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The Two Hearts of Brady Street

Jul. 25, 2017
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Photo Credit: Andrew Lomenzo

I moved to Milwaukee in 1970, age 22, to an apartment above a small Sicilian grocery in a long-gone triangular building at the point where Farwell and Cambridge meet Brady. I was a longhaired hippie, an artsy one who’d get high to listen to Shostakovich. I was a shaken war resister, an aspiring theater artist without money and a gay man struggling for self-acceptance. Brady Street befriended me in each respect. It was a crazy base of operations from which to fashion a life, but it worked. Like many, I moved away later in the decade; like many, I returned in the ’90s. I’m a homeowner here.

When I’m blue, the street cheers me, especially in good weather when the many restaurants and bars put out sidewalk seating and people are everywhere. It’s my ’hood and, of course, there’s comfort in familiarity; invisible footprints from decades of walks; memories and dreams smashed into every façade, sidewalk and street crossing. But there are always new things, too. The street keeps changing, sometimes drastically, and yet somehow it doesn’t change. Brady Street has two hearts: an older Italian one, still visible, and a counterculture heart, ghostly but powerful. People hang out here knowing the street will accept them whoever they are. It’s evident in the incredible diversity of age, race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status you see on Brady Street daily.

Maybe the nearby river and lake connect it to kindly forces eons old. Whatever. As Steph Salvia, executive director of the Brady Street Business Improvement District put it, “The street has such a deep history. People who come here want to be part of that.” 

I performed politically edged street theater in the first Brady Street Festivals in the 1970s. As I recall, the focus of those festivals was arts, crafts, trippy stuff, entrepreneurship, sisterhood, equality and community. That’s all still there, though the style and scale have changed in the 21st century. Arts and crafts are prominently featured among the 80-some street vendors. Four stages along the festival’s nine-block midway host 30 acts; six stages, if you count the ramps used by Division BMX and the Milwaukee Flyers, and the GLWC Casablanca Rumble VII Pro Wrestling ring.

Glorioso’s Italian Market, resident since 1946, makes craftwork edible. The market’s popular artisan cheese tasting tent will split in two at this Saturday’s festival. Stroll one side to sample cheeses, then the other for homemade gourmet Italian sausages, pesto, bread dips and more. Another landmark, Peter Sciortino’s Bakery, offers homemade Italian gelato. Entertainment starts at noon at Glorioso’s Astor Street stage with The Mike Maher Band, followed by Dr. Magic’s slight-of-hand magic and comedy, and ends with Shoot Down the Moon at 10:30 p.m.

Music is curated to meet four criteria, Salvia said. “Variety, so all genres are covered; new to the festival, we rarely repeat; originality, no cover bands; and strong female vocalists, because we really like them.” All these criteria are met on the Humboldt Street Stage by singer-songwriter Abby Jeanne at 6 p.m. and SIREN at 9. From noon to 2 p.m., that stage will showcase teenaged musicians.

Several out-of-town bands add interest. Me Like Bees, an alternative indie band from Joplin, Mo., plays the Main Stage at 5:30 p.m.; upstate New York rockers Wild Adriatic occupy the east end stage at 6:30, followed by Chicago’s ¡ESSO! Afrojam Funkbeat at 8 and Milwaukee’s NO NO YEAH OKAY at 10.

In theater news, Nova D’Vine’s Cream City Queens hit the Main Stage at 9:30 p.m. for the festival’s hugely popular drag show. Nova—the only name he uses—MC’d the original Brady Street drag show a dozen years ago. He began performing in 1997, took over the show at Club 219 in 1999 and brought it to La Cage in 2003, where he continues to direct the Friday night shows. He’s performed in Brady Street Festival shows, but this year marks his comeback as director and MC, and he’s assembled a stellar all-Milwaukee cast including the great B.J. Daniels as Dita Von and drag king Richard Fitswell. “We all perform often,” Nova said, “but for an event like this, you bring out the very best you have.”

Nova moved to Brady Street from West Allis with an ex-partner “when I first came out,” he told me. “I couldn’t get away. I moved, came back, moved, came back and opened a salon. I live here now. The street draws you in. There’s a constant metamorphosis, and the change is always positive.”

The festival starts with yoga at 11 a.m. on the east and Zumba at 11:30 a.m. on the west. The Main Stage has Latin dance lessons at 1 p.m. The new progressive 1510-AM Radio WRRD will broadcast interactively from the street. The vibe goes on. Among the posters taped to street poles is one at the end of my block that says simply “End War.”

The Brady Street Festival is Saturday, July 29, 11a.m.-midnight.

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