The Journal Sentinel’s Coverage of Riverwest and Gentrification

Many Riverwest residents may have agreed with Vince Bushell’s comments in the Currents when he responded to Commerce St. developer John Vetter’s soft-pedaling of gentrification. Vetter’s remark, “what’s not to like about [rising property values]” concluded a Journal Sentinel article by Whitney Gould back in February. Vetter’s comment wasn’t as surprising and dismaying as the fact that Gould didn’t counter it with Riverwest voices. In previous articles, Gould has always been careful to do this. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s urban landscape writer and columnist, Gould sang the praises of Riverwest’s Polish flats in 1996–“sturdy, still-affordable houses [have been] reclaimed by arrivals from Mexico, Latin America and Southeast Asia–many of them living in extended families just as earlier generations did.” In 1998, she stuck up for the needs of low-income families in public housing developments downtown. (Hillside Terrace series, March 22) And in June of 1999, Gould responded to the controversy over gentrification that erupted at the 7th annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Gould reported that Michael Pyatok, a San Francisco architect (also a professor of architecture at the University of Washington), charged that the New Urbanism facilitates gentrification “under the guise of working for a better community simply because it looks better [when], in fact, they’re dissassembling it.” Gould agreed, suggesting that the New Urbanism may be “leaving blacks, Hispanics and single-parent households adrift.” She asked, “Must the poor get shoved aside as housing values escalate in rejuvenating areas? What will it take for whites and blacks, the rich and the poor, to live comfortably side by side?” A few days later, Gould wrote a second article exhorting readers to take race and class seriously in the context of urban development, even though “people tend to dance around it or dress it up in euphemisms.” She called for “new incentives for builders to include more modestly priced homes within new developments . . . . attractive single-family homes and townhouses that ordinary folks — black and white, young and old — could afford. . . . How sad if New Urbanism . . . were to become merely an excuse for creating beautifully designed communities as racially alienated as the old ones.” In the spring of 2000, Gould’s message still had some currency in Milwaukee. At the 18th Regional Planning Conference on “Smart Growth,” state senator Brian Burke (D-Milwaukee) had some cautionary words similar to Gould’s, whom he referred to in his speech. Regarding the phenomena of affluent suburbanites moving into new or refurbished city housing, Burke noted that such changes raise “concerns about safeguarding the availability of affordable housing that could be threatened by a rush of gentrification.” Burke went on to argue that “the invisible hand of the market” must not be allowed “to have complete sway over the shape of our neighborhoods. . . . Laissez faire economics did not create the great cities of the world.” A week before the conference, in Gould’s two-part series on the Commerce St. Beerline redevelopment, the same sentiment had been expressed by residents of East Village, Caesar Park and Riverwest, whom Gould interviewed. The hard questions of race and socioeconomic class didn’t come up, but at least there was some coverage of the clashing interests of long-time city residents, developers and the new residents they cater to. Fast forward to the present year–in February Tom Daykin wrote an astonishing article that claimed, “living near downtown could be a family affair.” In Daykin’s Milwaukee, before the appearance of the Commerce St. houses and condominiums, the city was closed to a “middle demographic.” The new, incredibly affordable prices were listed as ranging from $200,000 to $470,000 with some as high as $1 million. Shortly thereafter, Gould’s front-page, Sunday edition story came out with the “what’s not to like about that?” coup de grace. Now Gould seemed to be in line with Daykin’s pretension that prices “from the low $200,000s to $500,000 and up” herald “the first batch of more affordable condos and single-family homes for buyers with young children.” Unlike previous article, this time Gould made only a brief, dismissive remark about Riverwest residents’ concerns about gentrification. What gives? In a recent interview with Currents editor Sonya Jongsma Knauss, Gould said she simply didn’t have room for a counterpoint from old residents around Commerce St. She weighed the pros and cons of development, stating that she doesn’t think “anyone welcomes a big increase in property values, but we’d all be complaining if they were going down.” She does “wish developers would take greater advantage of affordable housing tax credits” and complimented the work of the Madison group, Gorman Company, which folds lower income housing in among “market rate housing.” Gould, who lives on the East Side, also said that she likes Riverwest and wants it to thrive: “I hope it’ll stay affordable,” she said. “The Challenge is to work harder to keep affordable housing…. We don’t want a whole city full of high-priced condos.” One may hope that views like this will return to the local press soon, perhaps in Gould’s own columns. Riverwest needs credible voices raised against the idea that condos are the only way to go. If developers and property assessors believe this is true — and apparently they do — then they need to be told otherwise. They cannot be counted on to understand or appreciate, on their own, what an affordable, permanent home means to the ordinary folks, black and white, young and old, working people with families. It’s up to residents to organize themselves to take a role in determining how their neighborhood is perceived and what its future will be.

