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Polish Town

Class of 1930 at St. Mary'sby Tom TolanPart 2 of 6 in a series.

It is 4:30 a.m. on what will be a warm Friday in early autumn, 1920. Fourteen-year-old Clem Doberneck is one of the first in the neighborhood to rise. He eats breakfast with his father, who must catch an early streetcar to his job at the Miller Brewery, and by 5 a.m. is out of his family’s Booth Street house, beginning his morning rounds. From Locust Street to Reservoir Avenue, between Richards Street and the river, he walks from streetlight to streetlight, turning off the gas. Gradually, the sky becomes lighter. As Doberneck makes his rounds, the neighborhood begins to stir. On almost every other corner, bakers are opening the doors of their shops, and children are running in to buy bread and rolls for their families’ breakfasts. In frame houses all over the neighborhood, women are lighting stoves, starting breakfasts, walking out back doors to throw food to chickens. At 6 a.m. the bell in the big tower of St. Casimir’s Catholic Church begins to ring. Two doors down from the church, in the convent of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, some twenty nuns file quietly into the convent chapel to begin, in Polish, their morning prayers.

The grocery store located at 800 E. Locust was owned by Rose Singer from 1921 until 1930. Pictured here are Rose Singer with her children Leonard, Margaret and Marianne.

It is easy, when telling the story of a neighborhood, to speak of the past as a series of important events — the construction of a church, the opening of a streetcar line, the closing of a foundry — or as a progression of population statistics. Events and statistics have obvious importance. They shape our lives, but the shape they provide is really just an outline, a frame for the real story of the neighborhood, which is the story of people’s lives. Their story, too, can be told as series of important events — birth, baptism, graduation, marriage, death — but that is not the way time passes for most of us. On the level of daily life, time moves not in a straight line from past to future, but in circles — the circles of the day from morning to morning, of the week from Sunday to Sunday, of the year through its seasons. So it is when you talk to people who grew up in the neighborhood now called Riverwest. When you ask them to describe major events in the community’s history, they’re often at a loss. What they are more likely to remember are things that happened regularly — the routines that repeated themselves daily, weekly, yearly — and the uniquely personal events, whether large or small, that broke those routines. And so the neighborhood on a Friday in the autumn of 1920 — a composite reconstructed here from interviews and historical records — would be in some ways exactly the same as on any other day in 1920, and in some ways absolutely different.

After breakfast, the men leave for work. Most of them are on foot, heading for the tanneries and factories along the river and to the west, or for the construction site where Walter Lazynski’s crew is digging a sewer, or for jobs as teamsters, policemen, house movers. Some women leave, too, to work in factories or to do washing and cleaning in the big homes of the wealthier families who live across the Locust Street bridge. For 8:30 Mass, St. Casimir’s is filled to the back doors with students from the parish elementary school. The enrollment this year is more than 1,200. When Mass ends, Sister Mary Leocadia, who is on her first teaching assignment since her consecration as a nun, leads her eighth-grade class out of the church and across a small courtyard to the school, where they will spend the morning studying religion, Polish history, and Polish language. During the morning, Father Rudolph Kielpinski, the pastor of St. Casimir’s, pokes his head in the door of the classroom to see how things are going. The class, which has been a rambunctious one in past years, is unusually quiet, he thinks. Perhaps the other sisters have warned Sister Leocadia to appear strict with the children. Father Kielpinski, a regular visitor to the school, continues to walk the halls until lunchtime. After lunch, taken in the parish rectory, he heads downtown, where he has promised to appear in court as a character witness for a parishioner who was arrested recently for bootlegging. The sun is shining through the leaves of the elms as he walks down Clarke Street toward the Holton Street trolley line, and the sidewalks are busy with housewives doing their shopping. Clarke Street is the neighborhood’s main business district, and Father Kielpinski nods as he passes the stores: Joseph Filipowicz’s drugstore; the office of Matthew Wrecza, the undertaker; Sylvester Nowicke’s hardware store; and a handful of taverns that since the beginning of Prohibition have advertised as soft drink parlors. At Fratney Street, Father Kielpinski’s path crosses that of an Italian fish dealer, who has loaded his cart with perch and whitefish caught by fishermen along the Government Pier on the Lake Michigan. “Fish,” the man yells as he walks slowly down the street. “Fish.”

