The official buzz is in the streets. In mid-January Tom Daykin wrote a front page Sunday feature in the Journal Sentinel about Riverwest as an up-and-coming neighborhood. The story he told doesn’t really do justice to the deeper aspects of Riverwest culture that local businesses are part of, nor does it mention Riverwest’s status as one of the city’s most racially integrated neighborhoods, a big topic in the news since Bruce Murphy’s series about the supposed end of “hypersegregation” in Milwaukee. But Daykin does note that in Riverwest, “Close community ties, including festivals and a monthly neighborhood newspaper, are among the draws.”
It will be interesting to see what and who we “draw” in the next couple of years. Will the changes be substantial and dramatic? Will we lose our diversity? Will old-timers feel pushed out by “outsiders?”
With the Park East Freeway gone and the city pushing forward with its downtown redevelopment plans, unless the economy tanks or the plan just chokes, some of these changes are bound to be felt.
On the other hand, I think Daykin is right to predict that Riverwest “isn’t likely to morph into a land of pricey boutiques and restaurants such as those that have come with the redevelopment along Brady St. – a much larger commercial strip.”
Riverwest’s size, location, and densely packed, predominantly working-class housing stock should temper the scale and possibly the style of any new businesses and housing developments that crop up. Riverwest’s politically active and generally indie spirit should also have an important role in the process.
One way for any resident to take part in understanding and shaping neighborhood change is through the Riverwest Neighborhood Association. Another way is by starting your own business or by buying property–anything to secure an economic stake in your home turf.
Andy Noble of Lotus Land Records told Daykin that Riverwesters have a “fierce loyalty” to local businesses, but he thinks Riverwest is “on the brink of change and hopes more local retailers will get established on Center St. before it’s discovered by Starbucks, Hollywood Video and other national chains.”
Clearly Mayor Norquist and the DCD agree with Noble that Riverwest and other city neighborhoods are ripe for entrepreneurial development. Using studies from UWM’s Employment and Training Institute, the city is trying to attract national retailers by emphasizing that, despite all the usual indicators of substantial poverty, neighborhoods like Riverwest dispose a lot of money on retail purchases.
One Employment and Training Institute report reveals that the 53212 zip code is much more densely populated than the suburbs despite a 16.8% population decline in the last decade. For that reason, as of 1999, the adjusted gross income per square mile in the 53212 area was $55 million. That’s a little less than Cudahy, a little more than Hales Corners, and more that twice as much as Franklin and Oak Creek.
All this purchasing power in the Riverwest area is attractive to retailers, because almost half of it is being spent on retail items. Studies by the Bureau of Labor Statistics also consistently “show that lower income households spend a larger portion of their income on retail expenditures than upper-income households.”
And here lies a problem: with all that cash flow into retail, some residents are missing the chance to gain the stability of being a homeowner: “Despite the very affordable housing prices in the  zip code, increases in numbers of workers and family income have not translated into higher home ownership rates for this neighborhood.”
Noble is probably right that for many local residents, now is the last chance to start a neighborhood business, and the same goes for those who would like to own a home. It comes down to this: if those of us who live here want to have a say in the future of our neighborhood, we may need to spend less on non-locally-owned retail, spend more at businesses that keep their money in the community, get debt under control, and focus on pooling resources to buy property or start a business.
Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 2 – February 2003