An Ode to Riverwest

A “live and let live” attitude allows spontaneity to thrive in a diverse neighborhood.

One of the things I’ve liked about 2017 is that it’s got me back into Riverwest a little bit.

I lived in the neighborhood for a number of years a few decades ago, when it still could feel like a Polish-American enclave, and published a history of the neighborhood in 2003 – but since I finished the book I’ve been focused on work and on my life in Shorewood, and Riverwest hasn’t been a big part of my daily rounds.

That changed when Paul, one of my best friends, moved into the neighborhood in June, renting a flat on Pierce Street from another of my good friends, Kate. This arrangement provided us with several opportunities to have a beer in Kate’s big garden – and to do the same at various excellent watering holes in the area around Paul’s place. It felt like the neighborhood I remembered, but also livelier and perhaps more solid.

Then in July, I lured my son, Casey, home from the West Coast to participate as a two-man team in the Riverwest 24, the marathon bike race that surges up and down the neighborhood’s streets from 7 p.m. on a Friday to 7 p.m. on a Saturday. I’d wanted to do this for years, and the two of us had a blast taking turns riding 4.6-mile laps and standing in line for the “bonus checkpoints” that make this ride a perfect expression of the neighborhood’s goofy, nonconformist heart. (I got doused with “zombie blood” in an alley off Center Street and had to do a lame hootchie-kootchie dance on stage at Riverwest Public House, the co-op bar. Casey got to paddle a kayak around in the Milwaukee River – which seemed to me the better deal.)

A few weeks later, in August, white nationalists started marching and fighting and drove a car into a crowd of protesters in Virginia. It so happened that I was reading Live and Let Live: Diversity, Conflict, and Community in an Integrated Neighborhood at that time. Published this year, it was written by Evelyn Perry, a sociologist who grew up in Whitefish Bay, and Riverwest is the integrated neighborhood she wrote about. She spent three years there, did extensive interviews with people of many ethnic groups and income levels and acted as a participant-observer – attending meetings, engaging her neighbors on local issues and drinking (and joining conversations) in local coffee houses and bars.

Live seemed to be just the right book to be in the middle of at a time when so many people didn’t seem to have a clue about how to treat people of different races. I mean this both nationally and in the famously segregated Milwaukee metro area, where white and black people (also rich and poor) live in neighborhoods separated from each other and often don’t know or understand one another. Riverwest is one of the few neighborhoods – largely by its status as a “buffer” between the mostly black North Side and the mostly white East Side – that has been integrated for many decades.

Perry doesn’t paint a portrait of perpetual harmony, but she describes a place where people come to know each other through what at one point she calls constructive conflict. She delineates two ways active Riverwest residents frame the neighborhood – as a place with “potential” that could stand to be improved, and as a bastion of all kinds of diversity that ought to be preserved. The latter group, she writes, has developed a way of dealing with the problems of crime and disorder that is direct and informal: If someone is causing a problem on your block, it’s better to discuss it with them directly than to start with a call to police. “Live and let live” is her name for this strategy.

Anyway, soon after Paul moved onto Pierce Street, I invited him out for a beer at the new Black Husky microbrewery at Bremen and Locust, and as I was waiting for him to arrive, a ragtag group of about eight musicians – trumpets, trombone, several saxophones – marched by on the sidewalk on the other side of Locust, playing a sort of funk refrain with a lot of jazzy riffing by the saxes. They went east on Locust a couple blocks and then marched back west and disappeared around a corner, going north. I liked the little parade so much I got out my phone and recorded a video – not something I usually do, being an old guy and a hopeless tech dinosaur.

By that time, Paul had arrived, and I told him it was a perfect example of his new neighborhood – funky, a little goofy and lots of fun. Only now when I look at the video again do I notice it was also integrated – the band had both black and white players – and thus reflected the neighborhood Perry wrote about. The little marching band had a feeling of freedom to it, freedom that comes, perhaps, from accepting your neighbors just as they are, live and let live. ◆

‘Riverwest on Parade’ appears in the October 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Tom Tolan is managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine, where he's worked since January 2016. He spent 24 years at The Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as a copy editor, assistant metro editor and reporter. He lives in Shorewood.