by Sonya Jongsma Knauss Emil and Sandy

Emil Kuester has watched Center Street change from a quiet neighborhood with stores on every corner to a street peppered with empty storefronts. Now, from his front porch, he’s watching it come back to life. Riverwest Currents Volume 1 – Issue 7 – August 2002 Squinting, he peers around a volunteer tree that grows in front of his porch. “Now I can’t watch the neighbors so good,” he says of the problem branch. He’s keeping watch over the improvements, and right now he has his eye on the new roof going up on the house across the street. He points out three other roofs that have gone up recently. Visitors who want to hear his stories should sit on his left, on the side of his good ear. As Kuester talks, he watches the city workers throwing sod down onto dry dirt. “You keep an eye on this grass,” he says. “It will go kaput in no time.” A little later he revises his prediction after a water truck comes by to hose it down: “I hope it will grow — I will not give up on it yet.” “Work! Work and save your money, so you are never out of money. No charge accounts. Pay as you go along.” In his still-noticable German accent, Kuester can tell you the history of most buildings on his block, including one that used to be a dance hall, then a venue for jazz music, then a resale shop, and now serves as a storage area for appliances. Kuester moved to Riverwest in 1960. He emigrated from Germany after Russians took his family’s land and gave it to Poland. His brother, who lived in Milwaukee and sponsored his immigration, died a couple years ago. “That’s okay,” he says. “He’s in heaven now, a better place.” But as for the here and now, Kuester is content to remain in his Riverwest house. He can’t think of one thing he dislikes about the neighborhood. “I like the people and the city,” he says. “They are friendly and very helpful. . . if I ask for help, they help.” Kuester minces no words when it comes to giving advice to the younger generation. “Work! Work and save your money, so you are never out of money. No charge accounts. Pay as you go along.” He recalls his life as a baker, first for W. H. Heinemann and later for a bakery on Oakland and Locust in the building that now houses a shoe store. He speaks proudly of one period where he worked seven days a week for three years straight. “I lived to work,” he says. “I was brought up to work. Now they work to live… the young people have new ideas: spend as much as possible, and work as little as possible.” But his days of busy work are over. Now he spends his time gardening, walking his dog, keeping tabs on neighborhood improvements, and sleeping — “I’m so old you know, 85,” he says. Emil lives with his wife Rosalea and their dog, Sandy, who has the run of the house. “He is king,” Emil says. “If he sleeps in the middle of the room, we have to walk around him.” Kuester has owned several properties along Center Street over the years. He sold a business property last year and sold his duplex, where he still lives on the first floor, early this year. He has high hopes for the neighborhood — new buildings, new life, new businesses. Perhaps someday Riverwest will again look like the place Emil remembers — a bustling neighborhood, with bakeries, groceries, butcher shops, fish shops and corner stores packed into a vital residential area. “It will, how you say… rejuvenate. Make it young again,” he says. Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 7 – August 2002
Emil Kuester