The city is named after the Kalamazoo River, but no one is certain as to where the name Kalamazoo actually comes from. A lack of evidence means that the truth will likely never be found, but there are four common theories:
It is derived from the Potawatomi word negikanamazo, which is variously translated as "otter tail" or "stones like otters." This could refer to area wildlife.
Most widely accepted is legend of a Potawatomi named Fleet Foot. In order to win his bride, he was required to run from his settlement to a point on the river and back before a pot of water boiled away. This event is thought to have occurred in 1810, a couple of decades before the first permanent white settlers. The Potawatomi word kikalamezo appears on an 1823 atlas of the area. The word translates as "boiling pot" or "place where the water boils," and refers to the Fleet Foot legend.
The "boiling pot" translation may also refer to various nearby bends in the river that resemble pots.
An alternate translation of kikalamezo is "mirage" or "reflecting waters," and could refer to the once-clear waters of the river, which are now much less so due to pollution.
Yet another possibility is it meant a place to ford the river. The city was originally established near one of the few places in the area where it was easy to cross by wading.
The first white settlement in the area was registered in 1831 as the Village of Bronson (not to be confused with the much-smaller Bronson, Michigan about fifty miles to the south-southeast), after founder Titus Bronson. Bronson, frequently described as "eccentric," was later run out of town and the village renamed to Kalamazoo in 1836.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 65.2 km² (25.2 mi²). 63.9 km² (24.7 mi²) of it is land and 1.3 km² (0.5 mi²) of it is water. The total area is 1.99% water, including several lakes. To the south is its largest suburb, Portage, Michigan, which includes the largest collection of major stores in the area.
Kalamazoo is served by highways Interstate 94, U.S. Highway 131, and state highways M-43 and M-96. It was on the original Territorial Road in Michigan of the 1800s, which started in Detroit and ran to Lake Michigan. Much of that, but not all, later became Old U.S. 12--the "old" designation came about when I-94 was built parallel to it--and also was called Red Arrow Highway after a World War I army division. The name "U.S. 12" was shifted south to what once was U.S. 112 between Detroit and Chicago. Some parts of Old U.S. 12 outside of town, especially in Van Buren County and Berrien County to the west, are still called Red Arrow Highway. The term "Old U.S. 12" has faded from use.
As of the census of 2000, there are 77,145 people, 29,413 households, and 14,353 families residing in the city. The population density is 1,206.9/km² (3,125.4/mi²). There are 31,798 housing units at an average density of 497.5/km² (1,288.2/mi²). The racial makeup of the city is 70.77% White, 20.64% African American, 0.58% Native American, 2.39% Asian, 0.06% Pacific Islander, 2.38% from other races, and 3.18% from two or more races. 4.28% of the population are Hispanic or Latino of any race.
There are 29,413 households out of which 24.9% have children under the age of 18 living with them, 30.6% are married couples living together, 14.7% have a female householder with no husband present, and 51.2% are non-families. 34.8% of all households are made up of individuals and 9.6% have someone living alone who is 65 years of age or older. The average household size is 2.30 and the average family size is 2.99.
In the city the population is spread out with 20.3% under the age of 18, 27.6% from 18 to 24, 26.8% from 25 to 44, 15.2% from 45 to 64, and 10.1% who are 65 years of age or older. The median age is 26 years. For every 100 females there are 93.1 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there are 89.9 males.
The median income for a household in the city is $31,189, and the median income for a family is $42,438. Males have a median income of $32,160 versus $25,532 for females. The per capita income for the city is $16,897. 24.3% of the population and 13.6% of families are below the poverty line. Out of the total people living in poverty, 26.0% are under the age of 18 and 11.3% are 65 or older.
The Kalamazoo Aviation History Museum--generally called the Kalamazoo Air Zoo--is located at the airport. Many of its antique planes are flyable. Downtown is the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, a "hands-on" museum aimed largely at children and which also has a planetarium. Northeast of town is the Gilmore Car Museum, which includes cars used in Walt Disney movies.
In the past, Kalamazoo was known for its production of windmills, buggies, automobiles, cigars, stoves (The Kalamazoo Stove Company's slogan was "A Kalamazoo direct to you") and paper and paper products. Agriculturally, it once was noted for celery and bedding plants.
Although much has become suburbanized, the countryside still continues to produce significant amounts of crops from farms.