Today we welcome Virginia Small, a guest contributor from Milwaukee, WI. She shares this story about a vibrant walkable neighborhood, and the power of a community to determine whether that neighborhood becomes an entertainment district or remains a diverse, mixed-use area.

Many American cities have become preoccupied with promoting certain areas as “entertainment districts” or “destinations.” Nevertheless, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea—or microbrew pint.

Photo from Steph Salvia

Photo from Steph Salvia

Parts of towns have long become known as hot spots, although the focus on branding them as such is a more recent trend.  Sometimes what planners call “entertainment zones” emerge organically—especially in places with old buildings perfect for dive bars or quaint eateries. Milwaukee’s Water Street is a classic example, and was the subject of a much-cited research paper on downtown revitalization by urban-planning professors Daniel Campo and Brent D. Ryan.

Nightlife venues also often spring up in districts after artists begin rehabbing warehouses or former factories as studios and galleries. In other cases, established neighborhoods may attract restaurants and bars.

In recent decades, developers have packaged “overnight” entertainment districts, usually with national-chain venues, as a downtown’s next new thing. City officials frequently jump on the bandwagon and provide generous subsidies for these eager, large-scale developments.

Nonetheless, noisy nightlife and inebriated patrons can diminish a neighborhood’s appeal even as its profile gets raised. As Strong Towns contributor Nate Hood has chronicled, entertainment districts can be off-putting to families, baby boomers and others. 

Vocal Milwaukeeans recently took a stand about not wanting their diversified dense neighborhood to become merely an entertainment district. Many members of the Brady Street Area Association, which includes residents and businesspeople, pooh-poohed a proposal to replace a hardware store which recently closed due to the retirement of its owners, with yet another bar on the historic street. 

The district’s alderman, Nik Kovac, agreed. He and others want daytime retail in the 3,600-square-foot storefront, which has apartments on upper floors. Some say a restaurant would be okay, but even that may be a hard sell, given their ubiquity. There are already 11 bars and 24 restaurants along the nine-block strip, many with sidewalk seating or courtyards (thus increasing the noise factor). Kovac explains: “It’s not that one more bar will tip the balance. But it’s never just one. It’s about the cumulative effect of replacing one store after another with a bar.”

Brady Street has long epitomized the model of a walkable mixed-use neighborhood, with more variety than perhaps any Milwaukee street. People have lived, worked, shopped and played there for generations. Named in 1840, Brady Street has been the main drag of Milwaukee’s Lower East Side since the late-nineteenth century.

Brady Street circa 1950s. Photo from Frank Alioto

Brady Street circa 1950s. Photo from Frank Alioto

Located on the edge of downtown between Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River, the area first drew East Coast Yankees and German settlers before becoming an enclave of working-class Polish immigrants. After 1930 it also became known as Little Italy and in the 1960s and ‘70s as the hub of Milwaukee’s counterculture. Traces of all aspects of its heritage remain, including in its mostly locally-owned businesses. A mélange of old and young, hipsters, students and visitors mingle with long-timers and newcomers. Despite ups, downs, exoduses and influxes, it’s remained a strong community with a memorable sense of place.

Unlike some entertainment zones with little other commerce, Brady Street also has a vital daytime economy. Diversification has helped it stay resilient. Residents and merchants want to keep that delicate balance. Sometimes that’s not easy and not everyone is glad the proposed bar was shot down. Mari Cucunato, the owner of Mari’s Flower Shop nearby, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “I know that everybody wants retail…but we’re in an entertainment area.” She says her business has struggled in recent years and several shops have come and gone.

Business remains brisk for others, including Judy Kallberg’s Uncommon Items. She told the Journal Sentinel there’s room for more retail. “I think it’s going to get better and better as the economy improves.” Pat Suminski, a lifelong Brady Street resident in her 60s and officer of the street’s business improvement district, thinks that challenges facing retailers everywhere have more to do with online shopping and other forces. She sees potential for new retail that serves neighborhood needs, continuing Brady’s longstanding tradition. Suminski says one drawback of being viewed as an entertainment district is that “some visitors forget to respect that it’s also where people live.” She knows many who have resided there 40, 50 or 60 years.

Photo by Steph Salvia

Photo by Steph Salvia

Community engagement can be crucial to preserving balance in a neighborhood. The Brady Street Area Association began in 1988 (reconstituted from an earlier group). A few years later a business improvement district formed. They collaborate on many efforts while keeping separate boards and agendas. 

By taking an active role, residents can influence how their neighborhood evolves. For example, Brady Street parking can be tight since most spaces are on-street and there are no parking structures. So the BID has promoted walking, bicycling and using buses and other transit. They’ve arranged for plentiful bike racks and benches, a bike-sharing station, better lighting and other amenities. Residents also initiated the creation of three pocket parks.

Over the decades, champions of historic preservation and New Urbanist approaches also have played key roles in Brady Street’s evolution. Citizens worked with city officials to obtain a designation of Brady Street as a historic district as well as placement on the National Register of Historic Places, both in 1990. Under former Mayor John Norquist, a New Urbanist proponent, the city also adjusted zoning guidelines to help keep the street’s character. Consequently, most newer development blends well with existing urban fabric.

Since the 1980s, Brady resident and developer Julilly Kohler has promoted the district’s revival through sustainable and smart-growth approaches. She and others stopped the wholesale razing of buildings by large developers. To connect neighborhoods, she spurred the city to build pedestrian bridges across the Milwaukee River and to the lakefront. She also spearheaded a project to celebrate Brady Street’s history in sidewalk pictographs.

The recent uproar over adding another bar to Brady Street occurred as part of ongoing discussions by residents and merchants about what they want their neighborhood to become. Neighborhood associations, park friends groups and other affiliations of citizens can work to preserve and improve their community. They can define or reinforce its identity and promote positive goals--rather than simply reacting to developer proposals or dictates of government officials.

In the case of Brady Street, the involvement of residents in addition to business owners has been essential in maintaining vibrancy and livability. Keeping its distinctive multiplicity will surely continue benefiting the neighborhood as it evolves.

(Top photo of annual Brady Street Festival, by Andrew Lomenzo)

Virginia Small of Milwaukee once lived just off Brady Street and now resides a couple miles away. She recently became a member of Strong Towns.