Relocated tenants take leave of Walker's Point studio venue.
Good party last night.
An end-of-an-era kind of party. An our-changing-city kind of party.
The shindig was on the fifth floor of an old industrial building at South Second Street and West Pittsburgh Avenue in Walker’s Point that’s been studio space for artists since the mid-1980s. I got an invitation because I helped my friend, the artist Michael Newhall, move 30 years of his paintings out of the place last weekend, schlepping them via a big U-Haul truck to another industrial building down in Bay View.
We also moved some stuff for Mike’s studio-mate, Dave Bolyard, an artist and musician. His band, the Tritonics, which rehearses in Mike and Dave’s studio space, hosted Thursday night’s party and provided the music. They’re a group of graying white guys who play Jamaican-style “rocksteady” music. That’s the genre from the 1960s that fell chronologically between ska and reggae. And I have to say they’re really good.
Mike, Dave and all the other tenants of the building had to move because they got a (not unexpected) eviction notice six weeks ago from the building’s new owner, Cedarview Management of Bloomington, Indiana. The company, which develops and owns residential buildings in Indiana, got this property – actually three buildings at Second and Pittsburgh, two of which are connected – last fall in a foreclosure auction for $2.2 million and plans to develop it into apartments, offices and commercial space. Suzanne O’Connell, the firm’s vice president of real estate, told me Thursday that demolition inside the buildings should start in mid-May, and the entire project should be done by February or March 2017.
She didn’t mention what they’ll call the project, but Bill Odbert, a longtime leather worker and the building’s departing super, was at the party and said he’d seen documents labeled “The Artistry @ Walker’s Point.” Which figures: A classic form of neighborhood change and gentrification is that artists move into a depressed neighborhood, and over time they lend it an air of trendiness that drives up land values until the artists are replaced by more wealthy residents. O’Connell acknowledged this when I talked to her, saying of the artists, “They make it cool.” She also said that a new parking structure behind the buildings will include some “makers’ space,” hopefully for artists or musicians.
Odbert is pretty cool himself, by the way. He told me at the party that he owned The Leather Shop on Brady Street in the late 1960s and 1970s, when Brady was the center of Milwaukee’s hippie district, and that he and a couple other guys organized the first Brady Street Festival back then. Like Mike, Bill’s been in the building since it first became studios in the 1980s. He said a woman named Joan Julien, who’s connected to the Third Ward’s Julien Shade Shop, bought the buildings (including the one around the corner that houses the Black Sheep wine bar and restaurant) in the early 1980s – he believes for just $50,000 — and sold it around 2000 for $1.3 million. It was Julien who conceived the building as space for artists, Bill and Mike said. Bill has a blog that talks about the place, which he calls the Arts Building.
“When we came in here years ago, it was a ghost town,” Odbert said. “All the buildings were vacant.”
In the ensuing years, the building became known more widely as a place for art, and there were annual and then semi-annual “art crawls,” where people came in and checked out the work in the studios, Odbert said. He called it a precursor to Gallery Night. The building’s condition went downhill in recent years, after the owner who bought it from Julien lost it in foreclosure, said Odbert. Then recently there’s been a lot of development, residential and otherwise, within a few blocks of the building, as the Journal Sentinel’s Tom Daykin pointed out last fall when Cedarview acquired the property. That includes the Global Water Center a block west on Freshwater Way (the new name for that stretch of Pittsburgh). Which set the stage for the Cedarview. Odbert says artists have been paying $6 to $7 per square foot for studio space, and he expects the repurposed building to get more like $16 to $17, based on neighborhood rental rates.
One of the topics of conversation at the party was where everybody was ending up. An oil painter named Tom Heimann, who shared the studio across the hall from Mike and Dave with five other artists, said he was moving to First and Becher with two of his studio-mates. I heard somebody else talking about 54th and Vliet streets.
Another highlight of the party was when the Tritonics played one of their original songs, “Again With The Boom Boom.” The song title was a quote from Odbert, who apparently has been reluctant to rent space to bands and didn’t much like the noise from their rehearsals. Bill, who hadn’t known of his role in the song’s creation, enjoyed learning about it, and bobbed his head to the music.
Anyway, my friend Mike once worked for Kitchen Sink Press, the underground comic book publisher back in the hippie era, and later got a graduate degree from the Art Institute of Chicago and taught there as well as at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, among other places. He’s also a Zen Buddhist priest, and is currently the resident teacher at a Zen center in Los Gatos, California, in the mountains above Santa Cruz. He came back to Milwaukee in April, partly to move his studio and partly to prepare for a one-man show at the Grohmann Museum of the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Most of his paintings are conceptual rather than representational, and many show the influence of his Buddhist studies. But the Grohmann show will feature 30 or so of his realistic Milwaukee cityscapes, some of them views from the Arts Building at Second and Pittsburgh. The show runs from May 27 to August 21.