Three redevelopment notes from northside, downtown Milwaukee

Perusing Tom Daykin’s Land and Space blog tonight, these pieces caught my eye:

New King Drive apartment building, food market opening

Everest College wins approval for downtown campus;

New apartments opening at Grand Avenue’s Plankinton building

That is in reverse chronological order, but follow in geographical order, north to south. So let’s start at the top.

The first story seems the most significant to me, as it is about north side redevelopment. Milwaukee’s north side is home to a majority of its African-American population, and—sadly—much of its deepest poverty. The city has had multiple generations of deep poverty, which has to do with deindustrialization, a topic I’ve sometimes touched on. (The ethnic and racial segregation that was enforced in the 1950s and 60s is something that I have not talked about on here, but, suffice to say that African-Americans in Milwaukee were kept within the north side. It’s little surprise then that this same area suffered greatly from flooding in the great deluge we had in August 2010.)

The A. O. Smith auto parts plant on the north side had been a source of middle-class security for many north siders. Its closure was part of the wave that saw the slow transformation of Milwaukee from a manufacturing powerhouse to a city in search of jobs. Today, for many the phrase “north side Milwaukee” is synonymous with poverty and all that comes with it. That said, I know it’s changing, and the people that live there are trying to change it. The now world-famous urban farm Growing Power is located on the north side. And it’s no coincidence that Growing Power is a part of this story.

According to Tom Daykin’s story, a 24-unit apartment building has been built at 2719 N. Martin Luther King Drive. This building “includes a fresh food market in its street-level commercial space” that is operated by Growing Power. Cool! Will Allen has long talked about “food deserts,” areas within cities where there are no grocery stores for miles around. At best many corner stores sell little but booze, junk food, and cigarettes. Or drug paraphernalia. Fast food abounds, but little to nothing that’s healthy or sustaining. It’s a very real effect of long-term, deep poverty that gets less attention than it deserves.

Hopefully Growing Power’s store will help turn that around in this area. I did a Google search for “grocery” near 2719 N. Dr MLK Dr, and was not surprised with what turned up: lots of corner shops much like the ones I described above. Only one mentioned “VEG” in its window art; two said “MEAT.” More has signs for beer and cigarettes.  (The Riverwest Co-op is a notable exception to that.) I haven’t been to any of them, so I can’t say for sure what they do or do not have. But it’s safe to say that generally, farm-fresh produce is not available in central city locations like this. Again, I hope this is a good start to a change in that. (Teaching people how to eat better is something that I know Growing Power is also focused on.)

Also, looking at 2719 N. Dr MLK Dr. in Google Maps Street View shows an empty lot in a run-down looking area. Is this where the building was put in? Daykin didn’t specify, but this line suggests that it is new: “Martin Luther King Economic Development Corp., a non-profit developer, developed the three-story building, which was partly financed with federal affordable housing tax credits.” (I e-mailed Mr. Daykin to inquire about this.)

Update: Daykin wrote to me, “Built from the ground up. Completely new construction, no renovation or remodeling of existing building.” Thanks, Tom.

• • •

Slightly to the south and west is the intersection of W. McKinley Blvd. and N. 6th St. Again, in Teh Google, the land I think is being discussed appears to be another vacant, albeit paved lot. That will be the site of a national for-profit college’s downtown campus. I’ve got nothing to say about Everest College or even for-profit colleges. I just think it’s grand that this land is being used for something.

This land is adjacent to a section known as Park East, which was part of the massive swaths of freeway that tore all through Milwaukee. I-43 cut through the very heart of the black community on the north side, and the Polish community on the south side. I-794 destroyed much of the Little Italy we had in the Third Ward. I’m not sure what I-94 cut through as it skirts the northern edge of the Menominee River valley, though I wonder what the folks in West Allis thought of it coming through their town. So much of Milwaukee was razed in the 1960s to build the freeways. It almost matches the countless parking ramps in the downtown.

