the reasons it speaks to all of us. Because many of the books written at this time did not – were not fair to women, and you read a lot of those.”

Lewis modeled Gopher Prairie on his own small hometown. He wrote from experience, with an honesty that Hauck says some people found hard to take.

“They felt like, you know, they were looking in the mirror and seeing themselves and everything and not always a very positive view of what they were doing and how they were treating people,” she says.

But how does the book connect to Kalamazoo’s Michigan Avenue? The first thing to know is that it lies along a once-major route between Detroit and Chicago. That route also happens to pass through Jackson.

In the 1910s Jackson had something of a crisis in street names, a situation that wrought “fearful and wonderful complications,” as the Jackson Citizen Patriot put it, for people trying to navigate them.

It seems for example that Jackson had both a Beach Street and a Beech Street, plus two Forest Avenues and more than one Hill Street.

As residents called for reform, some of them asked: Why not call Main Street something more original?

Some favored the name Lafayette Street, after the French hero of the American Revolutionary War. But others objected.

“We have paid our debt to Lafayette and to France with compound interest,” one person wrote to the editor of the Citizen Patriot. “Besides, Lafayette can be, and probably would be, pronounced in different ways and accents, only one of which would be correct.”

That idea was dropped. But few years later in 1922, a group dedicated to improving Michigan’s roads made a new proposal. What if every major town along the Detroit-Chicago road called its Main Street “Michigan” something – maybe Michigan Avenue?

The Citizen Patriot was for it. And it gave a certain book as one reason for making the change.

“Let’s abolish "Main Street" in name, in thought, in deed,” the editors wrote.

“There are those who dare to say that too much “Main Street” is what’s the matter with Jackson – too much of the small town viewpoint, too much envy of our associates’ successes, too much uncharitableness and too little of the community spirit that overcomes obstacles.”

That’s the kind of can-do civic boosting that Lewis skewered in Babbitt, his next novel after Main Street. In any case the plan succeeded. Several cities including Jackson and Kalamazoo renamed their Main Streets Michigan Avenue. Kalamazoo made the switch in 1929.

“But we still have a Main Street,” Dean Hauck points out. We’re at her store on Kalamazoo’s Michigan Avenue. It’s true - East and West Main Streets branch off of this road on either side of downtown.

It seems the city only wanted to rename part of the street.

Dean laughs. “That’s cooperation, sort of.”

Tell us what in Southwest Michigan has caught your attention.