In the Neighborhood: Grasslyn Manor

Exploring Milwaukee’s charming and religiously diverse Grasslyn Manor neighborhood, from its community gardens to its central gathering place.

On a Sunday, you’ll see families walking home from church past a man selling bundles of $2 newspapers out of his truck, or young dog walkers introducing their pets to each other in front of boxy 70s-esque homes. Brassy oak trees line the streets between West Capitol Drive and West Roosevelt Drive east of Wanderers Rest Cemetery and extending to West Fond Du Lac Avenue, and meet dozens of homey sidewalks – weeded and pristine.

This is Grasslyn Manor – a religiously diverse family neighborhood with a character all its own.

On a summer afternoon, you may find a family picking tomatoes from their plot at the 53rd Street Community Garden on the school’s grounds. Come fall, residents like Adrianne Chang come to clean out their plots for next year’s harvest.

“It’s just beautiful in the summer months,” Chang says, “My husband and I must have harvested 40 pounds of potatoes this year.”

Each plot is one-of-a-kind, painted in bright colors and marked in baked clay signifying the plot’s personal identity. The garden is guarded by a colorful fence lined with handmade terra-cotta disks.

Sitting around the corner perched in the back of his van every Sunday is Cal Searcuy. After delivering papers for the Journal Sentinel for 12 years, Searcuy, 41, started selling the paper on 51st Street and Keefe Avenue six years ago and has been doing it every Sunday since.

His father has been in the same business with the Journal Sentinel for more than 20 years, but the business isn’t as good as it used to be, says Searcuy. The imminent winter months can be harsh for an outdoor business.

“I’ve been doing too many winters,” Searcuy says, “My bones can’t take it no more.”

Searcuy will be retiring from the paper business in a few weeks and hopes to go back to his local church on Sundays.

Grasslyn Manor is one of the more religious neighborhoods in the city of Milwaukee with four major churches and abundant small congregations all within roughly 325 acres. Churches span from Lutheran to Methodist to Baptist, and the neighborhood also includes Yeshiva Elementary School, an elementary education program for Orthodox Jews, situated in a beautiful, multicolored brick building with interesting angles.

The Jewish population here is significant, illustrated by the only kosher grocery store in Milwaukee — Kosher Meat Klub. After World War II, Milwaukee’s Jewish population moved from the North Side to the Sherman Park area near Grasslyn Manor, where nearly 300 Orthodox Jewish families live today.

This religious and cultural mix in Grasslyn Manor seems to melt together at its hot spot, Sherman Perk. Though technically not in the Sherman Park neighborhood, Sherman Perk is a popular hangout for residents of Grasslyn Manor and surrounding neighborhoods (which often collectively refer to themselves as “Sherman Park”). Its red chrome chairs and vintage coffee tins complete this 50s-inspired coffee shop. Next year, it will be celebrating 15 years in business.

Sherman Perk, which gets its name from F.R.I.E.N.D.S hangout “Central Perk,” is lodged in an abandoned gas station. The building was vacant for a long while due to environmental legalities, but after its addition to the City Historic Landmark registry in the mid-90s and survival of two wrecking ball attempts, a coffee shop was born.

“Customers have helped develop the personality of Sherman Perk,” says Bob Olin, 59, the coffee shop’s owner and a long-time resident of Grasslyn Manor. “There are so many fun relationships that develop here. It’s wonderful neighborhood networking.”

Sherman Perk opened in August of 2001 as the only coffee shop in Grasslyn Manor. Olin loves working there.

“It’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on that’s legal,” he says.

Sherman Perk quickly became a neighborhood hangout, mixing backgrounds and cultures under a communal love of coffee. The local Rabbi from Beth Jehuda synagogue even helped construct a food and drink menu with kosher options so more people could eat and drink there.

Olin loves the charm of the neighborhood – Whitefish Bay-esque homes, churches galore, and an elementary school to boot. Still, he hopes it would grow.

“There are lots of groups working to make (Grasslyn Manor) better, but we still have a hard time gaining new businesses,” he says. “Still, I’m excited and encouraged to see young families move into this neighborhood.”

Olin sees himself staying right where he is, working to keep the coffee brewing and the people happy.