by Peggy Schulz, photo by Vince BushellAlyssa&PeterMurphy

Building community, one positive, enthusiastic couple at a time

Riverwest is home to many prospering businesses and co-operatives that offer a bright future for the area. But it’s the neighbors who truly define and make up the neighborhood.
Who better to focus our spotlight on, during the month when valentines are being exchanged, than a recently-married couple, still very much in the throes of young love.

Alyssa and Peter Murphy, both 25, have lived in Riverwest since 2010 and they’ve already made major contributions to the sense of community that exists here. They’ve become sort of unofficial ambassadors for Riverwest, promoting it as a truly unique, thriving Milwaukee neighborhood.

Alyssa and Peter met while both were in fifth grade in Mequon, where they were born and raised. They started dating two years later, after Peter approached Alyssa at recess one day and boldly asked her to be his girlfriend.

“We’d talk all night on the phone,” Alyssa says. “The battery in my dad’s cordless phone would run out.”

The dates continued, on and off, through high school. Both Peter and Alyssa became vegetarians during that time. That’s when they first discovered Riverwest, through friends who had learned of the Riverwest Co-op. Weekend brunch at the Co-op Café was a favorite activity.

After high school, Peter went off to Chicago to attend DePaul University; Alyssa stayed in this area and studied at UWM. But Alyssa spent lots of weekends in Chicago over those four years. She also lived in Chicago for three summers, working as a nanny.

Finally, it was 2010 – time to graduate and start figuring out what the future held for them. One question neither Peter nor Alyssa had any hesitation in answering was where they wanted to live. They signed a lease together on June 1 of that year for their apartment at Hadley and Bremen.

The sense of community in the neighborhood was a big draw for the pair.

“If you hang out long enough and engage people,” Peter says, “you get that sense of belonging.”

For both Peter and Alyssa, looking out for each other is part of what defines being good neighbors. In mid-January, they heard noise outside their apartment that suggested a car was stuck in the alley. They both went out to see if they could help and met another neighbor they hadn’t known yet, who also had come out to assist the driver.

“The co-op movement is, ultimately, what made us move here to Riverwest, though,” Peter says.

During his last year in college, Peter had done his senior thesis on co-operatives. On the weekends that year, he helped develop the Public House, where he now works part time as Events Coordinator. The Public House opened in March, 2011.

“Co-ops are a growing trend that’s not going to go away,” Peter says. Alyssa and Peter regularly shop at the Riverwest Co-op, where they are members, and where Peter volunteers.
“We’re seeing a resurgence in co-operatives and worker-owned businesses now because of the economic downturn,” Peter says. “We’re also seeing that they have to persist,” he says, “to take control of the local economies in ways by and large ignored in the past.”

Peter talks about the “democratization of information” via the Internet, which gives people the footing to actualize change. He and Alyssa could well become the spokes-couple for such productive change on a neighborhood level.

At the time of this writing, the young couple was making plans to buy a home in Riverwest. They were considering how best to break the news to their respective families.
“Our parents are not very supportive of Riverwest,” Alyssa says. “They have a misperception of the neighborhood.”

“If you live in the suburbs,” Peter says, “all you hear about is crime in this neighborhood.”

At a recent wedding reception for some friends, Peter was talking to a woman his parents’ age who, when she learned he and Alyssa lived in Riverwest, asked, “Are you okay?” with a tone in her voice to suggest he was at great peril simply because of the neighborhood in which he lived.

Peter wonders if perhaps the proximity of WTMJ-TV, on Capitol Drive at Humboldt Avenue, skews the news coverage of Riverwest to the few headline-grabbing robberies or muggings that do occur, while avoiding the many long-term, substantive developments that are going on in the neighborhood.

After they’ve made a decision on a home purchase, the couple might consider trying to start some form of block watch group in their immediate vicinity.

“I’m aware of how, in the 1980s and ‘90s, block watch was a big thing,” Peter says. He notes, however, that Riverwest can be a more transitory neighborhood, with lots of students and other short-term renters, something that often makes block watch groups impractical. He adds that, if residents, regardless of whether they’re owners or renters, don’t pay attention to their neighborhoods in a conscious way, conditions quickly can deteriorate.

It might not be actual crimes such as burglary that start to occur more frequently, Peter says. But a lack of pride and conscious attention to one’s surroundings, as witnessed in seemingly minor things such as littering, can over time become more serious.

“Block watch is a cool program because it gets people to take pride in their own residences,” Peter says, as well as making all occupants more aware of their neighbors and their overall neighborhood well-being.

On a larger scale, events such as the Riverwest24, which Peter describes as a “fun raiser,” do a lot to help build community. Both Alyssa and Peter have volunteered at the event, at checkpoints along the route.

Urban agriculture is cause for another checkmark in the “plus” column for Riverwest as an urban neighborhood, in the opinion of Alyssa and Peter.

“We have more community gardens than any other neighborhood in Milwaukee,” Peter says. “Riverwest is the locus of grass roots urban agriculture.”

Riverwest also has “out shone” the rest of the city through the Solar Riverwest program, begun last year by the City of Milwaukee’s Office of Environmental Sustainability, through its Milwaukee Shines program. More solar panels were installed in Riverwest in one year, Peter says, than in the entire city of Milwaukee as a whole.

And let’s not forget the Milwaukee River, both Alyssa and Peter say, as it offers multiple opportunities for both recreation and study.

Shortly before the interview for this article, Peter learned of a new, full-time job, as Special Events and Marketing Coordinator for COA Youth and Family Centers, to begin in early February. He’ll stay on at the Public House on a part-time basis, too. And, somewhere in the mix, in May he’ll finish up his Master’s Degree work at UWM, in Non-Profit Management.

Alyssa hopes to begin her own graduate studies in June, also at UWM, in a new program area called Math Leadership. She currently teaches second grade in the same Mequon school system where she and Peter met.

So, what are the Valentine’s Day plans for the newlyweds? Displaying the oftentimes wry sense of humor Peter has become known for, he’d like to share a joke with Currents readers.

What did the Valentine’s Day card say to the stamp? “Stick with me and you’ll go places.”

Thanks to the contributions of young adults such as Alyssa and Peter Murphy, we can be sure that Riverwest as a neighborhood will continue to go places – all productive ones.