Gould on New Urbanism

City, Suburbs Could Gain By Sharing Growth’s Benefits. J-S Feb. 18, 2002. By Whitney Gould. Downtown Offers an Escape from Suburbia: Housing Appeals to Childless Households Tired of Gutters, Lawns. J-S Apr. 10, 2000. By Whitney Gould. Make Way for Downtown Housing: As Developers Gobble Up Property, Some Residents Fear Loss of Neighborhoods’ Character. J-S Apr. 9, 2000. By Whitney Gould. The American Landscape – Yesterday, Tomorrow: Architects Draw Up a Blueprint for Checking Urban Sprawl. J-S Mar. 26, 2000. By Whitney Gould. Review of Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. By Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck. North Point Press. 290 pages. Plans for Commerce Street Hit Resistance: Some Residents Fear New, High-Density Housing Will Cut Green Space. J-S Feb. 4, 2000. By Whitney Gould. Time is Right to Revive Urban Areas, New Urbanism Conferees Say: Crime, Schools and Poverty are Obstacles That Must Be Dealt With, They Note. J-S Jun. 5, 1999. By Whitney Gould. New Vision’s Neighborliness is Strong Draw for Families Looking for Community: Front Porches, Sidewalks, Narrow Lots Bring People Together. J-S Jun. 1, 1999. By Whitney Gould.


The Future of Inner Cities: Who Owns Success?Inner City Magazine Booming Economy Leaving Behind Poor, Erica Noonan, Associated Press


Building Momentum: As Milwaukee’s Condominiums Keep Going Up, So Do Their Values, J-S, Apr. 30, 2000, by Michele Derus.

Smart Growth

Brian Burke, “Working With Wisconsin’s New Smart Growth Law.” Brian Burke, “Smart Growth and the St. Croix Valley.”

     “[Commerce St./Beerline-B] has all the elements that make great cities: diversity, continuity, public amenities.” —Mayor John Norquist, “Once Tattered, North Commerce Street is Becoming a Neighborhood: Brewery, Condos, Apartments Transform Riverside Area,” by Whitney Gould, J-S Mar. 17, 2002 “It’s amazing. When I moved in, I was one of the few blacks, and then 15 years later it was all black, and then it was a few blacks again. Isn’t that something, how life goes around?” —Susie Harrington, 46-year resident of Brewer’s Hill “Gentrification is the rising tide that lifts all boats.” —Andres Duany, Miami architect, “Three Cheers for Gentrification,” The American Enterprise Magazine, April/May 2001. “I’m not trying to be cruel and heartless. We think we’ve got some really good tenants in some of the units. I guess we’re just riding the wave of the market.” —John Kostecki, general manager of University Investments, after his company renovated low income housing townhouses in Brewer’s Hill and raised rents from $600-$800 in 2001. “Climbing Rents Raise Ire on Brewer’s Hill,” by Nahal Toosi, J-S Feb. 3, 2001. “[the controversy over gentrification is] between those who want to see the diversity continue and those who are market driven and looking only at that.” —Janet Fitch of Brewer’s Hill, qtd. in “Rejuvenation Resentment: Prosperity in Brewer’s Hill Area Has Some People Feeling Left Out,” by Greg J. Borowski, J-S May 27, 2001. “The issue of displacement is a real one. But a lot of the displacement in Brewer’s Hill, if it hadn’t gone on through gentrification, would have gone on through demolition. Those homes were coming down.” —John Gurda, Milwaukee historian on the history of the Commerce St./Beerline Area, J-S April 7, 2002. “We capture what people look at when they buy a property. That involves math, but it’s not a science, it’s an art, and people’s perceptions play a role. . . . just like they say in the real estate industry, it comes down to location, location, location. You could have the same house in a different neighborhood and see a big difference in values. And it’s not static. Where perceptions change, that drives change.” —Mary Reavey, City of Milwaukee Assessment Commissioner, qtd. in “By the Numbers: City’s Assessment Commissioner Takes Challenges to Property Pricing in Stride,” by Michele Derus, J-S Jul. 17, 2000. “Our city leaders cannot create a history of their own by proactively promoting sustainable environments for its citizens to live and work in, whether in modestly rehabilitated houses or reasonably priced new construction with a chance to appreciate in value over time. They have more information to act upon than the private sector, but act now only as funeral directors to the soon-to-be-departed with last-ditch efforts to hold up some old relics.” —Dana Cable, Jr., Riverwest builder in a 1997 letter to the Journal Sentinel Low income housing declined nationwide by 400,000 units from 1993-1997 compared to -425,000 between 1985-1993. 5.4 million working poor families paid half their income on housing or lived in substandard housing in 1997, a 12% increase since 1991. —US Department of Housing and Urban Development “I don’t want to be a single person in a big house on a street with lots of other under-occupied homes separated by stone walls and locked gates. I don’t want to have to plan my free time around traffic tie-ups and extended commutes. I don’t want to feel isolated — feel that I’m missing something — by being so far from what interests me in the city.” —Martha Stewart, New York Times Magazine “…we haven’t yet figured out a good way to build affordable housing into the mix of redevelopment opportunities.” —Whitney Gould on gentrification in an online chat, J-S Dec. 17, 2000. “Designing for the lifestyles of the poor requires every bit as much, if not more, of an architect’s attention as designing for the rich.” —Michael Pyatok, Earth Interview with Michael PyatokPyatok at HousingZone “You have the same pattern everywhere across the state: Regions are growing against themselves. Poverty is growing; tax capacity is growing more unequal.” -Myron Orfield, Minnesota Democratic state senator at a 2002 conference at Marquette University sponsored by Wisconsin Sustainable Cities, an arm of the Wisconsin Alliance of Cities. Change in Riverwest Property Values: 2000-2002

