You could argue that it was the Milwaukee River, threading its way between glacial ridges, that determined the future character of the Riverwest neighborhood. By digging a deep valley, it created steep banks that would be attractive to the wealthy families who built summer homes here in the 1880s, to the operators of private parks and resorts, and to the middle class families who settled in the area permanently. By carving a wide crescent as the neighborhood’s eastern border, the river ensured that the Green Bay trail – today’s King Drive and Green Bay Avenue – would be the main route north from the early village of Milwaukee, cutting straight across the crescent. You could argue that land values dropped sharply between the road and the river, putting the eastern fringe within the financial reach of the poor Polish immigrants who settled here in the 1880s and 1890s. Finally, by falling 18 feet just below North Avenue, the river provided the perfect setting for a dam, which supplied power for the mills, factories and tanneries that provided work for the Poles and for other working-class people who followed.
It is 4:30 a.m. on what will be a warm Friday in early autumn, 1920. Fourteen-year-old Clem Doberneck is one of the first in the neighborhood to rise. He eats breakfast with his father, who must catch an early streetcar to his job at the Miller Brewery, and by 5 a.m. is out of his family’s Booth Street house, beginning his morning rounds. From Locust Street to Reservoir Avenue, between Richards Street and the river, he walks from streetlight to streetlight, turning off the gas. Gradually, the sky becomes lighter.
In the early 1960s, St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church – now St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church, at 128 W. Burleigh – was a relatively thriving parish, with a school attended by more than 1,000 children. Most parishioners were of German ancestry – many descended from “St. E’s” founders – or Polish families who had migrated from the east side of Holton. African-Americans were a definite presence, but they were less numerous in the parish than in the neighborhood. Fewer than 10 percent of the 1,056 pupils at St. Elizabeth’s in 1963 were black, and most of their families could be classified as middle-class.
"Nueva Yores." They meant New York, the main destination for people on the Island, but the term became the popular shorthand for all destinations on the mainland. In time, everyone in Puerto Rico had at least one family member in “Nueva Yores.” Milwaukee’s first major Puerto Rican neighborhood was established in the late 1940s. It was located just northeast of downtown, in an area of older homes and apartment buildings bounded roughly by Milwaukee, Van Buren, State, and Lyon Streets. The neighborhood was generally poor and ethnically mixed.
The counterculture surfaced in Riverwest before anybody coined the term – even before the word “hippie” entered America’s vocabulary. In 1964, a rock-and-roll band called the Shags began to play regularly at O’Brad’s, a basement nightclub on E. Locust Street. The band consisted of four students at the Layton School of Art – long-haired young men whose music was loud and raucous. John Sahli, the group’s first lead guitarist, recalled arriving for the initial performance at O’Brad’s....
There are other reasons to hope in the neighborhood today, but hope came home most vividly during Easter weekend in 2001. After years on Milwaukee’s south side, the Good Friday procession finally returned to the north side. The pageant was a powerful symbol of the themes of death and rebirth that have been the heartbeat of Riverwest’s history since the beginning.
Some people know quite well how to make commitments, but could use some practice in letting go. In this neighborhood, though, and in American society today, it seems to me that it is the holding on for life we need to learn. Some people who write about the social atmosphere of America say that lifetime commitments are hard to make today, in these times of turmoil. What is needed, then, is commitment in the face of doubt and peril. What is needed is a leap of faith. This kind of faith, if enough people practice it, can build strong communities, and strong communities can make the world into a place that people will want to save.
These are excerpts from Tom Tolan’s Riverwest: A Community History, which was published in June 2003. It can be purchased for $10 at the Riverwest Co-Op or Woodland Pattern Book Center.
Tolan wrote the history 20 years ago, as part of the Milwaukee Humanities Program, a federally funded organization based at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and he's updated it over the last several years.
The Riverwest History Society, a committee set up solely for this purpose, published the book. Milwaukee historian John Gurda headed the committee and edited the book. Riverwest resident Kate Hawley was the book’s designer.
Money for publication came from grants from the Greater
Milwaukee Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Harry and Mary Franke Idea Fund, the Inbusch Foundation and Outpost Natural Foods. Proceeds from the sale of the book benefit COA Youth and Family Centers (Children's Outing Association), which helped revive the book for
The Riverwest History Society continues to look for photographs, possibly to use in future editions of Tolan's book. Family photos, pictures of businesses and of recreation, church, and ethnic events all would be helpful.
Of special interest are old photos from the everyday life of the Polish-American community surrounding St. Casimir and St. Mary of Czestochowa parishes; from the first integration of the neighborhood in the 1960s, and of the old St. Elizabeth’s Parish on First and Burleigh; from the Puerto Rican and larger Hispanic communities that arrived here in the 1960s and 1970s; and from the neighborhood activism and the counterculture movements of the 1970s and 1980s.
Tom Tolan with Milwaukee's last Socialist mayor, Frank Zeidler, a Riverwest neighbor.