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For generations of South Siders, “downtown” meant Mitchell Street. There may have been more stores on Wisconsin Avenue, but Mitchell had everything a thrifty householder might need and a great deal more.
When this photograph was taken in about 1910 at Mitchell’s intersection with Forest Home Avenue, the district was on the verge of a major growth spurt. Three department stores soon anchored the corridor – Goldmann’s at Ninth, Schuster’s at 11th, and Sears at 14th – and smaller businesses ranged from cobblers to candymakers, banks to bakeries. Mitchell became the home of such legendary retailers as Kunzelmann-Esser Furniture, The Grand (women’s clothing), Irv the Workingman’s Friend (work clothes), South Side Sausage, Holzman Furs and what was probably the state’s largest concentration of bridal shops.
Reflecting the ethnic makeup of the surrounding area, the street was widely known as “the Polish Grand Avenue.” With legions of loyal shoppers, Mitchell was the third-busiest retail district in Milwaukee for decades, trailing only Wisconsin (Grand) Avenue and North Third Street, the German North Side’s “downtown.”
In the years following World War II, automobile-oriented shopping centers like Southgate and then Southridge assumed retail dominance in the region. Mitchell Street changed with the neighborhood – Spanish is heard as often today as Polish was a century ago – but it’s still open for business. Although the district’s days as the South Side’s downtown are over, Mitchell remains a vital center of commerce for an increasingly diverse neighborhood.
- Established in 1866, St. Stanislaus Parish was the first Polish Catholic congregation in any American city.
- Only four blocks west of “St. Stan’s,” St. Anthony Church was built in 1877 to serve the area’s German Catholics.
- Named for a famous Polish actress, the original Modjeska Theater was one of five motion picture theaters on Mitchell Street.
- This westbound streetcar was about to “bend the corner around,” in Milwaukee dialect, to Forest Home Avenue.
IN COLLABORATION WITH MILWAUKEE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY