Milwaukee, WI has made more frequent appearances on this blog, now that I live here, but usually I write about it in something of a critical light. I walk its streets every day, so I see the good and bad that goes on here, and it’s usually more productive to write about the bad, and constructively brainstorm ways to make it better. However, today I want to talk about Milwaukee in a wholly positive light.
I’m going to talk about one specific street here—Brady Street—because I think it is a fantastic model for a thriving, positive neighborhood street. Brady Street is one block from my house and it serves as a commercial anchor for the East Side of Milwaukee. The businesses here range from a hardware store to an STD clinic, from a Waldorf school to a Catholic church, from a Mediterranean nightclub to a popular sushi café, and from a dingy sports bar to one of the best wine bars in the city. It would take days to explore every storefront on this lively avenue. The street runs parallel to the river and it’s tucked in something of a residential area, yet it’s a busy, bustling thoroughfare with so much to offer. This is due to several important factors that I hope to see in more neighborhoods around the country:
A diverse cultural history that has solidified the small business community. Brady Street would not exist without the immigrants who have committed themselves to this neighborhood for decades. The neighborhood represents a diverse array of Italian, Polish, Irish and German immigrants who have built bakeries, grocery stores, restaurants, barber shops and other stores to benefit the community. Throughout many eras of change, these businesses have stood by, creating economic vitality and offering important services within walking distance for the many people who live nearby. More recently, Indian, Thai and Vietnamese immigrants have also made their mark on this area.
Affordable housing. A quick sampling of apartments and duplexes in the neighborhood shows studios, 1 bedrooms and 2 bedrooms in the range of $500-900. Now, you can certainly find far cheaper housing in Milwaukee, but given the amenities within walking distance in this neighborhood, the prices are a bargain. It’s a neighborhood populated by college students, young professionals, and the elderly—demographics that are statistically particularly concerned with walkability. There’s even a public housing complex for low-income seniors. This neighborhood is like a complex organism with many different parts relying on one other, symbiotically, and affordable housing is one of those key pieces that makes the whole thing work.
Unique, somewhat quirky architecture that has been preserved, while allowing for new construction alongside it. If you show anyone in Milwaukee a picture like the one above, they’ll instantly know where it was taken. Brady Street is lined with colorful, grand old houses that have mostly been converted into storefronts (although some are still serving as residential living). Stepping into my favorite coffee shop, Brewed, makes me feel like I’m strolling into someone’s living room and settling down for a cozy latte. These houses are interspersed with more traditional developments, built and remodeled during many different decades. This diversity of architecture and commitment to maintaining historical spaces sets Brady Street apart as a unique district, in addition to ensuring that renovations will happen gradually. In other words, going by the standard Jane Jacobs principle that diversity of age in buildings = stability in neighborhoods, this means that all the buildings on Brady Street won’t fall into shambles at the same time, nor will their storefronts ever look like a suburban stripmall in uniformity.
A commitment to pedestrian and bike-friendliness. Brady Street has widened its sidewalks in recent years (see photo to the right), meeting a demand for safe, accessible pathways. That means sacrificing parking, but it’s clear that local businesses aren’t hurting from that. A few businesses (like Glorioso’s, CVS, and some other chains) have invested in parking lots, but most visitors just hunt for street parking and make do. (Or, if they’re drinking, they take a cab or bus.) Sure, it adds a few extra minutes to an evening out, but there are pleasant spaces to walk to and from your car, and you might even happen upon an interesting business during your walk. Street parking encourages cars to slow down, creating an additional safety buffer. And obviously, the lack of massive parking lots means more space for productive businesses, so that’s one of the biggest things that has helped this area remain economically viable. There are also bike racks in front of many businesses, and a set of rentable Bublr bikes (Milwaukee’s bikeshare program) that were just installed outside a church on Brady Street, making this neighborhood accessible for biking too. Finally, there are several bus lines that crisscross the street, connecting it to arteries of the city.
Flourishing neighborhoods come in all shapes and sizes, and there is no one right way to build a street (although there are several wrong ones). Nonetheless, Brady Street offers some excellent starting points that come together to create a successful neighborhood: diverse local businesses, affordable housing, varied and unique architecture, and a commitment to walkability and bikeability. I think if any neighborhood could accomplish even 3 of these points, they’d be on their way to success and resilience.