Ever Been to Milwaukee’s Garden District? Here’s Why You Should Go

Getting to know a Milwaukee neighborhood – and loving it

I love it when people tell me they learn something from watching “Around the Corner with John McGivern.” I love it even more when those people live in the community they are talking and learning about. When we were filming in this area in August of 2016, most of my friends and all of my family, including my mom, had never heard of the Garden District. When I told my mom that the airport is in the Garden District, she said, “You mean they are calling the South Side of Milwaukee the Garden District? When did that happen?” My mom has a point.

The Robert Anderson water tower. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee PBS

Our bike-riding historian, John Gurda, explained that what used to be the unincorporated Town of Lake, which included the Tippecanoe area, joined Milwaukee in 1954. In February of 2008, the Milwaukee Common Council approved a resolution to name the 13th aldermanic district the Garden District. The name was chosen to capitalize on a long tradition of gardening among residents and businesses in this area. The Garden District is the far South Side of Milwaukee with a population of more than 38,000 people. Did you just learn something? I love that.

One of the landmarks in this neighborhood is the Robert Anderson Water Tower and Municipal Building. If you’ve driven south of Downtown on I-94 and gone around the Plainfield Curve, you’ve seen this art deco building on the west side of the highway. Build in 1938 as part of the FDR Federal Works Agency/Public Works Administration Initiative, it originally housed the Town of Lake’s water works system. The first two floors were offices. The third and fourth floors were used by the Town of Lake Marching Band for rehearsal and equipment storage. And high on top was (and still is) the actual million-gallon water storage tank. The Town of Lake and its band are no more, and the giant tank is dry. The building is now home to the City of Milwaukee Department of Neighborhood Services. They’re taking good care of it.

Who likes chocolate? Did you just raise your hand? I know you did. When I was growing up, there were only two times a year when chocolate was plentiful: Halloween and Easter. I preferred the Easter haul because chocolate seemed to be the star of the day and always came in great shapes. Come on – a bunny the size of your head made entirely of milk chocolate? HEAVEN. On Easter Sunday, after Mass, we’d search the house for our hidden, chocolate-filled Easter baskets. We topped off the chocolate with a huge ham and scalloped potato dinner, and were joined by Uncle Jerry, Aunt LuAnn and my cousins Kathy, Kevin and Dennis. Knowing what was coming made sitting through Easter Sunday Mass torturous. I swear it was THE longest Mass of the year. I clearly remember sitting in that pew at Ss. Peter and Paul Church on Cramer Street praying that Christ would hurry up and rise so that I could get home and find that chocolate bunny! But I digress. I bring up chocolate because little did I know that the Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company is headquartered in the Garden District. Steve Wallace, founder and president, gave me a lesson in all things chocolate. The Ghana location of this cocoa company, in West Africa, grows, processes and prepares what becomes one of the only dark milk chocolate products in existence. I didn’t even know there was dark milk chocolate. His company provides premium bars and mixes that are used by coffee and specialty shops and are sold in grocery stores all over the country. It was hard to concentrate on the interview because the wonderful smell convinced me that my Easter basket had to be in there somewhere.

One business that I did know about in the Garden District is Martino’s Italian Beef. It has a destination fast-food restaurant that has been at the same location since 1977. It opened as a hot dog stand with six stools, and served Chicago-style hot dogs (Vienna all-beef dogs, yellow mustard, green pickle relish, onions, tomatoes, dill pickles, hot peppers and secret spice blend) and Italian beef sandwiches (thinly sliced roast beef, seasoned in Italian seasoning, topped with mozzarella cheese and home-made giardiniere on a soft roll). The Andersons opened it in 1977, and second-generation TJ Anderson and his wife, Cathy, still have the best Chicago dogs and Italian beef sandwiches in the city. The place was packed when we arrived, and the customers all seemed to know each other. I asked TJ if he depends on repeat business, and he swore many of his customers come three or four times a week! And just so you know, now that I’m grown up, I crave Martino’s as much as I crave chocolate bunnies.

I have been on the air on 96.5 WKLH since 1994. I blame them for my success in Milwaukee. When I’m on I get to spend a few hours in the studio with Dave, Dorene and Gino. It was great to spend time outside the radio station with Dorene and hear what it was like to live in the Garden District. Dorene and her husband, Jim, have lived and raised their three kids here for the past 15 years. They have a great house on a quiet street and an unbelievable backyard that’s the size of a small football field. It’s in the city, but it feels like a sprawling suburban yard. Dorene’s goal is to have her garden and yard recognized by the Garden District’s neighborhood association. If you look up and down the streets of the neighborhood, there are plaques that read “Garden District Award Winner.” These awards give a nod and honor to those who take the name of their district seriously. I saw some great-looking gardens while I was in the neighborhood. Get busy, Dorene! The competition is stiff.

Because his grandson, JR, is a friend of mine, I also had the chance to drive Richard Witt’s tractor down his driveway on the land he has called home since 1949. He and his wife raised seven kids, along with cows and chickens, on his land on South 20th Street near West College Avenue. He’s got a garden that could be called a small farm, and he still uses his tractor to turn the soil every spring. Yep. A tractor in the city of Milwaukee, and he gave me a ride on the back of it that I won’t soon forget. It seemed Grandpa Dicko has a lead foot to go along with his kind heart!

We spent the best morning of our week with Lt. Col. Chris Triplett at the 128th Air Refueling Wing of the Air National Guard. There are 900 people employed at the 128th. They move troops and cargo, but their primary mission is air refueling. There are over 90 bases worldwide, but this is one of the few that is paired with a civilian airport. This base, connected to General Mitchell International Airport in the Garden District of Milwaukee, protects the freedoms of everyone in our country. It was such an overwhelming honor to walk this base and talk to those whose job it is to make sure that all Americans are safe. Thanks to the 128th for letting me in.

As I said earlier, I love it when people tell me that they learn something from the show. I also love it when they tell me they’ve visited the communities they’ve seen on “Around the Corner with John McGivern.” You can discover the Garden District and any of the 78 episodes that have already aired by going to milwaukeepbs.org. Our 13 brand new episodes, which we’ve been shooting all summer, will air on Thursday nights, beginning at 7 p.m. on Jan. 11, 2018, on Milwaukee PBS, Channel 10.1. Mark your calendars, set your DVRs, and get ready to learn something and have a few laughs with me along the way. I can’t wait! ◆

‘The Garden District’ appears in the December 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning November 27, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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John McGivern is best known for his Emmy-award winning work on PBS, Around the Corner with John McGivern. His one-man-shows, THE EARLY STORIES OF JOHN MCGIVERN, MIDSUMMER NIGHT MCGIVERN AND JOHN MCGIVERN’S HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS tell the stories of being the third born of six kids in a working-class Irish Catholic Family in Milwaukee. John has been the keynote speaker for The Alliance for Children and Families, The State Department on Aging, The Children and Family Service Agency of Wisconsin, The Wisconsin Defense League, Christ Child Association, Foundation for Children with Cancer, Employee Assistant Professional Association and has been fortunate to entertain companies such as Time Warner, Northwestern Mutual, Kohl’s Department Stores, Baird, Acuity, and M&I Financial.