Riverwest in 2014
A community on a journey
Life is a journey, not a destination. —Ralph Waldo Emerson
You know when you are in the center of a neighborhood. Where the edges are is less distinct. —Paraphrase from memory, Milwaukee Mayor Frank Zeidler
You don’t have a neighborhood if you do not have commerce owned and operated by the people in that neighborhood. —Paraphrase from memory, Wendall Berry, speaking at St. Casimir Church
The above aphorisms and recollections contain some key lessons and lenses with which to evaluate neighborhoods. Laozi and Emerson emphasize the reality of change and the importance of being along for the ride. Zeidler describes place as having the potential for becoming a state of mind, a shared philosophy for its residents. Berry notes that the human condition is social and the exchange of ideas, caring and fulfillment comes from occasion to meet. No better place to meet than the shop, food store, restaurant, gallery, street festival, church, school, park, trail, bar, club.
Recently I shared a meal with five friends at Café Vocar. Freshly opened, I knew half the people in the restaurant on a Friday evening. That’s a neighborhood.
Trying to parse out what people perceive from all our separate realities is difficult. “How do you think Riverwest is doing?” That was the question. That is why I am writing this. Why me? I have lived in Riverwest since 1980 and have been engaged for most of that time in aspects of community. You might say I am embedded. I do not plan to leave. Well, ultimately of course.
I have often answered that question by my feeling of thumbs up or thumbs down that occurs in casual conversation. It has been mostly 50/50 for the entire time period. Often people say Riverwest is a “changing neighborhood.” I say it is an always-changing neighborhood.
That may not be much of a satisfying answer. And I agree so let us look at what is going on. Measuring criteria that are often used about places, Riverwest has been on the upswing for most of the time I have lived here. More restaurants, more stores, more venues, more events, more caring, more sharing. People want to live here. Some people don’t, but that is not new. Riverwest is edgier than many neighborhoods in Milwaukee. That creates an adaptive push into the future. A future the residents are creating day by day. Give us time to work it out.
Earlier this summer we prepared for the Locust Street Festival. It was our 38th. History records the festival roots as a celebration of the neighborhood over the automobile and the slavish destruction of neighborhoods to speed the beasts through the city. There were big crowds and a banner day for the Public House and it seemed to go off without a hitch.
Slow cities are what we seek. Creating a walkable, bikeable neighborhood is the goal.
Who lives here?
Since I served as the coordinator of a strategic planning process for Riverwest and the Lower East Side in 1999-2000, I had access to a lot of census date from 1990, 2000 and now 2010. In this process my own survey of opinion showed that the Brady Street area differed little from the Riverwest area in opinion in both 1990 and 2000, and the 10 years between made little difference as well. I believe it would be the same today. People are always interested in personal security first. Economic development, green space, education and access to information all follow behind public safety but all are considered important by citizens.
And these people are white, black and Hispanic and a smattering of others. Educational level is higher than average. Age skews younger. It is gay friendly. The popular Art*Bar is straight friendly. Riverwest is majority white, but is considered one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Harambee to the west is mostly black. Some Riverwesters like to say “Diversity is our strength.” To me that is a vision that is incomplete. Progress is slow in cultural integration. Again, the challenge is to figure it out.
Let me close with Eudemon, a happy spirit of Greek mythology. Eudemon walked out of the wild river valley into Riverwest. He saw the church towers, all the restaurants and bars, the people walking about. The things to do and see. He walked into a bar. Sat down. Looked at his smiling neighbor. He smiled back. He ordered a beer and said, “This is the place for me.”
Vince Bushell is publisher of the Riverwest Currents, an original member and board member of the Riverwest Co-op and Café and board member of Woodland Pattern Book Center.