According to the Preservation Institute, “Park East was a one mile freeway spur, left over from a more ambitious plan to develop a ring of freeways around downtown Milwaukee.” In the way that a freeway was intended to make it possible for drivers to “connect” to the downtown from their suburban homes? That’s what came to be seen as happening. Again, from Preservation Institute:

“In 1972, Mayor Henry Maier killed the rest of the project by vetoing funds for relocating utilities in the corridor. Maier emphasized the cost to the city, saying: ‘America is the only nation in the world to let her cities ride to bankruptcy on a freeway . . . . My city has discovered that the freeway is not free.’ “

Between 1972 and 1998, a portion of Park East stood, but had little traffic on it. The part that remained undeveloped stayed that way for a full twenty years. Finally, Park East was demolished between June 2002 and April 2003. The portions of it that Milwaukee County has not been in charge of redeveloping have flourished with new mixed-use commercial spaces, and the city grid has been restored, making the flow of traffic and pedestrians much more natural.

So my point was that this land where the for-profit college is going in will be just north of the former Park East freeway land. Wow, all that just to say that? (Yes.)

• • •

Finally, there are new apartments opening at Grand Avenue’s Plankinton building. Wisconsin Avenue used to be called Grand Avenue, and it sported many great mansions built during Milwaukee’s rise as a booming port and industrial city in the 19th century. General Douglas MacArthur used to live at a hotel on Grand Avenue. And in more recent years, the Shops fo the Grand Avenue mall has had a painful decline. I remember in 1987, I went there for my first social gathering of computer geeks who had met via telecommunications—though at the time it through a chat BBS. (Can anyone tell me its name? I think it was somehow connected to MPS, but I could be mistaken. The Scoreboard and Wasteland Desert ][ were around at the time, along with the live adventure game BBS whose name also escapes me.)

Anyway, before my laptop’s battery dies after tolerating my unnecessary indulgence of prolixity—nothing a pair of scissors can’t fix!—a gradual conversion of some of the Grand Avenue mall space appears to be under way. As Daykin, who is paid not to do what I’ve done, wrote:

“With the Shops of Grand Avenue in the news lately, it’s worth noting that some new apartments recently opened in the mall’s Plankinton Arcade building.

Known as Plankinton Loft Apartments, the four new units are the result of old office space that was remodeled by developer Ken Breunig [whose investment group owns a portion of the mall’s Plankinton Arcade building]…”

Well, cool. With more and more people living downtown, I hope it comes a little more alive. It’s been looking better since I got back here in 2005, but more sure won’t hurt.

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Milwaukee’s old manufacturing base at Rockwell takes another body blow

I asked one of the servers at Transfer Pizzeria, “Did you hear about the electrical workers at Rockwell?”

“No,” she said. “What’s up?”

“They got laid off.”

“Oh. That explains why I haven’t seen them in about a month. They used to come in here once a week. They were a great crowd…”

• • •

We have a print of the beautiful painting from 1901 that declares “Milwaukee Feeds and Supplies the World.” That was the case in the early twentieth century, when so many manufactured goods were built in and shipped from Milwaukee. With deindustrialization hitting the city and much of the upper Midwest hard in the second half of the century, many of those well-paid manufacturing jobs went south, and then overseas. Sometimes, as in the case of the Rockwell electrical workers, they’re just replaced by lower-paid contractors.

The above conversation at Transfer happened about a month ago, and it’s curious to see it confirmed at last. Journal Sentinel has a story saying that “About 140 union members at Rockwell Automation facing layoffs Aug. 1 voted Sunday to accept a final agreement from the company that includes full pension and medical benefits.”

“Last month Local 1111 of the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America was told that the company planned to outsource all remaining service and maintenance work starting Aug. 1.”

