A Working Class Hero

by Tom TolanPart 5 of 6 in a series.

The counterculture surfaced in Riverwest before anybody coined the term — even before the word “hippie” entered America’s vocabulary. In 1964, a rock-and-roll band called the Shags began to play regularly at O’Brad’s, a basement nightclub on E. Locust Street.

The band consisted of four students at the Layton School of Art — long-haired young men whose music was loud and raucous. John Sahli, the group’s first lead guitarist, recalled arriving for the initial performance at O’Brad’s: “The owner was mopping the floor when we came in. He looked at us and said, ‘Who are you?’ We said we were the band that was going to play there that night. ‘No you’re not,’ he said.” His reluctance faded after the Shags convinced him to give them a try, and they packed the house — something they would do regularly in the years to come.

A second countercultural center developed on the corner of Fratney and Clarke Streets. In about 1966, a group called the Negative Movement, which had been presenting avant-garde films at UWM, decided to move its shows off campus. Their chosen site was the old Zamka Furniture storefront, on the northwest corner of Fratney and Clarke. At about the same time, George Lottermoser and Dennis Brulc, two artists active in the Negative Movement, rented a former grocery store across the street and set up a graphics studio. It was there, in 1967, that Lottermoser designed the first cover of Kaleidoscope, Milwaukee’s pioneer “underground” newspaper. (The cover featured a photo of a female nude with six arms and the head of a bearded, long-haired man, who happened to be the leader of a rock group called the Velvet Whip.)

KaleidoscopeOne of their favorite hangouts was the fountain in Water Tower Park, at the east end of North Avenue, where young people played music, socialized, and smoked marijuana into the wee hours. Many of these people felt they were discovering an alternative way of living in the world — one less ruled by selfishness and conflict, more concerned with love and peace than the mainstream middleclass life in which many of them had grown up.

But in time they discovered that communal life, too, can be disillusioning. Continued experimentation with drugs and sexual permissiveness led to health and emotional problems. The problems grew so serious that three new social agencies — a call-in switchboard, a free health clinic, and a psychological counseling center — were opened in 1969 and 1970. Meanwhile, the east side’s atmosphere became noticeably less peaceful. Drug busts, park sweeps, and the increasingly militant tone of the anti-Vietnam War movement raised tensions with police. In summer 1970, when the police tried to enforce the 10 p.m. curfew at Water Tower Park, the result was several nights of rioting. The same summer, firebombs exploded at several locations, including an American Legion post on Prospect Avenue and an A&P food store on Milwaukee’s west side. Acting on an informant’s tip, the police had staked out the grocery store. They shot the two young men who threw the bomb, fatally injuring one of them — Randy Anderson.

In the early 1970s, as the scene around them grew more chaotic, many of the older members of the youth movement moved west of the river. The neighborhood offered respite from the craziness of the east side, but it also had a more tangible attraction: lower rents. In addition, many young people preferred to live in a blue-collar neighborhood; it was a way of rejecting their middle-class backgrounds. A John Lennon song released in 1970 spoke to many of them: “A Working Class Hero is Something to Be.”

For whatever reasons, the hippie population west of the river swelled in the early 1970s. Its growth followed, in general outline, the four-step process that had characterized the rise of the Polish and Puerto Rican communities. In the first stage, scattered individuals or households came into the neighborhood for their own personal reasons. In the second, networks began to operate; hippies who moved west of the river encouraged friends to join them. A group of political activists who had lived on Pulaski Street in the late 1960s found themselves west of the river in the 1970s.

The third step was the development of neighborhood institutions. The Negative Movement and Yellow Brick Road were long gone by the 1970s, but other countercultural enterprises had taken their place. The old Grand Theater on Holton Street had been renamed the Magik Grand Theater, and a young entrepreneur was showing both avant-garde movies and classics with stars such as Humphrey Bogart and the Marx Brothers. In 1971 Outpost Natural Foods, a cooperatively owned grocery store, opened on the northeast corner of Fratney and Clarke. In the same year, the Bugle American, Milwaukee’s new alternative newspaper, began to operate from an office on Humboldt and Locust. A head shop opened in the 800 block of E. Center Street and, one block east, the Babylon Press began its career as community printer for the counterculture.

The Vietnam Veterans Against the War rented a storefront on Holton Street; the group was soon organizing anti-war parades down Holton every Veterans Day.

All this activity gave the area west of the river a broad reputation as a counterculture neighborhood, and that was the fourth step in the community’s growth. By the mid-1970s, young people were moving west of the river, not just because the rents were lower or they had friends there, but because it was the place to be; they could expect to find familiar institutions and like-minded people.

It never stopped being a Polish neighborhood or a Hispanic neighborhood, but now another group of newcomers was calling the area home. In its 1975 history of the counterculture, the Bugle American described the neighborhood west of the river as “the ‘second city’ of the counterculture.”

Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 5 – May 2003

This is an excerpt from Tom Tolan’s Riverwest: A Community History, which will be published late this spring. The 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


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.


The first “Be-In” was planned at 733 E. Clarke St. Photo from Bugle American‘s 1975 History of the Counterculture Issue.