There is no such thing as a stable neighborhood. Not, at least, if by stable you mean unchanging. Almost every neighborhood, at almost any time, shows signs of what it has been and what it will become. So the people who live west of the river today have a mixture of skin colors, income levels, ethnic backgrounds, and beliefs — some of them evidence of what life in the neighborhood was like years ago, some of them signs of what may lie ahead. So it was in 1920 west of the river, where there were signs of the Polish peasant and German immigrant cultures planted decades earlier, alongside evidence that those cultures were losing their grip. Afternoon classes at St. Casimir’s school, for example, were taught in English. This chapter charts the growth of Riverwest as a distinct ethnic neighborhood, partly German but mostly Polish, and its gradual transformation into an area much like other American urban places. Some of the deepest-rooted residents speak as if there was once a time called the Old Days, during which everything stayed the same, and life was safe and familiar. Time has a way of simplifying perceptions, but it is best to remember when reading this chapter that the neighborhood and its people have been changing, steadily and continuously, ever since the first houses were built. Never once has the neighborhood stood still, even for a day.

As the afternoon wears on into evening, mothers send their children into backyards all over the neighborhood to pick vegetables for dinner. A few doors north of St. Casimir’s on Bremen Street, Frank Zagrodnik arrives home exhausted from a long day driving a team of draft horses. He settles down on his front steps to eat plums and read his daily Kuryer Polski. At 6 p.m. St. Casimir’s bell rings, and Zagrodnik puts down his newspaper long enough to recite the Angelus. Dusk is falling, and young Clem Doberneck walks up Bremen Street, turning on the gas and igniting the flame in each streetlight. Tonight there will be silent movies at all three local theaters — the Grand and the Peerless on Holton Street, and the Wright Theater on Wright and Fratney Streets. There will be a rehearsal for the first production of the Mary Konopnicka Dramatic Circle in the St. Casimir’s school gymnasium. There will be a dance at Nest 725 of the Polish Falcons on Clarke and Fratney, and another at Pulaski Hall on Bremen and Locust. Johnny Habel and his brother Gus, leaders of a gang of young men who call themselves the “Bloody 36,” are expecting outsiders from the German neighborhoods to the west at the dance — maybe even some of the “Bloody 64s.” If things go as they usually do, this will mean shoving and fist fights between the two groups, and sooner or later the police will be called. The night will be warm, and families along Bremen Street will sleep on their porches, hoping for a breeze. Late at night, they will be wakened by a chorus from a popular Polish song — sung by patrons weaving their way home from a soft-drink parlor whose beverages are somewhat harder than the Prohibition-era standard. The breeze will come, and the people lying on their porches will roll over and go back to sleep.


Former Riverwest resident Tom Tolan is an editor with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Photo credits: Milwaukee County Historical Society; Pieter Godfrey post card collection.


Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 2 – February 2003

This is an excerpt from Tom Tolan’s Riverwest: A Community History, which will be published late this spring. Riverwest Currents plans to include further excerpts in the coming months.

Tolan wrote the history 20 years ago, as part of the Milwaukee Humanities Program, a federally funded organization based at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and he’s updated it over the last several years.

The Riverwest History Society, a committee set up solely for this purpose, will publish the book. Milwaukee historian John Gurda heads the committee and is also editing the book. Riverwest resident Kate Hawley is the book’s designer.

Money for publication of the book comes from grants from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Harry and Mary Franke Idea Fund, the Inbusch Foundation and Outpost Natural Foods. Proceeds from the sale of the book will benefit COA Youth and Family Centers (Children’s Outing Association), which helped revive the book for publication.

The Riverwest History Society is looking for photographs to use in the neighborhood history book. Family photos, pictures of businesses and of recreation, church, and ethnic events all would be helpful.

Of special interest are old photos from the everyday life of the Polish-American community surrounding St. Casimir and St. Mary of Czestochowa parishes; from the first integration of the neighborhood in the 1960s, and of the old St. Elizabeth’s Parish on First and Burleigh; from the Puerto Rican and larger Hispanic communities that arrived here in the 1960s and 1970s; and from the neighborhood activism and the counterculture movements of the 1970s and 1980s.

If you have old photos, please call Tom Tolan at 331-3510 or Kate Hawley at 372-8510.