It’s a sad, quiet note on the end of one of  Milwaukee’s last industrial titans. Of course, thanks to Mayor Barrett, we have new industry coming to Milwaukee, in the form of the Spanish renewable energy firm Ingeteam, which makes wind turbines, and the Spanish train-making company Talgo. And we have great innovations of a totally different sort stemming from Will Allen’s work at Growing Power, which are reflected and refined at Sweet Water Organics, and even at the numerous community gardens springing up around town. This is what happens when your government is focused on growth, rather than trying to strange itself. Granted, this is not the same sort of industry that pushed Milwaukee close to being a city of three quarter-million people in 1960. But then, it can’t be. That said, I have seen a steady renewal in Milwaukee in the recent years that I’ve been here. It’s great thing to be a part of.

Google goofs name of UWM’s Downer Woods, location of Lake Park

Hard to believe, but Google Maps has the wrong name for the little patch of woods here on the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee campus. They are the Downer Woods, named in honor of Jason Downer (1813 – 1883). Mr. Downer moved to Milwaukee to work as an editor at the Milwaukee Sentinel for $8.00 a day. His time there was limited. According to the Milwaukee Sunday Telegraph, the newspaper business “did not suit him, and he did not suit the business.”

Some time after leaving editorship, Mr. Downer became a judge, and served on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Downer was also “a strong advocate of educational opportunities for women,” and upon his death in 1883, he left the Wisconsin Female College a sizable fortune of $80,000. This put the college on a much firmer footing, financially speaking.

Anyway, the woods is called Downer Woods, not “Donner Woods” as Google shows it to be.

They also called Veterans Park “Juneau Park” and “Lake Park.” But Lake Park is over here, not on the lakefront. Surely the millions of teabaggers couldn’t have been in the wrong place, could they?!

But seriously. How do we tell Google to correct itself?

A walk through Milwaukee’s history via the Grand Avenue mall

Having worked downtown and explored much of the area between Water Street, 794, and Marquette, I know that West Wisconsin Avenue, the street formerly known as Grand Avenue, has a great amount of potential as a new place for people to shop and enjoy life. The fine blog UrbanMilwaukee.com has taken a good hard look at the Shops of Grand Avenue and dares to imagine what that mall may look like.

Prior to moving back to Milwaukee, the last time I was in Grand Avenue was the spring of 1988. The whole center of the mall was open then, not walled off as it is now, and the first floor shops had not been expanded to fill much of the first floor as the now do. It had more life to it then. From what I understand, a bad sort of life once inhabited the mall, necessitating the changes to the structure and flow, but I fear they may have only further dampened it. (Right-wing talk radio also did its share, convincing all the suburbanite listeners not to go somewhere they probably wouldn’t have anyway.)

Labelscar: The Retail History Blog has an interesting account of the mall’s history, a welcomely different take from what I had to say. While I would not think that I would find a blog about retail stores interesting, Labelscar is actually a really good read.  And it turns out that one of the blog’s authors is both University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate andan employee of the State of Wisconsin. (Hi from Milwaukee, Ross!)

Looking back in history, the area once was a part of the Alexander Mitchell estate.  He’s not the Mitchell who General Mitchell International Airport is named after — that’s his grandson, Gen. Wm. “Billy” Mitchell, a hero of the First World War, and also the man considered in many regards to be the father of the concept of the modern air force, and the very same Billy Mitchell who was court-martialed and found guilty of insubordination in 1926.

Alexander Mitchell was one of Milwaukee’s original big boys, a railroad tycoon with a sense for grandeur of the highest form, building a lush horticultural conservatory, which existed a full century before the Mitchell Park Domes existed. (They are named for Alexander, not Bobby Mitchell.) The magnificent but now under-appreciated Mitchell Building that Alexander Mitchell built still stands on the corner of East Michigan Street in downtown Milwaukee, on the spot that once was the site of Milwaukee co-founder Solomon Juneau’s second home. (Credit for that last detail and the history of teh Mitchell Family must go to Milwaukee’s fine historian John Gurda, and his treasure of a book The Making of Milwaukee.)

I give a final tip of the hat to UrbanMilwaukee.com for inspiring this post. With the help of people such as the folks at UrbanMilwaukee.com, we’ll have lot a more interesting history to write about in the decades to come.