On June 11, Locust Street Festival turns 30 years old, making it one of the longest running neighborhood festivals in the city.
The festivities started as a celebration of neighborhood triumph. City engineers had a plan to widen Locust Street into a Boulevard, bulldozing fifteen businesses and displacing over fifty families and individuals. In anticipation of this eventual plan, the City had allowed Locust Street to slip into a deteriorated state with huge potholes, crumbling curbs, and few working streetlights.
“FIX IT UP, DON’T TEAR IT DOWN!” was a slogan seen often on T-shirts of neighborhood activists opposed to the development.These activists were organized by ESHAC, the East Side Housing Action Committee. ESHAC fought for tenants rights, publishing a newsletter that reported on slumlords and offered legal advice. They even gave out an annual Golden Rat Award to the worst slumlord.
One of ESHAC’s targets and frequent Golden Rat recipient Dan Giwosky tried to sue the group and physically attacked them more than once, even throwing a log at one of the members.
The group also helped start the Gordon Park Food co-op, a credit union, and other community organizations.
I spoke to Jeff Eagan, an early ESHAC member, about their involvement with the Locust Street development.
It was a struggle for the street, through a lot of hard work in the community, he said. ESHAC had moved their offices to Locust Street and shortly thereafter found out about the development plans. A May/June 1974 ESHAC newsletter headline pleads, “SAVE LOCUST ST.”
The group hit the street with petitions and organized neighborhood meetings. Some people were in favor of the development, but most of these people were interested only in the relocation payment so they could ditch the neighborhood. But many people, including long-time residents, opposed it.
One of these older residents is quoted in a May1976 ESHAC newsletter saying (on an upcoming city hall meeting), ”I’m going to give them hell. The city isn’t tearing down my home so some hot rodder can save two minutes on his way to UWM or the beach.”
The meeting he mentioned took place on June 9, 1976. The day before, ESHAC hosted a rally and press conference outside its office. The rally featured a performance by the Friends Mime Theatre, a performance art and juggling troupe. The next day, school buses were loaded up with residents.They headed to city hall for a meeting, which ended with the City’s Public Improvements Committee unanimously rejecting the plan.
Local alderman Sandra Hoeh was one of the people who made the case for making improvements on the street.
I dont think this is a dying neighborhood, I want to preserve it, she said.
In September 1977, the deteriorating curbs and broken gutters were fixed up and repaved. The neighborhood again celebrated with a Locust Street re-opening party. A ribbon cutting event took place with the aldermen, and the Friends Mime troupe returned. The taverns served food and drink, and the Riverside High marching band and Sammy’s Polka Band were among the performers.
Locust Street Festival has always featured a rich diversity of performers. Some of the early performances came in the form of blues, punk rock, Hispanic and African music, and polka.
One of the early places was Big Ray’s Tap (now Sunrise Foods). Big Ray would put down sheets of plywood on top of one of the pool tables in a back room and have a polka band perform on top of it, Eagan remembered.
Since those days, Locust Street Festival has become a neighborhood institution, a beginning to summertime celebration in Riverwest. A celebration that the street still exists as it is.
As Jeff Eagan said, If the Boulevard had gone through, it could have been the end of Riverwest.
Riverwest Currents online edition – June, 2006