by Tom Tolan – Part 6 of 6 in a series
Riverwest remains distinctly bohemian but proudly diverse, a neighborhood that any number of groups can claim as their own. That, in the end, is how many residents want it. In the early twenty-first century, the earnestly held belief of the neighborhood’s most visible leaders is that diversity is good, that there is abiding value in people of different ethnic backgrounds living side by side. That doesn’t make the neighborhood an interracial utopia. Maryann Onorato, the former Riverwest resident who worked for years in the county’s drug-abatement program, described community meetings that attracted only whites: I feel it’s my job to say, “Why aren’t your neighbors here who are people of color? Why don’t they feel welcome? Why aren’t they at the table?” [At one meeting, a woman answered:] “We invite them, but they just show up once and don’t come back.” And I say, “OK, and what have they heard at the meetings that makes them not want to show up again?” I want people to examine themselves. OK, they live next to their neighbors, but they’re not really involved with the neighborhood. A number of residents have made neighborhood involvement a way of life. Shawn Smart, a co-chair of the Neighborhood Association, and her husband, Steve Johnson, moved to a big old house near the south end of Booth Street in the 1990s. Their children were the only white kids on a block filled with black and Latino families. “My daughter,” said Smart, “won first place in the Martin Luther King contest, writing about our early years in this neighborhood.” The essay, entitled “Do the Right Thing,” described the family’s determination to show that “people can live together.” “My son,” Smart continued, “doesn’t even know that he’s a white person. He hangs around with Hispanic kids at Marquette High.” The Booth Street couple worked with neighbors of all backgrounds to close the drug houses on their block. It was not, they insist, a matter of white vs. black, but of “us vs. them.” Smart laments the gentrification that may eventually drive out her poorer neighbors. “What all this is about is community,” she said. “Don’t lower-income people have a right to have a neighborhood?”
The fight against drug enterprises is, more or less, what happened all over Riverwest in the mid-1990s. Block clubs collaborated with law enforcement agencies to root out the drug houses that had begun to crop up, and their fight continues today. The effort depends on vigilant police officers and zealous prosecutors, but it’s also a matter of neighborhood attitude. Tanya Cromartie-Twaddle, a columnist for Riverwest Currents, summed it up in her response to a 2002 beating death on Milwaukee’s north side. The victim and the kids who killed him were all black, as is Tanya. The columnist described herself as a “hood momma,” and wrote that neighborhoods like Riverwest need more “hood mommas and papas”:
Riverwest: A Community History
Tom Tolan’s new book, Riverwest: A Community History, will be published in time for Locust Street Festival on Sunday, June 8.
The book, which will sell for $10, will be available on the day of the festival at Woodland Pattern Book Center and at the Riverwest Currents booth. After that it will be available at Woodland Pattern, 720 E. Locust St., at the Riverwest Co-op, 733 E. Clarke St., at Outpost Natural Foods, 100 E. Capitol Drive, and at two Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops — at 2559 N. Downer Ave. and at 4093 N. Oakland Ave. in Shorewood. An exhibit featuring images from the book and other historical and contemporary photos of Riverwest will be on display at Woodland Pattern Book Center from June 8 through July 7. Titled Riverwest: Everybody’s Neighborhood, the exhibit will tell a story in images and text of the neighborhood’s diverse communities. Contemporary photographs are by John Ruebartsch, who supplied images for much of the book’s final chapter. Tolan and Ruebartsch will be at Woodland Pattern on Sunday, June 8, the day of the Locust Street Festival, to discuss their work. Tolan will read at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Ruebartsch, an accomplished Riverwest photographer, has shown his work at Marquette University’s Haggerty Museum and at other galleries. His photographs of the Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico will be featured in a show this fall at the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts. His children’s book with Kenneth Cole, “No Bad News,” has won numerous awards. Tolan is a copy editor with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley. He first wrote his Riverwest history between 1979 and 1982 for the Milwaukee Humanities Program, an organization based at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He’s been revising and updating his original manuscript for the past four years. Publication and production costs for the book have been covered by 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 book’s sale will go to COA Youth & Family Centers.
