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Robin Leenhouts

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Robin Leenhouts isn’t sure if she is worthy of the Neighbor Spotlight. “I don’t know if I’ve been such a good neighbor,” she says with a surprised laugh when contacted for an interview. But Leenhouts has a lot of Riverwest history to share, even if she is modest about speaking up. For one, there’s her house, built by her architect parents in 1948. (“I do have a beautiful house!” she cheerfully confirms when complimented on her home.) Leenhouts was raised in this house and has always thought of it as her true home, she says. She has lived also in Montana and Connecticut, but came back to Riverwest in 1989. And then there are her stories about living in Riverwest for a cumulative 43 years and seeing the neighborhood change and transform. Riverwest seems to go through phases, Leenhouts says. When she was a young girl, Riverwest was full of vibrant small businesses. She remembers the neighborhood library, movie theatres, candy stores and little groceries, all within walking distance. Holton Street was also home to many family- run businesses. After a drought of business activity, Riverwest is once again picking up speed and becoming an energetic neighborhood, Leenhouts says. “There was nothing, but now there are places to eat, shops, coffeehouses, galleries.” Another vivid childhood memory is walking past the neighborhood factories on summer nights and hearing the whirring of machines. When the factories were open, “there were immediate kinds of jobs in the neighborhood,” which was healthier, says Leenhouts. Her parents’ office was right in their own house. These days, people must commute to work, she says, regretfully noting her own drive to Brookfield. What’s Riverwest like today? The neighborhood still has a calm sense of stability, Leenhouts says. “Many people are totally committed to staying,” she adds. Still, she regrets that there are fewer children here than in the past, and that many families flee MPS schools for the nearby suburbs like Shorewood. Gentrification, however, has its upside and downside. She likes it that some houses have been fixed up, but on the other hand, sees how taxes have shot up and affordable housing has become scarce. Leenhouts is an animated, lively woman who kicks off her clogs as she talks, shifting in her chair and gesturing with her hands. Her black cat, BB, darts back and forth through the living room as Leenhouts shakes her head at feline peculiarities. She teaches art – kindergarten through eight grade – at a Catholic school. “I love little kids,” she says. Although in the past she has made baskets, theater scenery and painted, she now calls kids her art. “Kids are my media,” she says, laughing. “They make 500 pieces of art a week!” When Leenhouts isn’t working, she enjoys kayaking, canoeing, hiking, gardening and all sorts of “green stuff – which is why I didn’t vote for our president.” She is also interested in historic preservation, “being from an architectural family.” Her favorite neighborhood landmark? “River, river, river,” she says. One of the biggest pleasures of living close to the river is access to wild land, she explains. “I love that sense of being in the middle of nowhere and at the same time close to downtown.” She advises neighborhood newbies to “just enjoy all the variety of stuff that’s available_the river, the quirky little bars and restaurants, the wonderful assortment of architectural yards.” As she talks, Leenhouts often alludes to her architect parents, who, she says, would have been worthier profile subjects because of their civic involvement. “When I retire, that’s when I’ll get to join the Riverwest Neighborhood Association,” she says with a laugh. “There’s something about teaching that takes all my energy. When I get home I don’t want to go to meetings!” Sighing, she adds, “I don’t know where my neighborhood spirit is.” But her carefully tended home and her life-long devotion to the neighbor- hood suggest her spirit is right where it should be.
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