Holton Street: Where East Meets West

This is the beginning of an ongoing series that will focus on Riverwest Streets
by Tess Reiss and Carrie Trousil

Holton Street is an 18-block stretch of urban contrasts — from the industrial and commercial bustle of Capitol Drive on the north, to a tumble of shops, churches, bars, and gas stations, down to the bridge at Brady Street on the south end. It is chock-full of houses, both carefully cared for by diligent homeowners and careworn by negligent owners. It is a street of timeworn commercial edifices that once teemed with the interchange of neighborhood commerce. Holton Street is both a divide and a connecting point between the Riverwest and Harambee neighborhoods, between the 3rd Aldermanic District on the east side of the street and the 6th District on the west. Demographic statistics tell us people living east of Holton Street tend to have more money than people to the west, although this has changed towards the southern end. This street is where European, African, and Hispanic cultures collude and collide, where young meets old, where east meets west. Residents and neighbors have expressed growing concern for Holton Street in recent years, calling for more attention from the city and local investors to help restore Holton Street to its original vitality as a connecting point between neighbors and neighborhoods, between residents and business folk, between segregation and integration. They imagine a transformed Holton Street, vibrant and dignified, with participation from each person, each class, each culture. Just as neighborhoods fade with neglect, they can also revitalize with effort. A good place to start is with building facades — what the storefront looks like from the outside. A neighborhood in its prime isn’t usually distinguished by an array of tattered ads for Miller and Marlboros. The homey feeling disappears when window bars go up and walls start to crack. Simple actions such as removing tattered signs and reducing the amount of signage on the outside of the building can be a first step in the right direction.

Operation Storefront

Operation Storefront is a group of activists trying to enforce this first step. Their focus is documenting and reducing cigarette advertising in three targeted zip code areas: 53207, 53210, and 53212, where tobacco outlets and advertising are the most concentrated in the city. Thus Holton Street, in the 53212 zip code, is one of their target areas. Anabel Navarro, of Strive Media Institute, helped spearhead the campaign, and knows firsthand the trials of implementing such change. She explains, “There are not a lot of retailers willing to work with us mainly because there are no laws being broken.” For example Mr. Sindh, who works at S&M Food Market, says he doesn’t know about Operation Storefront, but probably wouldn’t cooperate with their guidelines anyway. He explains, “If it’s a law we have to do something, we will go with it. If not, then we won’t.” It doesn’t help, Navarro points out, that store owners get money for displaying beer and cigarette ads. Navarro adds, “It’s not an insane amount, but it’s enough. If they were to stop they would lose profits.” Operation Storefront’s parameters are not legal, but moral/aesthetic. It’s not hard, however, to find where these ubiquitous cigarette and beer ads start breaking enforceable code.

Milwaukee’s Sign Ordinance

The city passed a new storefront sign ordinance in October 2002 and revised in May 2003 that regulates and limits the number of signs that can be placed in windows or on the outside of the store. The Department of Neighborhood Services mailed a letter in English and Arabic to all convenience, gas station, and liquor store owners last fall advising them of the new sign requirements. According to the guidelines of the Department of City Development (DCD), temporary signs (typically paper or plastic signs advertising special sales and promotions — such as for Winstons or Colt 45) must be installed inside the window and not attached to the outside of the building. A few of Holton’s storefronts are clearly in violation of this provision, as they remain peppered with smoke and booze ads. Furthermore, temporary signs can only be displayed for 30 days and may cover no more than 25% of the store’s window area. These violations, although obvious, are being missed by city inspectors. To be honest, it would take a small army of enforcement to monitor the placement and longevity of every temporary sign in the city. This isn’t going to happen, according to Barney Sielen of DCD, as the number of code inspectors is actually shrinking. He says, “When I started, we had 18 inspectors, and they all had a pretty good handle on their district. Now we’re down to eight or nine, and let’s face it, it’s not so easy for them to keep as good a watch on offenders.” Most inspectors have their hands full making sure new permanent signs are up to code, because each one needs a permit. New permanent signs face stringent regulations. Our Holton Street “Bad and Ugly” examples are off the hook on this front, since unchanged legal permanent signs “pre-existing” to October 2002 are spared further inspection. This doesn’t mean, however, that there is no hope of damming the deluge of ads. Groups like Operation Storefront, insistent neighbors, and conscientious shop owners can all play a part in cleaning up cluttered and unsightly facades. Furthermore, violations can be reported to an inspector, who will investigate and issue orders to remove or correct any violations.

A Few Ways to Kickstart Holton Street’s Transformation


Call the construction inspectors in the Department of Neighborhood Services at 286-2513 to report excess signage on storefronts on Holton Street or elsewhere in the city. For more info on Operation Storefront, call 374-3511 x225 or email .


Put your buying power to good use and don’t patronize stores that look rundown or are plastered with tobacco and alcohol signs. Tell the store owner why you won’t shop there so he/she gets the message that their rundown-looking business will eventually run them out of business. Ask them to remove excess signage and/or to fix up their storefront.


One of the Riverwest Neighborhood Association’s priorities is to assist with the revitalization of Holton Street. See RNA news for more info about their Holton Street goals for 2004. If you’re interested in being on the Holton Street Committee, contact .


For store owners or commercial building owners interested in making facade improvements, the city has a facade grant program that will reimburse 50% of the cost of improvements, up to $5,000. For more info or application assistance, businesses in the Riverwest and Harambee neighborhoods can contact Don Sargent, the Business Support Specialist at Riverworks, at 906-9650 or email . To contact the city directly, call the Facade Grant hotline at 286-8201.


All signs now require a permit. Permit fees are based on the cost of the sign. For a brand new sign, there is a plan review fee that is equal to one half percent of the cost of the sign with a $50 minimum, plus a permit fee of one percent of the cost of the sign with a $35 minimum. To replace the insert in an existing cabinet type sign, only the permit fee is charged. For more info on sign requirements, call the Milwaukee Development Center at 286-8210 or go to



Descriptions & photographs by Tess Reiss



Lena’s Food Market 3334 N. Holton Street The Good: Holton Street’s newest and largest retail establishment on the northern end of the street. Plenty of curb appeal here in this freshly refurbished building. Signs promote store specials, are proportionate to the scale and size of the large windows, and do not promote alcohol or tobacco products. Property Owner: Morton Enterprises, Phoenix, Arizona. Built in 1958. Assessed at $370,300. PuebloFoods.jpg

Pueblo Foods 2029 N. Holton Street The Good: Holton Street’s oldest grocery store on the southern end with large glass windows and doors that are attractive and inviting, thanks to the owner who made good use of the city’s facade grant program. Signs promote store specials and contain no alcohol or tobacco advertisements. Property Owner: Liduina Estremera, 2029 N. Holton St., Milwaukee. Built in 1931. Assessed at $170,000. STARcomm.jpg

Starr Comm 2679 N. Holton Street The Good: This well-lit retail establishment on Holton & Center has appropriate signage that leaves windows fairly clear. Open windows help to attract more customers and also serve as passive security, meaning that should an emergency situation arise, it would be easy for police or passersby to see in and provide assistance. Property Owners: Wilson Fares & Rushdi Hamdan, 8717 W. Palmetto, Milwaukee. Built in 1908. Assessed at $91,100. Code violations: Orders for painting & exterior repairs that were due on 12-25-03.



Holton Liquor 2305 N. Holton Street The Bad: Holton Street’s worst offender. Storefront is plastered with at least a dozen alcohol and tobacco signs – exactly what the ordinance was designed to correct. Closed up windows and doors appear uninviting to the high volume of pedestrian and vehicle traffic at this busy intersection at Holton & North, the commuter crossroads between east and west on the southern end of Holton Street. Property Owner: Audrey Wittbrot, 2355 W. Marne Ave., Glendale. Built in 1887. Assessed at $142,000. RWsupermrkt.jpg

Riverwest Supermarket 2909 N. Holton Street The Bad: At least 10 alcohol and tobacco signs. To add insult to injury, the facade to the south was improved with a grant from the city, which has since been covered up with brown paper on the inside – go figure. Closed up windows and doors blare “low rent” and “down at the heels neighborhood” to all of the east/west commuter traffic that passes through this high profile, high volume intersection in the heart of Riverwest and Harambee at Holton & Locust. Property Owner: Opus Investments LLC, Ihsan Atta, 315 E. Eastmoor Ave., Brookfield. Built in 1918. Assessed at $139,400.



S&M Food Market 2501 N. Holton Street The Ugly: Two large tobacco signs. Despite a sign that says, “Thank you for shopping here, your business is appreciated,” the little claustrophobic window and door does little to invite shoppers inside this bunker on the southern end of Holton Street. Property Owner: Samuel Webster, 2835 N. 11th St., Milwaukee. Built in 1890. Assessed at $75,000. Code violations: Orders for roof & window repairs are due on 03-12-04. Taxes: $1,357.34 delinquent for city services and water (per the city’s website). AlisMarket.jpg

Ali’s Food Market 432 E. Chambers (& Holton) The Ugly: Another bunker, this time on the northern end of Holton Street, with no curb appeal whatsoever despite signs that state, “A Friendly Family STORE.” It’s too unfriendly from the outside to even make the effort to go in and find out just how friendly they may in fact be. Where’s the door? Property Owner: Jamal Museitif, 1528 W. Edgerton Ave., Milwaukee. Built in 1916. Assessed at $41,800.


This is the beginning of an ongoing series that will focus on Riverwest Streets

» Also: A Holton St. Business Roundup: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY