Story and photo by Peggy Schulz
Paul Atwater has owned his Weil Street duplex, on its typically small 120’x30’ Riverwest lot, for almost 18 years. Before buying his current home, he lived in the house to the north, as a renter. But he has a love for the neighborhood, and, more importantly, his neighbors, that seems timeless.
Whether it’s relating the tales that George, his now-deceased neighbor across the alley, told him about the ski jump that once graced the Gordon Park hillside over the Milwaukee River, or the satisfaction he derives watching young children on his block develop into responsible but still fun-loving adults, Atwater is enthusiastic about Riverwest.
“It’s a pretty level playing field here,” he says, describing the economic, racial and ethnic diversity around him. “You can’t automatically tell, just by looking at someone, whether they’re a homeowner or a renter,” Atwater says. “It’s the only place in the city where blacks, whites and Puerto Ricans all live together.”
“I know there are mistaken perceptions of Riverwest,” Atwater admits. “In the monotypic environment in the suburbs that I came from [Mequon], I don’t see the appetite for imagination” that is celebrated in Riverwest, he says.
Atwater moved to Riverwest from the East Side in the mid-1990’s, partly because the rents were cheaper. He initially had rented near Bradford and Maryland, where he had located after finishing his bachelor’s degree in botany and oceanography at UW-Madison. After graduation, he explored the possibility of doing graduate work in Hawaii.
“I went to Hawaii to meet with a grad school professor there who knew one of my professors in Madison,” Atwater says. It probably wouldn’t have been difficult for him to gain admission to that university. “But I came back here, to Milwaukee, to make money,” he explains.
Despite not living on the ocean, Atwater got into surfing for about ten years, among other of his sports and recreational pursuits. However he chooses to spend his time, he does so with gusto and no backward glances.
As a young boy growing up in Mequon, he observed his mother’s talent for wood-working and carpentry projects, including making small cabinets and decorative shelves. In 1983, he and Peter D’Antoni, who now owns Flavor Cycle, built a 45-foot-long, 16-foot-wide, 11-foot-high half-pipe for skateboarders in his neighborhood, in his parents’ backyard. That was the first carpentry project for Atwater in what would turn out to be a lifelong career and passion.
The house he has owned since 1996 was in poor shape when he bought it, Atwater says, but the price was right. And he knew he could do most, if not all of the work himself. Atwater spent ten years in the carpenters union, learning the trade.
“I took the whole front of the house off,” Atwater says. “I rebuilt it just like the original,” thanks to some photographs he was lucky enough to get from the former owner. “I turned a two-bedroom into a no-bedroom,” he says, in describing the opening-up of the interior by removing walls. Decorative floor tiles lie under the wood-burning stove he installed. The tiles originally were in the Uptown Theatre on North Avenue at Lisbon. The third floor, now used for storage, eventually will become a large bedroom with a bath.
One very public example of Atwater’s carpentry work, in addition to his refurbished home on Weil St., is the “philosopher’s bench” he helped build outside the Riverwest Co-op. The bench is in recognition of Carl Hedman, Philosophy Professor Emeritus from UWM, and one of the Co-op’s founding members. “Paul Seifert and Todd Fillingham and I all worked together on the bench,” Atwater says. “Those two were great mentors for me in both carpentry and left-thinking.”
In addition to the current spectrum of ethnic and cultural life in Riverwest, Atwater appreciates its former hallmarks, especially the Polish residents like his neighbor, George, at one time a cab driver. He misses the small businesses that have closed since his arrival to Riverwest, such as Nita’s, a Puerto Rican bar on Locust Street. “She was such a sweetheart,” he says, referring to the owner. One of Atwater’s many adventurous tales is about Nita.
“I went to the bar late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve,” Atwater says. “She told me, ‘No, Paul, you can’t come in, I’m closing, but come with me, we’ll have a good time’.” He gratefully and without hesitation got in her “souped-up” car and they traveled, with other of her friends and relatives, to area bars and residences. He arrived home much later that evening with a new appreciation for Nita and her unending hospitality.
Despite the loss of some favorites, Atwater celebrates existing Riverwest businesses, both old and new, that help to make this urban neighborhood more like a small town every day. He also lauds the “dynamite” schools here.
“The Polish Falcon, that’s one of the oldest Turners clubs in the country,” Atwater says. As a carpenter and homeowner, he does a lot of business at Bliffert Lumber. “I’m a good customer of Eli and Uncle Freddie Bliffert,” he says. “Uncle Freddie has a great rock and roll band.”
Vetter Sheet Metal is another local business Atwater supports, along with the Café Corazon and Centro Café.
When it comes to recreation, he’s a big fan of the two skating rinks that neighbors create every winter, especially the one closest to him, on Center and Pierce. Atwater frequently takes kids from his neighborhood skating, swimming, or even sailing.
He participated for ten years in the Art Cart races that are an annual event at Center Street Days in Riverwest. Atwater’s tenure as a cart-builder came to a dynamic end, though, with the whale cart.
“It was big,” Atwater says of the cart made to look like a giant pink whale. “I put in five gallons of gas and the cart left quite a nice, flaming wake as it shot down the street.” Atwater describes his banishment as being based on the fact that, “I blew up too much stuff.” Luckily, that never included any people!
Atwater’s sense of adventure, as displayed in the cart races, was demonstrated even more dramatically seven years ago, when he helped to pilot a 77-foot sailboat from Manhattan, New York, through the Great Lakes, to Milwaukee. When asked about the route, Atwater’s description included, “You take a left on the Erie Canal . . . .”
Atwater can’t really pinpoint the reason for his ability to attract neighbors of all ages to his side. His girlfriend, Susan Cleary, who lives with him in his duplex, describes going out for coffee with him and having to wade through a crowd of folks who all want to say hi to him.
Atwater himself recounts the 70-something lady across the street, a nurse and Vietnam veteran, who would share with Paul, but not her own brother, some great homemade “hootch.”
But it’s his involvement with his younger neighbors that is part of the reason there’s a smile on Atwater’s face as he returns to his re-fashioned home after a long day of work.
“The kids are the funnest thing,” he says.