Lake Effect On-Site: Riverwest

For WUWM's third Lake Effect On-Site, the team headed to Riverwest to pay special attention to a unique Milwaukee neighborhood.

In front of a crowd at the Riverwest Public House, Lake Effect's Mitch Teich and Bonnie North dug into some of what makes Riverwest so special — its history, the biking community, and its co-op culture:

History of Riverwest

Co-ops are a way of life in this vibrant, diverse neighborhood north of downtown. It’s a place that sociologists have studied to learn why more neighborhoods don’t function the way Riverwest does.

Tom Tolan, author of Riverwest: A Community History and managing editor of Milwaukee Magazine, shared some the neighborhood's history.

"The first community here was probably the Polish neighborhood (which) started down around St. Hedwig's Church on Brady Street, but it was growing so much that people started moving north of the river, north of the city reservoir," Tolan says. "They called the neighborhood 'Zagora,' which means 'beyond the hill.'"

Tom Tolan (left) with Bonnie North and Mitch Teich.
Credit Audrey Nowakowski

It wasn't until the late 60's that the first counterculture neighborhood popped up near Brady Street, Tolan says. It wasn't until a few years later in the 70's when Riverwest became more of a countercultural area.

"It got a little crazy down there, so people (and institutions) started moving up to Riverwest," Tolan says.

Polish flats are found throughout Milwaukee, but these buildings are prevalent in Riverwest, according to Tolan.

Part of living in an older neighborhood is the upkeep of unique housing stock. For more than a century, Bliffert Lumber and Hardware has helped Riverwest home owners with projects. From refinishing hardwood floors to specific moldings, Chambers Street Store Manager Ken Converse has experience matching the profiles of Riverwest houses to maintain a degree of historical accuracy.

"There are unique differences between houses here and the rest of the city," Converse says. "A lot of the windows are going to be taller ... there's other specific needs that the customers here might need that they wouldn't need elsewhere, so we try to tailor each of our stores to the community that we're in."

One fun detail of many Riverwest Polish flats is that they were originally heated by gas lamps. When electricity was installed around the 1920s, Converse explains they didn't add electrical boxes. Instead, the gas pipes support a plate that all the electrical wires attach to.

“People will try to install ceiling fans to them, and I have to explain to them that’s not acceptable,” Converse adds with a laugh.

A Cycling Community

As the Tour de France is in the midst of its third week, cycling fans around the world are talking about what they believe is the most important bicycle race of the year. However, residents of Riverwest might disagree.

This Friday, thousands of people will turn out to support the annual Riverwest 24. The 24-hour event begins Friday at 7 p.m., with cyclists pedaling through the neighborhood until 7 p.m. Saturday.

From left to right: Nick Ginster of Fyxation Bicycle Company, Nicole Watson & Wendy Mesich of the Riverwest 24, and Lake Effect's Bonnie North & Mitch Teich.
Credit Audrey Nowakowski

Riverwest 24 Co-Organizers Nicole Watson and Wendy Mesich say the event evolved from a bike jockey race to a community block party.

"The bikes are the spectacle to everything else around," explains Mesich. "The bike race is part of it, of course, but it's more about meeting your neighbor and getting outside."

Residents of Riverwest can be found riding their bikes around Milwaukee practically year-round, with many sporting single speed and fixed gear bikes.

Nick Ginster is owner and co-founder of Fyxation Bikes, a fast-growing bicycle manufacturer and store in Riverwest with a growing footprint.

"This is a community that rides because they enjoy it, because they use it for transportation. They think it's healthy, they think it's affordable — they really use cycling as a part of their life," he says. "It's great to be in a community that shares that passion."

Everyone Has A Story

Woodland Pattern Book Center has been around since 1979 and plays a vital role in Riverwest's artistic community – specializing in poetry and social justice. The center also houses a gallery space and room for performances and meetings.

(Left to right) Woodland Pattern Book Center co-executive directors Laura Solomon & Jenny Gropp, co-founder Anne Kingsbury, and Lake Effect's Bonnie North & Mitch Teich.
Credit Audrey Nowakowski

While it initially took people a long time to explore the non-profit, it is now considered to an anchor of Riverwest, explains Anne Kingsbury, one of its founders.

"One of the things that we learned is that you do things with people. You do things with your community, with your neighborhood."

"One of the things that we learned is that you do things with people. You do things with your community, with your neighborhood," she says. "You don't do it for them because they're not going to be interested, and it just seems that the longer we've been here the more we've been able to work with people — because everybody has a story."

Kinsbury was joined on-stage by the Woodland Pattern Co-Executive Directors, Jenny Gropp and Laura Solomon:

Taking A Chance

Musician Denny Rauen has performed both as a soloist and as a member of various Milwaukee groups since establishing his business - Denny Rauen Guitars - in Riverwest from Chicago.

Denny Rauen plays some tunes during the Lake Effect On-Site: Riverwest event.
Credit Audrey Nowakowski

"I had different opportunities around the country to set up the business, but I knew Milwaukee," he recalls. "I knew there was a tremendous amount of wonderful guitarists and other musicians up here, so I took the chance ... and it's really worked out great."

As a luthier, Rauen designs, repairs and restores guitars and other string instruments. "When I was a kid, I would see a guitar in a window of a store and I was just mesmerized by it ... The whole vibe of creating music and everything about it is what's driving me."

Rauen brought one of his guitars with him, playing the entire show. He also shared some songs and more stories of his own: