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The No-Longer-Crumbling Walls of Jerico

Jerico owners Jeb and Crystal Gast in the walkway that runs through the center of the complex (photo by Elemental Media).
How one couple’s vision has created a hub for creativity and industry

At first approach, it appears that Jeri the Cat is the owner of Jerico. The ginger cat wanders the grounds of Jerico, a complex of three brick buildings at 1501 Fulford St., on the eastern edge of Kalamazoo’s Edison neighborhood, that house artists’ studios, manufacturing facilities and more. He slips into one of the buildings, trots up the stairs and settles into an armchair in the top-floor studio of Fido Motors.

Officially, Jerico is owned by Krystal and Jeb Gast. Jeri the Cat, however, has his own Instagram page and serves as the facility’s mascot. He freely wanders the buildings and inspects the occasional second-floor door that opens into thin air, the steep stairs that lead to one or another studio where some type of creativity or industry happens, and the narrow walkway between buildings that spills over with native plants, serving as a rain garden and a perfect hiding place for a cat. A centered signpost in the walkway points in all directions, toward more studios and offices there, there and there.

“The buildings of Jerico date back to 1898,” says Krystal Gast. That’s when Charles B. Ford and the Ford Buggy Co. constructed the complex’s first building, to produce some of their earliest automobiles, she says.

“Star Brass Works added the second building in 1913 or 1914,” she says. “They made brass wheels for electric trolleys and shipped them everywhere nationwide. They went bankrupt in the 1950s, but Gibson Madolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co. Ltd. began using Star Brass Works to create tone rings for pre-war Gibson banjos during those years. The third building was added around 1941.”

When those businesses went under or moved away, the buildings were employed for multiple uses. Other owners included United Van Lines, Ransler Moving & Storage, and Records Retention. The Gasts purchased the buildings in 2014 from Records Retention, but their story began years before.

How they came to own Jerico

Krystal, a native of Flint, grew up in Phoenix, which was also Jeb’s hometown. The two met, but then Krystal moved across the country to New York City. Jeb’s path took him to Seattle.

“I was in New York for less than a year,” Krystal says. “I was interested in photography and worked, among other jobs, in a photo gallery, but the cost of living in New York was too high, so then I moved cross-country again and joined Jeb in Seattle.”

There, Krystal worked in another photography gallery as studio manager, handling exhibits and marketing, while Jeb worked as a mechanic and opened his own shop, converting and selling electric scooters while working on his own scooter prototype.

“We lived in Seattle for seven years, and our first daughter, Maci, was born there,” says Krystal. “We had hoped to find a house, and we kept moving farther and farther out of the city, but the costs were prohibitive no matter how far out we moved. We started looking for someplace else to live.”

The Gasts’ ears perked up when a friend in Kalamazoo told them about the Kalamazoo Promise, a pledge made by a group of donors to cover tuition and mandatory fees for students graduating from Kalamazoo Public Schools to attend any in-state public community college or university. They moved to Kalamazoo in 2012. Their second daughter, Whidbey (named after the island near Seattle) was born soon after.

“At first we lived with a friend while looking for a place of our own,” Krystal says. “Over the next year I worked at People’s Food Co-op while Jeb looked for a place to open up his shop, Fido Motors.”

“At first I was actually only looking to lease a small incubator space to manufacture bikes,” Jeb explains, “but I was not having any luck finding anything in town, so we began looking at real estate for sale. It was by chance that we found these old buildings that the owner was willing to sell.”

Only one of the three brick buildings owned by Records Retention was being used to store records for various local businesses and hospitals. Since there was no need for the buildings to be open to the public, their windows had been boarded up and the complex appeared unused to outsiders.

“I think she — the owner — was a bit surprised when we expressed an interest in the buildings,” Krystal says. “Records were becoming digitized by then, and there was less of a need for what she did. The building wasn’t yet on the market, but she offered us a land contract, and in April 2013, with the help of a partner back in Seattle, the place was ours.”

“At 30,000 square feet, it was way more space than we needed, but the price was right,” Jeb adds.

“That’s when we had the thought, ‘If we couldn’t find a space to lease in Kalamazoo, maybe others were looking too?’”

Others were. To make the space within the buildings suitable for renters, however, the Gasts first had to do many repairs and updates.

“We built out the spaces as people moved in,” Krystal says. “Word got around through a lot of networking. Bobby Hopewell was mayor (of Kalamazoo) at that point, and he was talking a lot about makerspaces. He was having community meetings about it, and there was a good response from people.”

The Gasts wondered what to call their complex of makerspaces. Interestingly, they found inspiration in the biblical story of the city of Jericho, one of the earliest settlements in history. In the Bible, the walls surrounding the city were brought down in battle by the blowing of horns.

“We wanted something that could be like a town somewhere,” Jeb says. “The many crumbling walls led to our jokingly calling it Jerico, and that stuck.”

Another inspiration for Jeb was a former one-room schoolhouse, Jericho Corners in Van Buren County, whose own crumbling walls were brought back into use to house a liquor and convenience store.

Creative redevelopment

At the front of the complex, the Gasts opened Fido Motors Café, a coffee shop with comfortable tables surrounded by shelves with art offerings. Outside of it is open-air space, plus a colorful Little Free Library, perched on a post and brightly painted by Kim Shaw, programs director of the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo and a Jerico tenant. Tenants and their guests gather for their daily cup of coffee, and Edison neighbors cross the street to partake as well.

“Initially, I worked at the coffee shop up front full time,” Krystal says. “I also helped Jeb in his shop upstairs — Fido Motors — with bookkeeping and that sort of thing. Jeb made a couple Fido scooters and a prototype, but, other than that, we depended on rental income to keep us going.”

Among the first renters at Jerico were Rootead, a nonprofit supporting people of color; Piano Quest, a company providing various piano services; and the now-defunct Kal-Tone Musical Instrument Co., which offered guitar manufacturing and instrument repair services. Later, Hollander Development moved in, as did Celery City Press, Flat Mountain Press, Seahorse Ceramic and other businesses that have since moved to other addresses.

“Piano Quest is the only one of those still here at Jerico,” Krystal says, “but we just rented out our last open space, with more than 20 renters now.”

The array of studios and businesses now occupying Jerico are varied. The coffee shop recently changed ownership and was rebranded as Fiddle Leaf Café. It features Michigan-sourced coffees and teas, handmade syrups and a range of “goodies” by local vendors (see the sidebar “Within the Walls of Jerico,”).

La Luna Recording Studio may be one of the better-known tenants at Jerico, established there in 2018 with Ian Gorman at its helm. Gorman, a graduate of Western Michigan University, brought a lifetime of experience to the studio after working in the music industry in Chicago but then deciding big-city life was not for him and returning to Kalamazoo. At Jerico, Gorman maintains an 1,800-square-foot, eight-room recording studio that offers spaces for analog and digital recording, private lessons, audio workshops, isolation booths and live events (see Encore’s 2021 story on Gorman at encorekalamazoo.com/sonic-mad-scientist).

Creating community

The landlord–tenant relationships at Jerico are not of the usual variety. The Gasts pop into the studios and shops to exchange friendly conversation and to occasionally collaborate on ongoing projects. Jeb can be seen walking Jerico rooftops eyeing space for a patio that can be an outdoor testing ground for wood-fired grill prototypes produced by Traeger. Krystal stops in at Weaver’s Unlimited, a metal fabrication shop, to chat with owner Stu Weaver, who builds prototypes for Traeger and other companies. Someone has placed a sign that reads “FREE” on Jeb’s truck as a joke, which elicits laughter from Jeb. And tenants gather around firepits to share fun moments. What makes Jerico so loved is that it is more than a collection of business people in working relationships — it is a community.

“We also recently had a reveal party for the new murals on our buildings,” Krystal says, pointing at windows that were long ago bricked over but have been given artistic treatment by artists Anne and Chafe Hensley, of Weirder Wonderland.