“We’re positively in other families’ businesses. It’s natural for us. I look out for and after my neighbors’ children and expect them to do the same for mine. I’m quick to inquire and to reprimand. And yeah, if I see it I’m going to tell it!… I’m sure I inherited this guardian attitude from my ancestors. I grew up in a small town full of nosey neighbors…. My momma knew the dirt we did on the way home from school before we hit the doorstep. There were hood parents everywhere, just waiting for one of us to do something wrong. We knew we were being “watched” and understood that we had better respect and mind any adult telling us right from wrong.” That was precisely the attitude that governed behavior in Riverwest’s Polish community generations earlier. The column was a potent reminder of the way things used to be — and the way they could be again. It offered reason to hope. There are other reasons to hope in the neighborhood today, but hope came home most vividly during Easter weekend in 2001. After years on Milwaukee’s south side, the Good Friday procession finally returned to the north side. The pageant was a powerful symbol of the themes of death and rebirth that have been the heartbeat of Riverwest’s history since the beginning. The Good Friday observance started a few blocks west of the neighborhood, on a sunny, somewhat chilly afternoon in mid-April. It began with a Passion Play, staged, in Spanish, outside St. Francis Church, a venerable Cream City brick building at Fourth and Brown Streets. Members of the community, dressed in the armor of Roman soldiers, in the robes of apostles, replayed the Last Supper, the betrayal by Judas Iscariot, the trial before Pontius Pilate. The figure of Jesus, clad in pure white, stood out boldly in the center of the crowd. In the end, the multitude shouted, over and over again, “Crucificalo!” — “Crucify him!” The play had the look and feel of something that had been polished by endless repetition, as of course it had been. Choir director Erico Ortiz had staged it some 20 years before, inside St. Francis Church, but it was older than that; Christ’s passion has been reenacted for centuries in village churches and squares throughout Puerto Rico and Mexico, the homelands of most of the faithful in the crowd. But this time there was something new. After the play, Jesus — now wearing a crown of thorns and bearing a cross — was lifted by hydraulic tailgate onto the back of a rented flatbed truck. The driver fired up the truck’s engine and the musicians on the back began to play, leading a crowd of perhaps 800 people. The procession turned east on Brown and headed for Riverwest. For the first time ever, the Good Friday march was going to include the old Polish parishes of St. Mary of Czestochowa and St. Casimir. The procession was a reenactment of the Way of the Cross — Christ’s slow, sad walk from trial through crucifixion. Every few blocks, the truck stopped to mark another station on the journey: Jesus taking up his cross, Jesus falling for the first time, Jesus meeting his mother. Each station was identified with a cross labeled in Spanish and English, and at each stop a reader was lifted from the crowd to offer prayers over a loudspeaker. There were prayers for the neighborhood’s most recent murder victims, for poor families displaced by gentrification, for mothers whose children had been lured into drugs, gangs, and prostitution. The procession moved slowly. As the crowd made its way up Holton Street, people stood on run-down porches and watched in curiosity. A few children danced to the religious music. Some people joined the marchers, whose numbers swelled to about 1,000. On the steps of St. Mary of Czestochowa Church, Ana Mercado waited somewhat nervously for the procession to arrive. She was scheduled to read a prayer at a station on Bremen Street, and she had a mild case of pre-performance jitters. But Mercado also waited proudly. She was part of a group that had lobbied the archdiocese to move the Good Friday observance away from the south side in 2001. “We used to do it at St. Francis, long ago,” she said. “We’ve been waiting for a long time, and we finally got it back on the north side.” The crowd stopped in front of St. Mary’s to meditate on the crucifixion of Christ — the same Christ the neighborhood’s first Poles had worshiped. A member of the procession was lifted up to warn about the dangers of drugs. Then the marchers headed east on Burleigh and south again on Bremen, past Marina Lee’s corner art studio. They passed the corner of Chambers and Bremen, where a young musician named Aaron Tanner had been killed just two months before in a botched holdup attempt. In the next block, the procession stopped again. Jesus’s body was symbolically lowered from the cross, and Ana Mercado was lifted up onto the truck. She read her Spanish prayer flawlessly. Then the truck’s engine started one more time, and the marchers walked down Bremen Street, making their way between humble Polish flats and duplexes. Parents and children came out on their porches to watch in the chilly, late-afternoon sunlight. The marchers sang, “Siempre, siempre, es hermoso vivir, si aprendemos amar” — “It’s always beautiful to live, if we learn to love.” And they continued south, toward St. Casimir’s, where the gathered community would hear, once again, the timeless news of resurrection. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 6 – June 2003