by Sonya Jongsma Knauss The place you grow up in influences forever how you see the world.
Sitting in smoky Fuel Café one Thursday night, Kate Heimbach, 21, talks about what it’s like to grow up and live in Riverwest. Now she lives in Glendale, where she attended Nicolet High School, and she sees a real difference between Riverwest teens and her typical classmates. Raised by a single mother and accustomed to pinching pennies, she watched her classmates complain if they didn’t get that SUV on their 16th birthdays. She had little sympathy. “I used to wish I had all that money,” she says, “but now I know better. You see these kids who have been handed things all their lives and they get out on their own and don’t know how to cope.” Noah Abshire, 20, who refers to Fuel Café as his “office” because of how often he’s there, speaks similarly of “candy ravers” who come into Riverwest from the suburbs. “You get these overdramatic melancholy goth kids who think they have nothing going for them, but their parents are rich!” he says disdainfully. Kate thinks they’ve got it all turned around. “I think now that I have it better,” she says. “I know I could plant myself anywhere and make it.” The main problem, Noah concludes, is that others look down on teens here. “Corporate America tells you that unless you have the stuff, you’re nothing,” he says. Joe Scherbarth, 18, has also grown up and lives in Riverwest. He puts it this way — “I don’t think I’m better than they are, but in the end I’ll have a fuller experience, a more characterized life.” Katy Van Dunk, 14, shares this view. “I’ve liked growing up in this atmosphere,” she said in a phone interview. “I know a lot of people who have grown up in the suburbs and it’s a totally different experience.” Among the things she appreciates is the area’s diversity — “It’s more real, because as adults we’re exposed to many different viewpoints and ways of living,” she says. Area teens agree that Riverwest has a lot going for it. Hanging out at Fuel Café or R-Evolution is high on the list, and Mad Planet’s teen night provides a safe environment for teens city-wide every Saturday. The neighborhood appeals to Kate because it’s a “big bohemian part of town” with several great thrift stores. “People stay out of each other’s business, while at the same time caring enough to look out for each other,” she says. “What I like about Riverwest is that no one will look at you weird if a guy wears a dress,” Noah says. “I mean, a guy could walk in with thigh-high boots, and it’s not very likely that people are going to say anything rude about it.” Patrick Grover, who joined the Fuel Café conversation late, is looking to move back to the neighborhood. He grew up here before moving to 35th and Burleigh. “I think Riverwest is the best place in Milwaukee,” Patrick says. Teens are quick to point out the sense of community they feel here, and they feel free to pursue their own passions and projects. Katy spends much of her spare time with school-related activities, playing soccer and rowing at Riverside University High School, where she’s a freshman. She also regularly babysits for families in the neighborhood. Kate is part of a spiritual group she refers to as a magical community for witches and Wiccans that meets regularly. Noah serves as something of a neighborhood big brother. He says kids in the neighborhood need a place to stay when they get kicked out of the house. He finds himself taking younger children in on occasion. “If they need something, they know I’m there to help them,” he says. Joe can’t resist a plug for his Sensual Daydreams cast performance at the Rocky Horror Picture show. The group performs at the Oriental on first and third Saturdays at midnight. Other neighborhood kids spend much of their time at after school programs such as the one at COA. The kids are regulars and seem to know each other well, joking good-naturedly with the men who run the program. They list some of the main reasons they come to the drop-in as “socializing and having fun.” How they would improve the neighborhood Everyone has an opinion on how to make the neighborhood a better place. “In my ideal neighborhood,” Katy says, “there would be more interaction between neighbors. Everyone would know each other, and you wouldn’t ever wonder, hmm… What are those people doing over there…?” Those at COA’s drop-in have a long, specific list, starting with Reservoir Park, just across the street from COA. Maurice Butler, 17, was quick to voice his support improving it. “They gotta clean that place up,” he says. “There’s still lead paint up on those metal swings and broken bottles laying around. The rest of that park is a waste — they should redo it like Gordon Park.” Others in the group agree, voicing desire for a neighborhood swimming pool and more places to play games like basketball. Ricky Acevedo, 15, chimes in supporting an increased police presence. “What are you, crazy man?” someone says, as he defends himself with, “for protection!” Noah has a few choice words to say about the role of polixw in the neighborhood. “There’s people out there pushing hard drugs, stealing, beating their wives — it’s ridiculous to put so much time and energy into busting pot smokers,” he say. Joe thinks the neighborhood could create a few more jobs. Many of his friends are looking for work, and prospects have been dim. “What about those people you see downtown?” he says. “I’d love to be one of those people who just walks around the neighborhood just picking shit up.” Noah would like to see the neighborhood become “safer and cooler” by offering some 24-hour places. “We need a pool hall, arcades, coffee shops, whatever. Kids need a place to go without worrying about being out on the streets.” Among other suggestions for neighborhood improvement: an indoor skate park, a paintball place in one of the big old warehouses on Holton — “anything other than George Webb’s.” When it comes down to it, many neighborhood teens have a good vision for what would make their neighborhood a better place. Now all they need is the ear of someone who can do something about it. Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 3 – April 2002