“We’ve been putting in new windows in many of the studios, but they are expensive. When we thought about these bricked-over spaces, the idea of murals came up. We were able to get a grant from the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo for the murals. It was a fun experience to work directly with the artists. We want to keep doing more things like that.”

As Krystal winds through the hallways and up and down the stairways of Jerico, she points out another popular space — The Clover Room.

“The Clover Room is a kind of listening room for intimate shows. It has a capacity of only 55 to 60 people,” she says. “They have been here for about a year but have already hosted local as well as national musicians, hosted the Edison Jazz Fest, and served as a venue for Sounds of the Zoo, a weeklong music festival. And it’s affordable, usually around $20 a ticket, so most anyone can come and enjoy. It’s more of what we want at Jerico”. (See related story, The Clover Room)

Around the corner from The Clover Room is a space with walls covered with paintings. “Here,” Krystal explains, “we would like to have more local artists show their work.”

Dell Darnell, the owner of The Dapper Hammer, an LGBTQ+-owned school for carpentry and woodworking, has had a studio at Jerico for three years. “Before having a studio at Jerico, I was working out of my basement at home,” Darnell says. “The advantage of moving into a space here is not only that it is a bigger space, but that we are surrounded by creative people here, the energy of creatives and makers, being able to trade tips and tools, and just the warmth of being surrounded by these people.”

That community, Krystal says, was very much missed during the Covid-19 pandemic, when people avoided contact with others.

“During the Covid pandemic, Jerico became very quiet,” she says. “Very quiet and very sad. Tough times. We had to learn how to pivot. The café brought in new products, and we tried making weekly deliveries rather than to have it open to the public, but it was rent that kept us going. We don’t do deliveries anymore.

“It’s just great to have us all here again.”

As those renting space began to return after the quiet years of the pandemic, Krystal opened the café to the public again in 2021. It wasn’t long before Jerico was bustling with life again.

One of the most popular events that brings crowds to Jerico is the twice-yearly Jerico Faire (the most recent was Dec. 2). It features local artists and makers, along with food vendors and musicians. The event is free to the public.

“We started Jerico Faire as a kind of ‘Small Business Saturday,'” says Krystal. “It was really cool, so we decided to keep doing it and expanding it as an annual event or, more often, during the summer and then again in December for the holidays.”

Vendors offer handmade art, fiber art, prints, jewelry, woodworking and much more. While the summer Faire may take place outdoors as well as indoors, the winter Faire brings people inside.

“In October, Jerico was also part of the Washington Avenue Art Crawl, similar to the Art Hop in Kalamazoo, put on by the Edison Neighborhood Association,” Krystal says. “It’s a quarterly event, and we have participated in two of those so far. It was pretty successful, so we plan to do more of that. We have neighbors here who regularly come over to Jerico, and we enjoy that relationship.”

Looking to the future

Emerging again from the complex, Krystal points to railroad tracks that run between the buildings. Back when trains ran through Jerico, one stop was to drop off shipments of raisins in a small alcove to one side, she says, as the raisins were on their way to Kellogg’s the next day. It is another piece of history running through the present at Jerico and leading into the future.

“When we think about the future of Jerico, we try to pay attention to what this community needs,”

Krystal says. “I do tend to take on too much at times. I’m trying to be more realistic now of what we take on, but we want to continue to support the local arts, whether with projects like the new murals or Jerico Faire or partnering with artists on other projects. And we are also thinking about starting an artist residency at Jerico.”

Jeri the Cat ventures by, seeming to purr with approval.

Zinta Aistars

Zinta is the creative director of Z Word, LLC, a writing and editing service. She is the host of the weekly radio show, Art Beat, on WMUK, and the author of three published books in Latvian — a poetry collection, a story collection and a children’s book. Zinta lives on a small farm in Hopkins, where she raises chickens and organic vegetables, and wanders the woods between writing assignments.

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