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A Look Back at the Locust Street Festivals of Yesteryear

41 years on, the Riverwest festival retains its distinct character

Jun. 6, 2017
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Milwaukee’s East Side Housing Action Committee was formed in the early ’70s to advocate for tenants’ rights, but the group’s most lasting legacy was its role in saving Locust Street. In the mid ’70s, the city was pushing a plan to widen Locust Street between Holton and Humboldt and turn it into a boulevard—a move that would have bulldozed 15 businesses and uprooted dozens of families and residents. Led by the Housing Action Committee, neighbors fought those plans tooth and nail, and they won. Instead of being converted into a glorified expressway to the East Side, that previously neglected stretch of Locust was repaired and revitalized, its potholes filled and its crumbling curbs rebuilt, and the neighborhood celebrated with a party that would become a tradition.

Of course, these days when people think of the Locust Street Festival, they’re more likely to think about music and revelry than they are the near miss that almost decimated the neighborhood decades ago. Now in its 41st year, the Locust Street Festival has grown into one of the city’s largest, most arts-rich neighborhood festivals. Over the years, similar celebrations have sprung up around the city, each colored by the character of its neighborhood, and all of them worth checking out at least once, but none are packed quite as densely with bands, vendors and culture as Locust Street.

“Originally the event was quite small,” explains Linda Maslow, who has been the festival’s coordinator for the last 11 years. “It started out with one stage, and then everybody gradually got on board, so each year it’s just kind of gotten bigger and bigger. This year, there are 35 bands on six stages.”

This year’s festival on Sunday, June 11, will once again kick off with a 1.8-mile beer run or walk at 11:30 a.m. Attendees can sign up that same morning from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Along with music from bands including Paper Holland, The Tritonics, Soul Low, Foreign Goods, The Atomic Spins, Faux Fiction, Antler House, Zed Kenzo, Whips and Calliope, other attractions include a children’s area, Tai Chi exhibitions, a drum circle from the Milwaukee Public Theatre and a typewriter advice tent from artist Anja Notanja at the Woodland Pattern Book Center.

Linneman’s Riverwest Inn owner Jim Linneman organized the festival in the late ’80s and early ’90s and still designs its brochure. While chatting about the event, he flipped through a program from 1991 that illustrates just how much and how little the festival has changed. The beer run kicked off at the same time, and festival perennial Sigmund Snopek performed, as he will again this year. But back then, the Uptowner hosted a daylong chess tournament, and the Milwaukee Fire Department presented a Sesame Street fire safety show for kids. Meanwhile, McGruff the Crime Dog handed out high-fives at the Children’s Amusement Area, where there were also elephant and llama rides (it’s hard to imagine there being room for an elephant on Locust Street these days).

Almost as shocking as the elephant was the amount of time some bands used to perform. There was only one headliner listed at the stage for the Golden Nugget (where the Riverwest Public House resides): Those X-Cleavers, and they played from 1-6 p.m. Bands in general used to play a lot longer sets back then than they do now, Linneman says. “Nowadays, bands do 45 minutes, an hour tops,” he explains, “but back in those days, a lot of times the minimum was two 45-minute sets of all original material.”

Yet, even as the number of bands on the lineup swelled over the years and the event continued to attract more and more visitors from outside of Riverwest, the festival never lost its defining character.

“The festival grew out of community groups and civic pride, and that’s why it remains the great hippie festival that it’s always been, because many of those counterculture progressives continue to call Riverwest home,” Linneman says. “There’s always been a bastion of community spirit here, and that’s why the festival remains so colorful.”

For this year’s Locust Street Festival lineup, visit locuststreetfestival.org.

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