What is Riverwest?
If you’ve spent any significant time in Milwaukee, chances are you’ve visited Riverwest, the bohemian ‘hood just west of the Milwaukee River, home to the interminably cool Fuel Cafe, the Florentine Opera, Foundation Tiki Bar and one of the oldest bowling alleys in the Midwest. Known as an incubator for cooperatives and breeding ground for artists and musicians, it’s one of the city’s most diverse neighborhood — socially, racially, and economically.
That was the topic of conversation when around 60 people met in the Polish Falcon last Thursday evening for Historic Milwaukee, Inc.’s forum exploring the past, present and future of the neighborhood.
The gathering was the first of many events leading up to the 30th anniversary of HMI’s Spaces & Traces tour, this year featuring Riverwest and exploring some of the private buildings and residences within it.
Spaces & Traces began in 1981 as Loft Spaces & Historic Traces, and was designed to fully immerse people into Milwaukee’s various neighborhoods, offering a rare view of the people and places that define an area.
“We hope that Spaces & Traces helps Milwaukeeans to build a personal synthesis of the evolution of a neighborhood, its part in Milwaukee, and how they are a part of the story– how they contribute to and relate to Place,” says HMI’s Executive Director Anna-Marie Opgenorth.
The day-long event, happening May 21, will offer self-guided tours of historic homes and structures in Riverwest, including the Charles Whitnall residence and St. Casimir Church. Historian John Gurda and Prof. Tom Hubka will speak, and Wild Space Dance will choreograph and perform a piece exclusively for the 30th anniversary.
Opgenorth says HMI chose the neighborhood for its rich cultural heritage, but also for its collective commitment to sustainability, preservation and social change.
“Riverwest is not what it seems; it is not defined by how it is often perceived. There is a strong sense of heritage, an openness to change, a commitment to today and an excitement for the future,” she says.
Last Thursday’s forum, aptly titled “What is Riverwest,” served as an unoffical kick-off to the HMI celebration. The panel included Riverwest Currents publisher Vince Bushell, historian Tom Tolan, Riverwest Neighborhood Association chair Larry “Spike” Bandy, Project M co-owner Bree Rose Bower, resident and arts advocate Denise Crumble and Centro Café co-owner Peg Karpfinger. Moderated by 3rd District Alderman Nik Kovac (also on the board of HMI), the discussion centered around what makes this particular enclave of Milwaukee unique, with an added bit of history on the area’s industrial and ethnic origins, thanks to Tom Tolan’s book, Riverwest: A community history.
Kovac first asked the panel to explain exactly “where” Riverwest is — figuratively and geographically.
The neighborhood’s geographic parameters are bounded by Holton Avenue to the west, Capitol Drive to the north, and the Milwaukee River to the east and south. However, most panelists found the place itself hard to define. Vince Bushell may have put it best, asking the audience for a moment of silence, during which only the sound of crashing pins could be heard echoing up from the basement of the Polish Falcon.
“Riverwest,” he started, “Is a bowling alley beneath your toes, beers clinking in the next room, a church bell outside your front door.”
The area has had many nicknames over the years, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that the roughly 1.7 square mile community came to be widely known as Riverwest.
Reciting passages from Tolan’s book, Ald. Kovac related that the neighborhood first started to take shape in the early 19th century, as mills, factories and tanneries were built along the Milwaukee River, deriving power from the river itself. In the 1890s, Polish immigrants settled in the area, referring to it as “Zagora” — roughly translated as “land beyond the hill.”
In the 1960s, Riverwest was Milwaukee’s ground zero in the counterculture movement, as its population became more ethnically and socially diverse — a quality that continues to attract people today.
Many panelists noted that this type of open and integrated community was what initially brought them to Riverwest.
Denise Crumble moved to the area in the 1970s. Crumble, an African American woman, was a single mother at the time, and said she’d had hard time finding an apartment in other parts of town. She noted that the neighborhood’s racial diversity and sense of community offered an ideal environment to raise her two young children.
Larry “Spike” Bandy echoed Crumble’s sentiment.
“Diversity is our strength,” he said, adding that when he moved to the area in the early 1980s, Riverwest was known as a safe place for those with “different” lifestyles. “Whether it’s race, gender, ethnicity… [Riverwest] had people with all different lifestyles, and we could all live together peacefully.”
But despite its legacy of racial integration and rich community involvement, Riverwest tends to get a bad rap.
I moved there in the summer of 2003, just after completing my first year at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. My apartment was on a lush, tree-lined block, flanked by cafes, taverns and the neighborhood’s signature Polish flats. And it was only $300 a month. I fell in love with the place almost immediately, but will never forget what my then-landlord said when I handed him the security deposit.
“Are you sure you want to live alone in this neighborhood?”
I could tell by the inflection in his voice exactly what he was talking about. Riverwest, like most urban areas, has its challenges. There have been shootings, robberies, and even cases of arson. And yet of the residents present Thursday night, the majority agreed that they generally feel safe — and they credit the tight-knit community for that.
When crime happens, people in Riverwest don’t draw the shades and lock the doors; they hold neighborhood meetings and fortify block watches. They contact their elected officials to get the city involved in public safety efforts. They make sure that the porch lights stay on.
Residents and businesses both take a collective, communal approach to social change. Just look at one of the many volunteer-run organizations like the Wright Street Resource Center , or events like the Riverwest 24 Hour Bike Race. It is a place that thrives on shared labor and, subsequently, shared experience.
Opgenorth says that it was these sorts of forward-thinking initiatives that attracted HMI. She notes that the neighborhood also honors the past and incorporates historical preservation and environmental sustainability into its businesses, community events and general way of life.
“Preservation is an economic development tool along the spectrum of conservation. Using the tools of preservation yields long-term economic, environmental, social and cultural benefits for the people living, working, and investing in the places they live,” says Opgenorth.
“I feel Riverwest as a community embodies this, and that this is the perfect time for Historic Milwaukee to honor Riverwest’s past, present, future, and to walk in its footsteps by including both the simple and the grand in what ultimately enriches us.”
Historic Milwaukee, Inc.’s 30th anniversary Spaces & Traces tour takes place on May 21, 2011, with an historic pub crawl on May 14 and a Spaces & Traces reception (held at The Florentine Opera’s practice space in Riverwest). HMI is still seeking sponsors for the event, which is expected to draw up to 1,500 attendees. For tickets, info and sponsorship guidelines, visit HMI online or call 414.277.7795. View photos of some of the featured properties here.