2000 Assessed Valuation 2001 Sale Price 2002 Assessed Valuation
35,600 80,000 48,100
61,400 73,000 74,100
91,600 120,000 128,200
22,100 30,000 36,100
57,700 79,900 78,000
35,200 76,900 47,600
41,400 93,000 82,800
41,300 85,000 55,700
52,000 55,400 62,400
32,800 55,000 44,500
66,400 110,000 89,400
55,700 60,000 75,200
87,200 86,750 113,500
68,600 70,000 82,600
70,800 73,000 83,800

The table above includes single family properties and duplexes. These are accurate, even when assessed valuation does not reach sale price.

An assessor, who has done many Riverwest properties, said he had observed that many properties are being sold for more than the asking price, some the same day they were offered. He further noted that the increased valuation provided the owner with equity on which he or she could borrow to upgrade the property. A property owner may call and obtain the comparable properties for his or her property.

The question this poses is how financial diversity can be maintained in a neighborhood in which housing prices are skyrocketing.

Related Journal Articles

Harambee Area Hopes to Rebuild its Housing, by Leonard Sykes, Jr., Apr. 14, 2002. Playing for Keeps – Gentrification on the Lower East Side, by Whitney Gould, Jul. 5, 2001. Neighbors Get Together to Boost Clarke Street Area (Walnut Area), by Phyllis Mills-Perkins, Mar. 18, 2001. Squeezed Out: Third Ward Becoming Too Expensive for Resident Artists by Tom Daykin, Mar. 16, 2001. Artists in the Riverwest neighborhood . . . are running into the same problem. Heart, Hopes Still Dwell in Refurbished Building, by Joe Williams, Dec. 16, 2000. Sad story from a Brewer’s Hill Restorationist. Suburbs Face New Challenge from Lure of City Living, by Amy Rinard, May 7, 2000. Onopa Brew Pub Could Put Riverwest on Right Path, by Tom Daykin, Nov. 26, 1999. Riverwest as the next Brady St. or Brewer’s Hill? Adversity and Diversity Create Strong Bonds in Merrill Park, by Dave Umhoeffer, Nov. 8, 1999. Riverwest an Interesting, Affordable Neighborhood, by Tom Tolan, Jan. 3, 1999. Redevelopment Around Johnson Controls, by Whitney Gould, Nov. 23, 1998.

Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 5 – June 2002